Sounds of the Pioneer
In a recent interview guitarist John Fahey said he'd been listening to more and more jazz music, but considering that one of the first records his new archival label, Revenant, will reissue is by British free improviser Derek Bailey, the last guy I expected Fahey to name as his fave was the late, straight big-band leader Stan Kenton. "A lot of his music was a response to contemporary civilization," Fahey explains. Like Kenton, he's undergone psychoanalysis, and he praises Kenton for "using his music to just scream 'aaaaaaaagh!' The amazing thing was that he got away with it. I think it's funny as hell."
Fahey is an old hand at defying expectations. When you can find his music in record stores it's usually filed under folk (though he prefers the label "American primitive guitar"), but his appearance this Friday as part of Yttrium, an experimental music festival presented by Atlanta's Table of the Elements label at the Empty Bottle, rightly positions him as a daring, highly original sound artist who just happens to draw liberally on a variety of folk idioms.
As festival organizer Jeff Hunt sees it, Fahey fits perfectly into the Yttrium lineup, which ranges from pin-drop minimalist Bernhard Günter to guitar-noise shaman Keiji Haino. "With a lot of the artists there is a tendency to work completely outside of what would traditionally be seen as their proper or suitable context," he says, citing violinist Tony Conrad, the estranged collaborator of composer La Monte Young who also performs Saturday. "You've got him literally in a van, touring rock clubs, willing to confront young indie-rock audiences on their own turf, which is about as far away from the staid realm of corporately endorsed minimalism as you can get. If there is anyone who can relate to our attempt to reach people on an independent level, it's Fahey."
Though he is best known for introducing a distinctly American style of acoustic guitar music that intertwined the traditions of rural blues and bluegrass, Fahey's restless spirit also led him to incorporate the dissonance of Bartok, the drone of Indian ragas, the twang of Merle Travis, and the infectious syncopation of ragtime pickers like Blind Blake and Sylvester Weaver; in doing so he developed a genuine American concert music wholly detached from the academy, nonchalantly blurring stylistic lines while commanding respect from serious listeners. Fahey paid loving attention to each note, delivering each with either razor-sharp articulation or rumbling, fuzzy resonance. The sound lingering between notes was as important as the notes themselves. He also toyed with backward tape and other collagelike methods, but these experiments were always secondary to his fingerpicking.
Sure that no extant record label would be interested, he pressed 95 copies of his own first album in 1959, and even after he began working with other labels he sporadically recorded for his label Takoma. He also released records by popular acolytes like Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho and revived the careers of Delta bluesmen Bukka White and Skip James, whom he found in a Mississippi hospital.
By the start of the 90s his own fortune had taken a nosedive: he divorced his second wife, he drank too much, and he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes; broke, he ended up seeking refuge at the Union Gospel Mission in Salem, Oregon.
So Fahey was more than ripe for rediscovery in 1994, when Rhino issued a terrific two-CD retrospective called Return of the Repressed. That same year writer Byron Coley published a laudatory Fahey profile in Spin. Since then interest in him has snowballed; at 57 he's encountered and been energized by new music thrust at him by young admirers, and with the stabilization of his health he's returned to playing and recording.
While in town he'll record a new album for Table of the Elements with Jim O'Rourke at the board and attempt a collaboration with the introverted guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors, who shares tonight's bill with him and O'Rourke. Afterward he'll travel to Boston to record with rock experimentalists Cul de Sac, then to New York to play a handful of shows with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Fantasy recently acquired the Takoma catalog and has begun an extensive reissue campaign, and in January Mercury and Seattle indie Tim/Kerr will release City of Refuge, Fahey's first new album in five years. Fahey's signature acoustic moodiness is there, but it's often set against unsettling soundscapes.
"I've wanted to do stuff like this for 20 years, but I didn't think I could get away with it," says Fahey with a wicked laugh. "Then all of these alternative people started showing up and telling me, well, hey, so-and-so's doing it, why don't you do it? I didn't know anything about the alternative scene, and I thought experimental music had just died. People started bringing over tapes of everything from Sonic Youth to Smegma. When I first heard the stuff I thought to myself, 'It's great that this is going on, but I can do it better.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Marc Trunz.