Jake Xerxes Fussell: Good and Green Again Release Show 

Nightlight, 405 1⁄2 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill | Friday, Jan. 21 | 8 p.m. | $15-$20

After a legitimate winter storm and the Omicron surge sucking the wind out of our almost-post-pandemic sails, the Triangle could use some good news. Luckily, hope lies on the horizon: hints of spring and contemplative optimism on Jake Xerxes Fussell’s new album, Good and Green Again.

Out this week on local label Paradise of Bachelors, Fussell’s fourth LP packs diametric punches. Equal parts earthy and ethereal, melancholic and hopeful, its nine songs also deliver several career superlatives for the Durham-based folk song interpreter, guitarist, and singer. It’s his most sonically adventurous record yet, contains his first songwriting credits for original compositions—and marks the first time a rug has served as source material for an adapted and rearranged tune.

“Washington” rises and falls on Fussell’s hypnotic fingerpicked guitar, as parlor piano, French horn, and violin  add stylistic flourishes to a single, simple verse: “General Washington, noblest of men / His house / His horse / His cherry tree / Him.” Fussell first spotted those words in the 1992 book Hooked Rugs: An American Folk Art, which included a picture of a circa-1890 rug produced by an anonymous Virginia craftswoman. The words stitched verbatim on the rug proved intriguing.

“That piece struck me as interesting,” Fussell tells INDY Week while being warmed by the sun along the banks of his beloved Eno River one balmy December afternoon. “I kept reciting the rhyme in my head, and there was something comical and plain but also powerful and melancholy about it. Maybe we should be a little suspicious of that myth of the cherry tree and George Washington as a leader, you know?”

The last song, that plaintive dirge about our nation’s first president, is a purposeful counterpoint to the album’s opener, “Love Farewell.” Fussell’s warm baritone cracks and quavers on the haunting roundelay with Revolutionary War roots. Yet his requiem sounds relevant—even modern—thanks to subtle sonic textures and undeniably emotional delivery.

“I’m fairly picky about what songs I’ll put on a record, so the first line of business is making sure they feel legitimate for my voice and my presentation,” Fussell says of his song-finding process. “It has to have some kind of pull on an emotional level. When people tell me my music feels present-day or convincing, that’s because it passed that test for me.”

This straightforward principle extends to Fussell’s album notes, which read like the citations section of an academic folklore study. Take “Breast of Glass,” for instance, which is rooted in the traditional “Handsome Molly” family of songs, with traces branching out from Arkansas through Appalachia and across the Atlantic to East Anglia. “Carriebelle” comes out of a centuries-old Georgia Sea Islands tradition, while “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” is based on two Tar Heel field recordings—one of Marshall’s George Landers recorded in 1965 and one of Siler City’s Chick Martin recorded in 1971—that lament the loss of a town’s economic heart.

Meanwhile, “The Golden Willow Tree” is an elliptical narrative about a cabin boy trying to impress his captain—only to be jilted after carrying out that captain’s very orders.

“I never anticipated ‘The Golden Willow Tree’ becoming a major part of the record,” Fussell laughs. “At one point, I didn’t even know if I wanted it to be on there! Now this monster of a nine-minute song has taken on a life of its own—and I gave in to that.”

In fact, Fussell says, the album’s overall cohesion stems from that sense of surrender.

“The whole record felt a little bit wild—beyond my control. In some ways, it’s the least intellectual series of songs I’ve ever recorded,” he says. “They had been sitting around with me for a long time, below the surface in a very natural way. There’s a deeper feeling to them.”

The truly impressive leap came during the recording process. Before entering Overdub Lane in Durham, Fussell worked with longtime friend and first-time collaborator, the Chicago polymath James Elkington, to formulate a deliberate production plan. Tasteful instrumentation was then provided by Piedmont standouts Casey Toll, Libby Rodenbough, Joe Westerlund, Anna Jacobson, Nathan Golub, and Joseph Decosimo.

The result? Sensitive, seemingly effortless craftsmanship—especially on bouncy original instrumentals “Frolic” and “In Florida.” The latter song reflects Fussell’s geographically and culturally broad Southern upbringing in Columbus, Georgia, where Apalachicola River oyster runs were just as common as Appalachian Mountain jaunts. Accordingly, he resists pressure to wed himself to any one folk tradition.

“The idea of ‘folk’ is problematic,” he says. “What’s authentic, and what’s truly representative of a community? If someone is ‘extremely authentic,’ does that make them representative of their community? Or are they freaks—just representative of their own self?”

Fussell is equally averse to overthinking his own artistic presentation. Asked about the album title, he cites a snippet of out-of-context conversation overheard during one of his shifts working at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Hillsborough.

“I like alliteration and I like colors, so it stuck with me,” he laughs. It also provided a showcase for a pastel landscape by Art Rosenbaum—a folklorist, painter, and longtime mentor of Fussell’s—who lends the album its beautiful cover art. “There’s a sense of order in there, but it’s also a little unhinged,” Fussell says of the tangled green visual.

Conceptually, that mirrors his entire oeuvre: clear-eyed in its description of everyday love, loss, and labor while cosmically connected to deeper threads of hope and despair. (As of press time, hope wins out: Fussell still plans to play an album release show on January 21 at Nightlight in Chapel Hill—with support from recent Triangle transplant Rosali—followed by a national tour that stretches into February and European dates in May.)

Brendan Greaves, cofounder of Fussell’s label, Paradise of Bachelors, thinks Good and Green Again provides the perfect soundtrack for our strange, pandemic-plagued times.

“It’s an incredibly rare skill to play the blues in a major key or a jig in a minor key,” Greaves says. “Jake operates in these nebulous realms of vernacular music in a way that’s remarkably unfussy and unstuffy—complex and challenging yet unpretentious and accessible.”

In that sense, Fussell is representative of today’s changing Triangle—of this place where layers of complicated history intermingle and creative freedom blossoms in a wildly diverse artistic community—yet is undeniably himself.

“I love living in this area,” he says. “The music scene here is cooperative and collaborative—a real dream come true. There’s no pressure to be a certain thing. You can be your own solo weirdo.”

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