Nathan Salsburg stands up with Affirmed



Nathan Salsburg
  • Nathan Salsburg
Louisville resident Nathan Salsburg dedicates much of his time to good works. He produces a radio program called Root Hog or Die for East Village Radio, and he works for the Alan Lomax Archive / Association for Cultural Equity as an archivist and producer, overseeing the production of CDs and online offerings. He also runs the Drag City-distributed imprint Twos & Fews, which has released a handful of meticulously curated and produced recordings from the American south and Morocco. This fall the label issued its fourth title, a vinyl-only anthology plucked from the Lomax Archives by Scottish folk-rock singer Alasdair Roberts: Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree.

Lomax recorded the 17 tracks between 1951 and 1957 in Scotland, and Salsburg's liner notes describe the ethnographer's fascination with and admiration for the country's embrace of its folk traditions. Roberts decided not to deal with any music sung in Gaelic—since he doesn't speak it himself—but what he did choose is remarkable. I've never paid much attention to Scottish folk music, always preferring the British variety thanks to an early encounter with Waterson: Carthy (to say nothing of the Steeleye Span records in my father's collection), but this set is enough to make me reconsider. Drag City has also released a wonderful contemporary complement to the album: a seven-inch single featuring Roberts on one side and Drew Wright on the flip, both performing traditional songs that ended up in Lomax's Scottish archives.

Until earlier this year I didn't know Salsburg was also a terrific guitarist—I had absentmindedly listened to a track of his on the 2007 compilation Imaginational Anthem Volume Three (Tompkins Square), but his name didn't stick with me—not until this August, when he released a collaboration with Chicagoan Jim Elkington called Avos (also on Tompkins Square). Three months later Salsburg dropped his fine solo debut, Affirmed (No Quarter). He definitely comes out of the John Fahey fingerstyle tradition, but his playing (and his writing, on the original pieces) is less bluesy and more lyrical. The album title and several of the originals were inspired by three different race horses—Affirmed (the last horse to win the Triple Crown, in 1978, the year Salsburg was born), Bold Ruler, and Eight Belles—but I didn't learn that till relatively recently, when I went snooping around the Internet for more info.

I've been listening to the record off and on for months now, and it's wended its way into my brain. Salsburg is a genuinely gifted player, but the warmth and melodic generosity of his style tends to push his technique into the background—even when he taps into the blues on "Blues for Eight Belles," there's a sweetness that touches on ragtime and even the Piedmont school, with gently rolling licks and resonant bass tones cushioning his tuneful leads. The album includes one nonoriginal, the British folk song "The False True Love" (made famous by the great Shirley Collins), where Salsburg adds unassuming vocals. Here's hoping for another dose of his music real soon.

Nathan Salsburg, "Eight Belles Dreamt the Devil Was Dead"

photo: Tim Furnish

Today's playlist:

D. Charles Speer & the Helix, Leaving the Commonwealth (Thrill Jockey)
Various artists, Luk Thung: Classic & Obscure 78s From the Thai Countryside (Parlortone)
Ned Rothenberg, Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (Tzadik)
Various artists, Thai? Dai! The Heavier Side of the Luk Thung Underground (Finders Keepers)
Various artists, AfroLatin: Via Kinshasa (Syllart/Discograph)

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