Nansemond, the second album by Nathan Bowles, is named for a place that no longer exists.
Until the late 20th century, a portion of Virginia's Tidewater region, where Bowles was raised, took the name "Nansemond County." These days, it's simply Suffolk. It's changed so much that Bowles—a prolific old-time and experimental multi-instrumentalist now based on the other side of the wide state—barely recognizes it whenever he returns.
Likewise, the seven-song Nansemond might surprise those familiar with A Bottle, A Buckeye, Bowles' 2012 solo debut of numbers delivered with spirited banjo. Though these songs often start near a familiar folk base, they hurdle headlong into melancholy drones and noisy abstraction, sky-searching improvisation and reserved introspection. This dense, amorphous record reworks the past into an intentionally unsettled present. On Nansemond, Bowles finds a welcome, exciting midpoint between his work with the old-time band The Black Twig Pickers and the legendary long-tone ensemble Pelt. It pushes him from the place of solo instrumentalist (these days, a dangerous and busy field) into arranger and conductor of one.
"The first one was a snapshot of where my playing was at," says Bowles, at home in Virginia. "For the second one, I was trying to be a little more self-consciously evocative."
Indy: The musical heritage of western Virginia, where you live, has been a big influence on the music you make, of course. But your second album is called Nansemond, the region of eastern Virginia where you grew up. How do the legacies of those regions interact in your music?
Nathan Bowles: I feel engaged in traditional music here, and the form of my banjo playing is influenced by the physical reality of clawhammer playing. I'm not sure how much my songwriting and improvisational sense draws from this region, but the core ways I approach the banjo take traditional ways of playing as a stepping stone.
But the Tidewater region that I'm referencing in the imagery and song titles, I don't really know. I don't think my music represents any musical heritage of that area. And if it does, it's accidental. I don't even know what the musical heritage of that side of Virginia is. I didn't really grow up with any sense of music as a thing done organically by people there; my sense of oral tradition and folk music where I grew up is truly nonexistent. All the concerns and ways I was bringing that region into this record have to do with the region as a symbol of things that I can't recover or can't know. I was reading some books that were making me think about memory and growing older and the way places embody feelings of loss and trauma. Every time I go back to where I grew up, it always feels really strange and alienating.
My memories of what that place was like as a kid have no bearing on what it is now. I was just there to visit my dad over the holidays, and he lives in north Suffolk, a stone's throw to the house where I grew up. I left his house and, on my way back to Blacksburg, I drove around the old neighborhood. It wasn't nostalgic; nothing was what it was. Everything seemed dead and built over. That's not the way I've always thought about it, but on this trip, I just felt nothing about that place. When I was writing this record, that's not how I felt about it. When I found that old map that's in the insert of the record, it seemed like I was inhabiting the same physical space, but it seemed like a million years away, not in a fun, nostalgic way but in a ghostly way. What millions of tons of psychic trauma have existed in this space before? Those are all important concepts on Nansemond.
It seems that, especially in rural areas and especially in the growing portions of the South, the spaces that once were open fields or de facto playgrounds are now strip malls and subdivisions. There's less mystery. Does that apply there?
Yes, definitely. It all seemed so much bigger as a kid. I guess that's normal for every kid that becomes an adult, but there's so much more stuff now. You've left the garden by the time you're going back to look at it.
Nansemond contemplates the way places change and what the individual loses when that happens. Do you see a parallel with that and any of the music you make, as an attempt to not lose a tradition by helping to move it along?
The tradition doesn't need me to hold it up. The tradition of playing around here, especially, is doing just fine. I'm not an ambassador for old-time banjo playing at all, so I don't feel beholden in any art that I make. The Twig Pickers come closest, because we're so enamored of that old-time music and try to play our version of it. But with my solo records and with Pelt, there are all these different traditions that get drawn from. We don't feel like we're presenting them in a way that's saving them from everything. In Pelt, there are all kinds of traditions—folk music from other parts of the world and free improvisation records and shows that blew our minds. With anything I'm doing solo, there's jazz-improv traditions and tape-manipulation traditions and so many strains of music. I don't really ever think, "When people hear this record, I hope they are going to reevaluate the value of clawhammer banjo." Clawhammer banjo doesn't need my help.
The Twig Pickers are an old-time band on an indie label, Thrill Jockey, and both you and Mike Gangloff from the Twig Pickers and Pelt have released records of old songs on indie labels. Is it strange to be the only emissaries of this kind of ancient music for people who might be interested simply because of who is releasing the music?
It's not strange because we don't think of it as a tradition that needs our help. I feel like our presentation is pretty naked and honest. I don't feel like we're pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. If people like what they hear, maybe they'll look up other stuff on their own. But our version of it is still our own thing. The tunes are traditional, but they have morphed down the line and come out of our mouths in their own form. The Twigs music is old-time music, for sure, but it's also just music.
Twig fans are so varied; it's insane. Some of the conversations you'll have are with a 75-year-old woman and a 16-year-old dude who is trying to learn fingerstyle guitar. That is one thing that's been interesting: You find people who really like the Twigs because it vaguely reminds them of something that sounds nothing like us, like Del McCoury. "Oh, that has banjo in it, too," or "We like the energy in this." That's legit.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Virginia coalition."