To the uninitiated, the ocean of instrumental guitar style players, whom often use and meld original compositions, melodies, and effects together with traditional blues fingering picking techniques, must seem particularly difficult to navigate. A lot of this music, both past and present, is lumped into a genre box called American Primitivism, termed by one of the giant looming figures in the fretted world, John Fahey, which tinges all of the be-lumped players with the “primitive” or untutored, uneducated stigma. Sure, some of these players are self-taught, but many have had formal training, and most have been at this thing for a long time. This style, while a niche in folk music (and some might say commercial appeal), has not only existed since around the late 1950s, but has continued to grow and thrive since then. Father figures like Fahey and the musicians on his Takoma Records, like the transcendental Robbie Basho, eclectic Leo Kottke, and Delta blues Bukka White, passed the torch to players like the technical, yet expressive Glenn Jones and the raucous ragtime and blues of Jack Rose. Of course, these are just a handful of people, a couple of veterans in the game. I think we live in a great time for this style; guitarists continue to take up the mantle, but in true modern fashion, they manipulate, experiment, incorporate, augment, exclude, and mess around with the original framework. My mind jumps to the Tompkins Square label that not only reissues lost gems from cult icons like Don Bikoff, Mark Fosson, and Harry Taussig, but are committed to releasing new forward-thinking releases from Daniel Bachman, James Blackshaw, Ryley Walker, and nearly countless others in their fret-heavy Imaginational Anthem compilations. Through Folkadelphia alone, we’ve recorded, presented, and championed players like Chris Forsyth, Matt Sowell, Ben Seretan, Jesse Sparhawk, and William Tyler. And, of course, this doesn’t even include musicians and bands that dabble in the genre, that pull from its now rich history – Kaki King, Ben Chasny, Jim O’Rourke – where and why should you draw a line? To the uninitiated, perhaps much of it sounds similar, but I urge you to keep listening with focused ears because once you start digging, a world of diversity, complexity, and limitless imagination and possibility will present itself to you.
One of my now favorite guitarists is the Portland, Oregon based Marisa Anderson. Perpetually on tour, her playing style has developed to be fleet-fingered and impossibly adaptable, nimbly pivoting from meditative improvisation to electric blues inflection to twangy country and cosmic beyondness. She’s also very prolific. In 2013 alone, she released two albums: Mercury, a collection of original compositions, and the appropriately named Traditional and Public Domain Songs. The two releases showcase very different elements; Mercury is like a primer on what is possible with six strings and ten fingers, a blistering 16 songs in less than 35 minutes, while Traditional and Public Domain Songs stretches familiar tunes like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Pretty Polly” into uncharted experimental territory – pretty out there stuff! Whatever she is working on, Marisa Anderson is a guitarist to keep your eye on because you never know what she’ll come up with next.
Two things are certain. We recorded Marisa Anderson on her last visit to Philadelphia on October 18th, 2013. She returns to play a Fire Museum presented show at the Random Tea Room with Matt Sowell next Friday, May 9th (info. here).