Jake Xerxes Fussell 

Wednesday, July 10, 7 p.m., $5-$10

Sarah P. Duke Gardens 

On first blush, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed on Jake Xerxes Fussell’s new album, Out of Sight, released earlier this month by Paradise of Bachelors. Like his 2015 self-titled debut and 2017’s What in the Natural World, it features traditional folk songs from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It’s sung with charm and warmth, played simply but dynamically. 

And though a press packet frames the record as Fussell’s first with a full band—which he’ll have behind him in Duke Performances’ Music in the Gardens series on July 10—the Durham resident says that this might prove misleading.  

“I’m not exactly sure if I know what that means,” Fussell says with one of his disarming chuckles. “My previous records had drums and bass, too. But the difference is, I really think about this group of people as my band.”

Fussell has been playing with drummer Nathan Bowles, bassist Casey Toll, pedal steeler Nathan Golub, and violinist/vocalist Libby Rodenbough for a couple of years now. Originally, the group wasn’t intended as anything serious—just a few friends gathering at Toll’s house every couple of weeks to hang out and jam on old songs by the likes of John Conlee, George Strait, and Gerry Rafferty. They didn’t play many gigs, but they began to build a lot of chemistry.

“When it came time to record this record, I knew I wanted to use them,” Fussell says. “Sometimes a band can get in the way, particularly with some of these older songs that are so narrative-driven. Sometimes you can lose sight of what you’re trying to do with a song by adding a bunch of musicians and everybody playing on top of each other, and it being kind of a mess. But with this band, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about clutter, because everybody’s so skilled at being minimal or giving room to their fellow band person. I knew that I could use everybody’s talent to kind of punctuate certain aspects.”

True to this intent, Out of Sight is a subtle expansion of Fussell’s rich aesthetic. Bowles and Toll supply rhythms that are driving but never overbearing, as Rodenbough, Gollub, and James Wallace—who jumped in on piano and organ for recording sessions at Nick Petersen’s Durham studio—provide restrained but impactful accents. 

The reckless contempt of the worker lamenting on “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” wouldn’t have nearly as much punch without the giddy, cascading fiddle line that immediately follows the chorus (“You know and I know / There’s no need to tell / You work for Tom Watson / Got to work like hell”). The bright, sparing piano tinkles of “The River St. Johns” sparkle and tantalize, increasing your desire to believe a fisherman who claims his catch is “gilded with gold / And you may find a diamond in their mouths.”

Fussell is still the focus. His elegantly meandering guitar lines, the beaming booms and rustic crags of his voice, and his unfailing ability to tiptoe the line between mirth and melancholy remain his defining strengths. But this album fleshes out the nuances embedded in his deceptive simplicity. Fussell doesn’t care to be blunt. He knows that the type of hardscrabble characters he gives voice will inevitably leave listeners musing on various notions—particularly protest and social unrest, given the heightened political tensions of the Trump era. And he’s fine with that. But he refuses to do the thinking for you.

“I find it more interesting to put something out there that people can work with a little bit instead of having to sit through my presentation of an opinion,” Fussell explains. “It’s more interesting if there’s something that people can relate to in their own personal way. It’s not any kind of trick, like I’m obscuring some deep, hidden meaning. I might not know what the meaning is myself sometimes. If I could boil it down to a kernel of meaning, then I probably wouldn’t bother with singing the song.”

Fussell moved to Durham from Oxford, Mississippi, five years ago. Asked if the prevalence of similar Americana purveyors like Hiss Golden Messenger and Mount Moriah makes him feel comfortable here, he says he hadn’t thought about it but reasons that it probably does. Finding such artists to play with is what made Out of Sight what it is.

“I was in Mississippi for ten years, and I really loved it there in a lot of ways,” he says. “But I never really found my place musically there. When I got to North Carolina, I immediately knew that there were a bunch of people that I could collaborate with, and they understood my language that I was trying to speak. I can try just about anything out on this band, and they’ll be ready for it. As a musician, that’s where you want to be.”