Magic Tuber Stringband: Tarantism | Feb. 17  |  Feeding Tube

Evan Morgan and Courtney Werner made their fourth Magic Tuber Stringband album in the spider-infested basement of a ramshackle house clinging to the side of half a mountain. From the front, this was an ordinary scene in the western tip of North Carolina. But around back, the mountain had been blown to bits to make a gravel pit.

This image is a pretty good metaphor for the music of Durham’s Magic Tuber Stringband, in which deceptively traditional Appalachian folk conceals a world of deconstructed detail, and which likewise juxtaposes the natural and mediated, the timeless and modern, the beautiful and the blighted.

Living with spiders wasn’t the only reason Morgan and Werner named the album Tarantism. They like to clad their instrumentals in concepts, and the title refers to a 1,000-year-old Southern Italian folk tradition dealing with a plague, spread by spider bite, that causes uncontrollable dancing. Its only treatment is the tarantella, and on Tarantism, one sits in the middle of the album’s web, an energetic folk dance that takes on a warped, urgent feel.

You might remember the old Tom Waits song: “Well, you play that tarantella, all the hounds will start to roar. The boys all go to hell, and then the Cubans hit the floor. They drive along the pipeline; they tango till they’re sore. They take apart their nightmares, and they leave ’em by the door.”

But Morgan and Werner found their inspiration deeper in the record crate, on an obscure compilation album from Southern Italy released in 1950. It included a tarantella for zampogna, a kind of Italian bagpipe—a great match for their sound, which blends plucked and bowed strings with pumped drones—and they spread its parts across tracks of fiddle and banjo with a shruti box, a harmonium-like bellows instrument used in Indian classical music.

This is to say that, rather than your usual old-time band, Morgan and Werner are the specific kinds of music lovers whose interests have propelled them almost past the bounds of music and into the realms of field recordings and sound art. Werner is immersed in the place-making sonic collage of artists like Kate Carr, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Bernie Krause. Both of them love 1960s minimalism—Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad—and its many offshoots, an influence that they’re exploring more overtly on the record they’re working on now.

But Tarantism is rooted in their crate-digging, web-trawling impulse to discover traditional music from the far corners of time and space, mediated by technology. Morgan resonates with something that Mike Gangloff, from fellow old-time alchemists Black Twig Pickers, once told him.

“He likes music that sounds like it’s electronic but it’s fully acoustic,” Morgan says. “A lot of these fifties and sixties ethnographic recordings fit into that, and they also sound like sixties minimalist pieces. I think that’s the zone we’re coming from, quite often.”

Morgan lives in Durham, while Werner is currently in a master’s program for wildlife management at the University of Georgia. When we all convened on Zoom, she’d just been at a Superfund site catching radioactive birds in nets, something it’s almost impossible to imagine them not making an album about. She’s been taking plenty of field recordings.

“I have to scan myself out every time to make sure I’m not contaminated,” she says. “It’s a whole weird psychological situation.”

Morgan and Werner, both 26, met in 2015 as undergraduates. They both worked at Duke Coffeehouse and deejayed at WXDU, experiences that immersed them in experimental music as they discovered the joys of old-time. In fact, these idioms swirled together in local pockets like Three Lobed Recordings, Paradise of Bachelors, and the Brickside Festival—pockets in which they encountered artists like Lonnie Holley, Sarah Louise, and Daniel Bachman.

Morgan was also getting into fingerstyle guitar, directly through an old friend from Houston, Will Csorba, and indirectly through the likes of John Fahey and Jack Rose. Morgan and Werner spent a couple of years improvising and going to old-time jams in Durham before they formed their duo in 2018. Before, Werner had put aside her classical violin, but when she picked it back up as a fiddle, something was different—truly experimental.

“Playing old-time was just fun,” she says. “I had to unlearn everything and learn a new style. It felt like it was the start of me being a musician instead of following the curriculum laid down in front of me.”

She also plunged into extended techniques, or unusual ways of producing sounds from an instrument. As writer Dan Ruccia noticed in his INDY review of the band’s third record, When Sorrows Encompass Me ’Round, the spry fiddle tunes and experimental jags that had once alternated were starting to run together. This proves out in Tarantism, which seems to flicker back and forth, excitingly undecided. They’ve all but broken away from traditional songs; other than “Tarantella,” all of the compositions here are originals.

“We were taking things in chunks a lot before, and now we’re taking the actual practice of playing tunes and extended techniques and weaving them all together in the same pieces,” Werner explains.

Tarantism, recorded in the early days of the pandemic, is touched by that time; it took so long to come out on Feeding Tube, the label of legendary music critic Byron Coley, only because of familiar pressing-plant delays. But as you’ve likely observed, this music is on its own trip, hardly a standard “pandemic record.” Magic Tuber Stringband has ventured too far from “Cumberland Gap” to look back, and on the other side of the rabbit hole, they’ve come out into the bracingly songful air of a less-discovered land.

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