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How North Carolina's experimental folk scene creates a new American sound

Durham, N.C. multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles (center) works at the intersection of old-time, minimalist drone and American Primitive.
Brad Bunyea
Brad Bunyea
Durham, N.C. multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles (center) works at the intersection of old-time, minimalist drone and American Primitive.

In The Mayor of MacDougal Street, great blues and ballad singer Dave Van Ronk's memoir of the '60s folk revival and its origins in early-mid century labor movements, he defines "folk" as a process rather than a style. Songs are passed from singer to singer, evolving as place names, vocal phrasings, and narrative elements are altered by different interpreters. But, as Van Ronk writes, "this folk process has been short-circuited in the developed world over the last hundred years or so, first by widespread literacy and later by the phonograph, radio, and TV."

Just as folk music changed with the onset of recorded sound, so it has again in response to developments in related idioms: taking drone from the classical avant-garde, non-acoustic instruments from rock and electronica, and field recordings from ambient music and musique concrète. As a result, folk music now encompasses both its oral roots, still present in exchanges between musicians working in adjacent styles, and the rapidly expanding world of recorded and increasingly digitized music. In recent years, the tension between these two spheres of influence has triggered a plethora of offshoots going out in all directions at once.

Many of the overlapping and divergent regional styles we call "folk music," including old-time guitar and fiddle tunes, Piedmont blues, and Appalachian ballads, have roots in North Carolina going back centuries. By the mid-20th century, many of these forms were thrown into the general sweep of music history, which was then precipitating a widespread shift from the antiquated to the modern: blues giving way to jazz, boogie woogie and western swing to rock and roll, and piano ballads and dance numbers to pop music.

From John Cage's experiments at Black Mountain College to the folk blues picking of Elizabeth Cotten, North Carolina has also been home to many idiosyncratic musicians and composers who changed the course of modern music. Their breakthroughs have altered the way those working in their respective forms engage with their instruments, conceive of space and sound, and find throughlines between genres and traditions thought to be incompatible.

Western North Carolina old-time, derived from Anglo-Irish fiddle tunes and Black string band music, features many of the stringed instruments we most associate with American music. Magic Tuber Stringband, made up of Durham, N.C. musicians Courtney Werner and Evan Morgan, is a fiddle-guitar duo finding new synchronicities in tone and musicality between old-time, drone and other experimental styles. The band's second album, When Sorrows Encompass Me 'Round, showcases the full spectrum of sounds that occur at the nexus of fiddle and guitar.

By isolating particular notes, the fiddle's natural timbre can create a vibrant, droning effect, accented by fingerpicked guitar or banjo. Even when played at standard speeds, by virtue of the music sequenced around them, traditional tunes still retain this experimental tone. Through the use of field recordings and drone, the duo is able to create a kind of simulated naturalism — noises that were in a sense already ingrained in the folk sound: the pitch and rustle of listeners or accompanists, the hum of cars past an open porch, the sharp bursts of fiddle, cricket and thrush.

Some artists working in and around the folk tradition have begun drawing on sound-making methods from other unlikely places, including contemporary classical, New Age and spiritual jazz. On Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, the Asheville, N.C. musician Sarah Louise takes her existing guitar and vocal approach to new heights, layering compositions with synths, nature recordings, digital treatments, and innovative picking patterns to form a new kind of "Cosmic American" music — one that is less an exploration of melody than of texture, dissonance, repetition and scale. Releases such as Floating Rhododendron, with its intricate natural scenes rendered in solo 12-string arrangements, and last year's Earth Bow, a series of dense, gestural prog-folk vignettes, present a new form of aural communion. These sprawling compositions take their formal qualities from our own cyclical experience of being — light, awakening, birdsong, trance, presence, sleep — sound forms in tune with the thrust of existence.

While some have moved quite far afield from Van Ronk's definition of folk, folk singers like the Durham, N.C.'s Jake Xerxes Fussell are still plumbing the depths of Southeastern American music. Since his self-titled debut, Fussell has been bringing traditional material into sway with the present moment, updating it with his hearty electric fingerpicking, deep West Georgia drawl and additional augmentations to fill out the sound. These range from the steel guitar and fiddle found on his debut, to the french horn, piano, or dobro on his latest album, Good and Green Again. As an interpreter of traditional music, Fussell highlights particular themes and the hero's journey often present in the oral tradition through his repertoire and sequencing. His records float the narrow channel between songs about labor and mechanization, Appalachian murder ballads, drinking and courting songs, and others that continue to give voice to the heart of humanity's concerns and its accompanying struggle.

While various post-Takoma schools have brought about a renaissance of sorts in acoustic guitar fingerpicking, the banjo and its harmonic possibilities have been perhaps neglected. Durham, N.C. multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles, working at the intersection of old-time, minimalist drone, and American Primitive, has pushed it to the fore of his compositions, plying its distinct tone with new picking patterns and resonances between it and other acoustic sounds. On his most recent LP, Keys, an acoustic duo record in the Bert Jansch and John Renbourn style, Bowles and Chicago guitarist Bill MacKay trade roles as accompanist and leader. These spare arrangements showcase the interplay between the sprightly banjo, more understated guitar, and occasional vocals, as the duo winds through gospel, bluegrass, folk, and country, seeding it with odd time signatures, slow near-drone picking and other elements of free improv.

Although its diverse cultural makeup has produced many idiosyncratic regional styles, none of them are necessarily exclusive to North Carolina. By the same token, some musicians who made a significant impact on the North Carolina folk scene no longer make their homes in the state. Two such cases, Daniel Bachman and Chuck Johnson, began their solo careers making fingerstyle guitar music in the primitive style, but have since followed different trajectories which have taken them to Virginia and California, respectively, and into forays with sound collage, musique concrète, ambient country and film music. And while North Carolina has developed its own unique approaches to folk-based acoustic music, none of them are limited to their region of origin. These ever-expanding sounds and performance styles, which now permeate the international music scene, are not staid vessels of tradition. They continue to change and intermingle with developments in other idioms and other parts of the world. Years on, these folk sounds will continue to be modified, worked over, toppled, and rebuilt, different every time.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Corrected: March 15, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this piece stated that Sarah Louise's 2020 album Floating Rhododendron was released after the 2019 album Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars. The album was first released in 2016 as VDSQ Volume 12, and Floating Rhododendron is an expanded edition.
Harris Wheless