Songwriter and guitarist Mark Fosson grew up in Kentucky, where he began writing songs while he was still in his early teens. In the late '70s he sent some song demos to John Fahey's West Coast-based Takoma Records, and Fahey, impressed with what he heard, offered Fosson a recording deal.
Fosson lost no time in relocating to Los Angeles and began recording with Fahey, but as bad luck would have it, Takoma was in some difficulty, and the label soon folded. Fahey allowed Fosson to retain the master tapes of the sessions, however. Now located on the West Coast, Fosson met fellow songwriter Edward Tree, and the two began working together, eventually forming the Bum Steers, a country-tinged group, in the late '80s.
Fosson's material appeared on several soundtracks through the 1990s. In 2001 he began collaborating with singer/songwriter Lisa O'Kane, who recorded several of his songs, and Fosson also began recording a solo project, Jesus on a Greyhound, which was eventually released on Big Otis Records. The record drew positive reviews and Fosson was frequently compared to Americana artists like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, John Prine, and Guy Clark.
The Fahey material finally saw the light of day as The Lost Takoma Sessions from Drag City Records in 2006. His instrumental piece "Another Fine Day" is featured on the critically acclaimed Tompkins Square compilation Imaginational Anthem.
On June 26th, the Tompkins Square label is releasing Digging In The Dust: Home Recordings 1976. Although most of the tunes on Dust appeared in slightly altered form on The Lost Takoma Sessions, this new collection presents the original versions, recorded in his living room as he began writing songs on his first 12-string guitar. Mark has called these versions his favorites.
To coincide with the release of Digging In the Dust, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mark about his musical history and the new release of these tunes.
I'd like to start at the beginning. When/ how did you begin learning to play guitar?
Mark Fosson: I started getting interested in the guitar when I was about 11 years old. My Aunt Rachel played and I was always picking her guitar up and noodling...she finally gave me a guitar and a Mel Bay book and I began trying to figure it out...and I'm still trying to figure it out!
Which albums and artists, as well as your life experiences growing up in Kentucky inspired you most to begin playing and learning?
Mark: Everyone in my family loved music, so I was constantly surrounded by it, from classical to country. My dad was a big fan of blues and extreme hillbilly and he had a friend who serviced all the jukeboxes in the area, so he was always bringing very cool 45s home.
When I was in grade school Jean Ritchie would come once a year and put on a show and that was a definite influence. I also had a neighbor when I was 12 or 13 years old who would sit out on his back porch and play. He had a Gretsch "White Falcon" which I thought was the coolest looking guitar I'd ever seen. He could play the hell out of "Under The Double Eagle"!
Then when I was fourteen the Beatles came along and that just did it for me...
When did you begin writing your own songs?
Mark: I started writing my own stuff almost immediately...primitive little tunes.
In the late 1970's you sent demos to John Fahey's Takoma Records label. Can you talk about how you connected with Fahey and your working relationship with him?
Mark: At that time I was listening to any guitar music I could get my hands on and most of my favorite albums were on Takoma and that was the label I admired most. So I went to a studio and recorded a demo (my first time in a studio) and sent it to Takoma on a lark.
A couple of weeks later I had come home from work and was sleeping in a chair when my wife woke me up & said Takoma records was on the phone! It took me about 2 days to pack up and head to Los Angeles. I feel incredibly honored to have met John and played some shows with him. He was an amazing guitar player and a true character.
When Fahey's label folded, these recordings were put a aside and you have been working on a number of projects over the years.
Mark: After Takoma folded I started co-writing songs with various artists and most of the collaborations grew into bands. The first was a duo with Karen Tobin called Crazy Hearts. We had some success on the west coast and were featured on the album Town South Of Bakersfield, then she got signed as a solo artist on Atlantic records and we went our separate ways.
I then started a country rock band with my friends Edward Tree, Taras Prodaniuk and Billy Block. We caused a bit of a stir and got a personal invitation to play the Grand Ol' Opry from Porter Wagoner, but we were way ahead of out time! We still get together once in a while...we put out a new CD last summer, Hillbilly Hucklebuck.
When I started doing Jesus On A Greyhound I wanted to write 10 or 12 songs that sounded good with just voice and guitar...bare bones kind of stuff. Of course I ended up adding some other instruments in the end but I still tried to keep it minimal. All these songs came really quick and easy...I'm very proud of this record.
Mark: My cousin Tiffany Anders, who is a musician herself, found out that I had been signed to Takoma and asked if she could hear some of those recordings. Of course I had more or less written them off and didn't want to be bothered with it. But she persisted and after about a year and a half I dug them out and gave her a copy. Then she gave some copies to a few labels and the next thing I knew I was getting offers to release it!
Now, your original recordings are being released by the Tompkins Square label as Digging In The Dust: 1976 . How did you connect with Tompkins Square, and how did this all come together?
Mark: Tompkins Square was one of the labels that wanted to put out the Takoma stuff. Josh and I started talking on the phone and eventually I wrote a new song for Imaginational Anthem #3. He sent me searching through my tapes again and that's when I found the demos for Digging In The Dust.
Now that we have the story of the record being released, let's dig into the material on the record:
The album is dedicated to Dan Gore. Can you discuss his influence on your work?
Mark: Dan and I were in a couple of bands together. He was a great singer and an incredible harp player. He and his brother Mike knew all the obscure blues and folk musicians and opened my ears to a lot of great music. We used to go down to the community college library and dig through all the records looking for undiscovered treasures. We played lots of coffehouses and folk festivals together. Then I went in the Air Force and we kind of lost touch with each other and the next thing I knew he had died at a very young age.
These are 11 tracks that you wrote after acquiring your first 12-string guitar. What were you listening to during this time?
Mark: At the time I was listening to any guitar record I could get my hands on from Merle Travis to Doc Watson to you name it, but the top three favorites were John Fahey, Peter Lang, and Leo Kottke. I was especially inspired by Peter Lang and to this day I consider Thing At The Nursery Room Window the best acoustic guitar record of all time.
Were you working on the record as a whole piece, or was it more of a song-by-song accumulation?
Mark: It was a song-by- song accumulation. I think "Quarter Moon" was the earliest and "Grand Picayune" came second, but after that I'm not sure. All the songs evolved out of noodling and messing around with different tunings.
You recorded this record in your living room. Can you discuss the set-up, recording process, and why recording in this way was the way to best capture and express what you wanted to share with listeners?
Mark: I used one microphone and a Pioneer RT1050 and was flying by the seat of my pants! I just moved the mic around until it sounded good in the phones and hit 'record'...Somehow it worked! I remember the apartment had hardwood floors so that might have added something sonically.
All of the tunes on the recording are originals, except "Back In The Saddle Again". I read that you were having an obsession with Gene Autry? Why did you select this song to include on the recording?
Mark: I watched so many old Gene Autry movies at the time that the song was always in my head. I had just discovered "C" tuning and it worked really well with the song.
Was there a tune that came together more unexpectedly and surprisingly than the rest?
Mark: All of these tunes, and every song I've ever written, came as a total surprise and shock!
Even though the tunes on Digging In The Dust were on Lost Takoma Sessions, what do you feel these original versions offer that make this collection superior?
Mark: I think they are my favorites first of all because they were all so fresh and newly written. I think a song loses some of it's spark after playing it over and over. Also, I like the fact that there are no effects like reverb or compression on the recordings...just a guitar in a room.
I have read that you have said that it has been a joy "rediscovering these tunes". Listening to the collection now, can you discuss what has been most rewarding for you "rediscovering" this material?
Mark: I had more or less pushed the instrumental music under the rug for years and focused more on vocals and songwriting. But after the Takoma Sessions and this record, I rediscovered what a pleasure it is just to noodle and drift into "guitar land". I actually had to re-learn most of the material it had been so long! Now I find I'm writing more instrumentals than anything else.
What have you been listening to lately?
Mark: I always have the radio on so I hear lots of new and inspiring stuff. I like The Civil Wars and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album. I don't always catch the names...I still listen to the old stuff as well...There's hardly any genre I don't like listening to.
What's next for you?
Mark: Hopefully a record of new instrumentals...I've got at least 2 or 3 CDs worth of new material.
Will you be doing any touring for the album?
Mark: We're working on some dates now...I definitely intend to get out and play.
This feature originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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