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Listening to idols and the obscure with Jake Xerxes Fussell 

Among the camellia blossoms: Jake Xerxes Fussell in Durham

Photo by Justin Cook

Among the camellia blossoms: Jake Xerxes Fussell in Durham

Folk music is a fashion. From the Coen brothers' success with O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the more recent embellishments of The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, the old sounds of America have, during the last decade-plus, cultivated a surprising new selling power.

But there are few musicians who take care of American folk music the way Jake Xerxes Fussell does on his self-titled debut, released in January by Chapel Hill's Paradise of Bachelors. None of these 10 tunes are originals, but Fussell sounds at home with all of them. They fall under the broad folk umbrella, with sources that range from slave songs in the sea islands of Georgia ("Raggy Levy") to Alabama blues ("Rabbit on a Log"). Fussell fiddles with the arrangements, dressing them up at times with a full band but taking care not to wipe away their original intent. From the swinging, loose waltz of "All Down and Out" to the closing, clipped chug of "Pork and Beans," they are nearly all immediate earworms. They are crisp, charming translations.

Fussell lists a web of information about the origin of each number on the back of his LP. It looks like a crowded bibliography, he admits, but Fussell is the son of a folklorist. He wants to document, preserve and present his sources carefully. He also hopes the information will encourage others to dig in to music that's meant so much to him for a lifetime.

On a chilly spring Friday in Durham, to which the itinerant Fussell moved last fall, the 33-year-old singer discussed some of the music that's informed his past and present.

Georgia Sea Island Singers, "This Train is a Clean Train"

[This recording comes from Tompkins Square Records' Get in Union, a recent two-CD compilation of songs from the Georgia Sea Island Singers.]

My dad's a folklorist, and he did some work down there, in the late '70s, early '80s. I wasn't even born yet. But he was working with Doug and Frankie Quimby, who were a younger generation of the Sea Island Singers. They toured with Bessie Jones. He helped them organize the Georgia Sea Island Festival on St. Simons, where this was recorded. That's where Bessie Jones lived.

We grew up going down there. I knew Doug and Frankie really well. I don't know if I ever met Bessie Jones, but I could have when I was a little kid. My parents were friends with them, and that was my exposure to that music. That's where the song "Raggy Levy" comes from; I learned "Raggy Levy" from hearing them sing it.

The Paper Hats, "The Green Cigar Kept Smiling"

[In 2008, guitarist William Tyler released his first LP of solo compositions, Deseret Canyon, under the name The Paper Hats. (Merge Records will re-release this out-of-print album April 18.) Tyler produced Fussell's debut LP.]

I just moved to Durham from Oxford, Mississippi, back in November. I'd been living in Oxford for 10 years. William has family in Mississippi. He was familiar with Oxford growing up, and he has good family friends who still live there. He was spending time in Oxford; around that same time, I started talking with Paradise of Bachelors, who I knew, about making a record. "Do you have anybody in mind for a producer?" I thought I'd just go in the studio and try to record something. I wasn't really thinking in any sort of grand scale.

But they put me in touch with William, who I'd actually met a couple of times around town. He was just hanging out in Oxford, playing some music and staying with family friends. I knew he was a good finger-pickery guy who was gaining some traction in Nashville, but that's about all I knew. But once the label suggested we work together, I started to familiarize myself more and started playing with him a little bit around town. Then we started hanging out, and we just hit it off big time. By the time we got to record in the studio, we were already pretty good buddies.

Gillian Welch, "Elvis Presley Blues"

[This tune from a non-Southerner wrestles with two other figures from Fussell's former home of Mississippi.]

This guitar part and everything is just straight from Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues." I like this guitar part. I've always thought that was really pretty. But I like the way she messes with it, too. It's not just a straight ripping-off of that riff.

I love this song because it's hard to wrap your head around Elvis. When you start thinking about Elvis, it's hard to stop thinking about Elvis. He's so iconic. Two Mississippians, Elvis and John Hurt: I don't know if that was intentional.

Mohamed Mounir, "Nada"

[Fussell suggests this one. Despite his family history of folklore studies, he now does much of his music discovery online. This tune is one of his favorite recent finds.]

I have a SoundCloud account, and I follow a lot of different guys in parts of the world who put up different types of music. There's a guy I follow who puts up all types of Egyptian stuff. I started listening to him. It's very pretty, subtle chord changes. I don't know a lot about Egyptian music. This guy's more of a pop singer than anything.

I'll get really into certain things and then go out from there. When I lived in California for a couple of years, I worked at Down Home Music, which is a record store in El Cerrito. It's run by this guy, Chris Strachwitz, who owns Arhoolie Records. I got really into types of Mexican music and Peruvian music. I've spent time in Mexico and explored there musically, and that's one of the main things I'm interested in— different kinds of regional music from Mexico. I like to hear different types of music from all over. There's so much out there.

Van Morrison, "A Town Called Paradise"

[In the mid-'80s, Van the Man began exploring territory beyond his former soul and roots-leaning material.]

All the '80s records, I really like. Every single one of them is just so good. This whole record, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, is perfect. There were a couple of weeks where I just listened to this record over and over again.

I've listened to Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. I like all those from the '70s, but these '80s records, it gets much more introspective. Sonically, they're more interesting, because they're not just horn-driven soul records. You can hear in the '60s and '70s, he's coming out of the Them thing; you can hear he's a soul guy. But in the '80s, there's more jazz and Irish stuff blending together. From these sort of people of his generation, this is the era you want to avoid. But to me, it's when he peaks. I'm like a kid in a candy store with my '80s Van Morrison records.

The Band, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

[This standard from The Band is a flashpoint in discussions about the South, Southern-sounding music and how to pull that difficult past into modernity. We go for the rendition from The Last Waltz.]

I've always had mixed feelings about this song. It's celebratory, in a way, of the Confederacy. It's beautiful in a way, but I don't know quite what to think of it.

Have you seen the book The Rose & the Briar? It's a book about ballads in America. They pick a bunch of American ballads that they think are really important, and this is one of them. They asked R. Crumb to contribute, and he writes this handwritten letter, like, "I was interested in this project until I saw that you were going to include that awful song, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'" He talks all about how nothing good has come out of American music since about 1930. The letter is a great rant from an old curmudgeon. His gripe with this song is particularly good. I love The Band. I love Levon Helm. The singing is beautiful. But I also appreciate R. Crumb's perspective.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Just folks."

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