NATHAN BOWLES TRIO, Thursday, Nov. 1, 9 p.m., $5, The Cave, Chapel Hill, www.caverntavern.com
Nathan Bowles opens his fourth LP with a refrain written by a child: “So just lie and close your eyes, listen to a lullaby,” he begins on “Now If You Remember.” The song, originally composed by seven-year-old Jessica Constable for Julie Tippetts’s 1976 album, Sunset Glow, lends a foreboding feel to the beginning of the record. The rest of the album wrestles with this conceptual interest in self-deception, or being “plainly mistaken,” building through eight more songs toward a kind of warning: Tell yourself whatever you like, and you may just find yourself under a kind of cultural anesthesia.
Plainly Mistaken, released in early October, is also Bowles’s first album composed with a full band: The solo becomes a trio with the addition of double-bass player Casey Toll, who’s worked in several local acts, including Mount Moriah, and CAVE drummer Rex McMurry. Bowles forges ahead with vocals and his beloved banjo, which has been his primary instrument since 2010. McMurry, who moved to Durham by way of Chicago in late 2015, initially met Bowles through mutual friends and, for a short spell, was taking some time off from music.
“I called him up one day,” Bowles says, “And proposed that he un-hiatus himself.”
Toll, who had previously played with Bowles while accompanying the singer and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell, was a natural fit. If earlier albums were marked by a kind of meandering, self-reliant drive, the texture of Toll and McMurry’s seasoned playing lend Plainly Mistaken a full-bodied feel. The album weaves ecstatic moments from bluegrass standards and sunny, fingerpicking lopes, with long, studied periods of drone. The result is something hypnotic, troubled, and deeply involved—music that’s halfway between avant-garde and old-time.
Bowles moved to Durham in early 2015 from Blacksburg, Virginia, where he went to college. While in Virginia, he joined ranks with The Black Twig Pickers, a string band, and Richmond’s legendary drone-noise outfit, Pelt. Both bands were formative to his percussive practice, as well as his deep love of old-time music; in the years since, Bowles has also toured playing drums for guitarist Steve Gunn. Bowles’s many musical partnerships reflect the kind of psychedelic-folk camaraderie that has evolved over the past couple decades, comprising a through line of experimental folk-leaning musicians through the Triangle and the upper reaches of Virginia and into Philadelphia.
Bowles’s collaborative approach to music keeps in time with the larger folk tradition of reinterpretation, and talking with Bowles is like getting a crash course in the history of that tradition. In the course of our conversation, artists ranging from Ernie Carpenter to the Osborne Brothers to Cousin Emmy all organically crop up. But even as he offers his own reinterpretations of songs, as with Tippetts’s “Now Do You Remember,” Bowles prioritizes capturing a spirit rather than offering a mimeograph.
“Her voice is so specific and kind of inimitable,” he says, “I was more just trying to get something of the feeling of the song and not duplicate it. I knew as soon as I recorded it that I wanted it to start the record, to be a kind of pacesetter.”
Bowles’s thoughtful new takes on old songs distinguish themselves throughout Plainly Mistaken. “Ruby” is the trio’s take on the old bluegrass standard, hewing off the Silver Apples’ 1968 version; Bowles’s version feels at once accusatory, frenzied, and unsettling, like the wheels are about to come off at any second. His swooning rendition of “Elk River Blues,” written by West Virginia Fiddler Ernie Carpenter, is a second-stab at a song that also appeared on Bowles’s first album, 2012’s A Bottle, A Buckeye.
“I’ve always liked that song solo in sets, but I liked the kind of swing and heft that the trio brought to it,” Bowles says. “It just felt so good that I thought, why not record it? There [are] no rules. … It swings in a different way than the solo piece.”
On the back of the album, a Javier Maras quote accompanies a hazy detail from a Félix Vallotton painting: “We go from deceit to deceit and know that, in that respect, we are not deceived, and yet we always take the latest deceit for the truth.” There’s a kind of Gordian knottedness to this idea, a musical expression of our collectively repeated mistakes.
Bowles has explored the slippery edges of language before. 2016’s cover of Jeffrey Cain’s “Moonshine Is the Sunshine,” gently riffed with Cain’s series of wry, folksy koans (“The straightest line is crooked, and it ain’t gonna get no straighter,” goes one). If the music itself—with its astral acoustic waves which seem, themselves, to be trying to work some knot out—reflects this idea of aphorisms, it might be its ability to hold more than two things in its heart: the old and the new, what is cosmic and what is rooted in earth. There are, after all, no rules.
Bowles is interested, he says, “in the idea that we don’t learn from mistakes as much as repeat them.” Pausing, he laughs, “That probably sounds more pessimistic than it is.”