EXPLORING THE GUITAR FRONTIER
The guitar is synonymous with country and folk music, it’s the glue that ties it all together and has always been an essential songwriting and performing instrument in those genres. In the world of Americana music the guitar is also a medium for exploration and experimentation on the outer fringes of country and folk music where it has developed from an accompanying rhythm and lead instrument into one that is the central focus of the music.
Out of late 1950s and 60s folk music came a strain of primarily instrumental music that was termed American Primitivism by one of its originators John Fahey. He developed a way of interpreting avant garde and neo-classical music through traditional folk and country blues fingerpicking techniques. Without vocals restricting the songs to standard verse/chorus structures the music became open to much wider possibilities in terms of song arrangement and length. A scene quickly formed around Fahey with guitarists such as Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho making their own mark in America. Fahey’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965) is a key example of his work.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, a parallel world was forming around the possibilities of the acoustic guitar. English players such as Davy Graham, Martin McCarthy, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were imbuing folk melodies with jazz inventiveness and middle eastern ragas that was often termed folk baroque. A great example of this that I can highly recommend is Bert & John, the 1996 album recorded by Jansch and Renbourn.
As the 1960s gave way to to the psychedelic revolution that carried into the 1970s this acoustic guitar-based music became electrified and found its way into the diverse work of The Grateful Dead, Pentangle, The Incredible String Band and Jimi Hendrix. The gestures were grander, the stages larger and many of the more subtle nuances that preceded this fusion with rock music had now become buried deep in the DNA of the music.
The winds of change in music are such that newer generations always follow the breadcrumb trails back to the originators, hunting out the niche artists and in this day and age of the internet and reissue labels it has become even easier to find previously forgotten source material. In the early 2000s an American guitarist called Jack Rose began to gain attention for his hypnotic and melodic guitar explorations that seemed to draw from all corners of the American music tradition – folk, country, ragtime, blues, raga and American Primitivism. Like many of his contemporaries he came from an experimental, indie, underground background before finding his calling in the acoustic world first laid out by John Fahey half a century earlier.
How does this connect with what we now call Americana music, that hybrid umbrella term for the fusion of country, blues, folk and rock ’n’ roll? Well, over the last 15 years the influence of Rose (and others) has quietly spread throughout the music world, planting itself in the dark folk of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bill Callahan, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom and the broader palettes of acts such as Wilco, Kurt Vile, Bon Iver, Lambchop and Calexico. The blending of it with contemporary alt-country has now also created a new frontier of electric American Primitivism.
Particularly in the last five years, there has been a proliferation of forward-thinking guitarists, many of whom started out as acoustic players, who now lead full bands and are exploiting the links between country, psychedelia and rock music with thrilling results. Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Cian Nugent, William Tyler, Daniel Bachman, James Blackshaw and Chris Forsyth are names that are loosely connected by their desire to explore the outer limits of the traditional forms of guitar music. Their success is measured by their ability to share stages with post-rock groups, Appalachian folk acts, and country-rock bands and make equal sense in those diverse settings.
The guitar, in all its simple glory, continues to reveal new and fascinating possibilities for country, folk and blues based music.