The Dave Van Ronk of SEC Country
The poet Gary Short is telling us—me and pals David Shirley and Ryan Pierce—about his first few months in Oxford, Mississippi. Jake Fussell was one of the first people he met at the Blind Pig, a bar on the Square. He remembers fondly that Jake, back when they barely knew each other, helped him out at the post office one day when he’d forgotten his wallet and desperately needed to ship a package. “Hey, Gary,” Jake said, from the back of the line. “You need some help?” And Jake passed Gary a ten and shook it off when Gary said he’d get him back. “That’s Jake,” Gary says.
And that is Jake. Ask around Oxford and you’ll hear a million stories like this.
Talk turns to his ethereal voice. “I remember when I first moved to town and heard Jake play,” David says. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d been in New York for a long time and I’d never seen anything like it. If he’d been playing in the Village in ’62, he’d be a legend.”
“Dylan would’ve loved him,” Gary says.
It’s a perfect simplification of what Jake is: a human jukebox, a raw and penetrating voice out of time, a genuine bluesman with the heart of a mystic.
Oxford can’t really claim Jake anymore, but we do anyway. He’s from Columbus, Georgia and recently relocated to North Carolina. But he lived in Oxford for almost ten years—earning a Master’s degree in Southern Studies, playing in the bars and leading the band on Thacker Mountain Radio, working at The End of All Music, filling the town with a good feeling that seems to be missing now that he’s gone.
I first met Jake in a blues literature class we took together. I hadn’t seen him play yet and got to know him on breaks during the three hour class, when we’d stand out by the elevator and talk about Bob Dylan. I consider myself a huge Dylan fan, but I felt immediately like I was in over my head. Here was one of those people who knew everything about Dylan. But he wasn’t show-offy about it. I don’t think Jake is capable of being show-offy about anything. He’s humble and enthusiastic, a true fan first and foremost.
Columbus, Georgia is an old industrial city on the Chattahoochee River, right on the Alabama line. “There were lots of cotton mills there for a long time,” Jake tells me when I ask about his background. “In its heyday they called it ‘The Lowell of the South’ but the mills are pretty much dead now.” Directly across the river from Columbus is Phenix City, Alabama, known in the 1950s as “The Wickedest City in America.” Ace Atkins‘s great book, Wicked City, deals with the town’s complicated history of corruption, gambling, prostitution, moonshine, and vice in all its forms. Jake’s father, Fred, grew up in Phenix City in the middle of all of that. When Jake was young, Fred was the curator at the art museum in Columbus and he also worked as a contract folklorist. His mother, Cathy, was a high school English teacher and later taught at the college level and ran the Carson McCullers Center in Columbus.
Fred had been doing folklore and historic preservation work in the area since the late 1960s or so. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he and writer/photographer George Mitchell from Atlanta (whose amazing blues field recordings are available via Fat Possum) did an eighteen-county survey of the folklife of the Chattahoochee River Valley of southwest Georgia/southeast Alabama. Jake says: “They were documenting all kinds of stuff like basketmakers and self-taught artists [. . .] but they also recorded lots of traditional music in the area, including the blueswoman Precious Bryant from Talbotton, Georgia, and this blues duo Albert Macon and Robert Thomas from Society Hill, Alabama. Also this amazing guy Cecil Barfield who was from Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s hometown. Have you heard the Cecil Barfield recordings? That shit is amazing.”
This is what it’s like to get Jake rolling. Pure, genuine enthusiasm. A life given over to music that comes out in the breathlessness of what he says and how he says it.
“They also recorded lots of old-time country musicians like Doug Booth from Dothan, Alabama, and this great fiddler Marion Jones from Ellaville, GA,” he continues. “I grew up knowing a lot of these people. My dad and George put on folk festivals every year in Columbus when I was a kid, and I would see all these people play. I’m sure that had a big impact on me. And I rode shotgun a lot with my dad when he was doing fieldwork all over the place, so I got to go to these peoples’ houses and see their worlds.” He also did lots of work with the southeastern American Indians out in Oklahoma and Louisiana and other places. For a couple of summers in the early ‘90s, when Jake was 11 and 12, he and his father travelled every state in the southeast in an old VW van looking for American Indian tradition bearers, mainly craftspeople and stomp dancers/chanters, to book at a Native American festival Fred was putting on in Columbus. That led to some of Jake’s thesis work in Southern Studies, which had to do with the Choctaw fiddling tradition.
“My dad also did lots of work over on the Georgia coast with these very old African-American islander traditions,” Jake tells me. “He and Art Rosenbaum went and located the McIntosh County Shouters in the small community of Darien, Georgia. At that point, most people thought the ring shout was an old slavery-era tradition which had died off sometime around the Second World War, but it was still happening in a pretty robust way right there in this community in the 1980s. So Art recorded an LP of the Shouters and released it on Folkways and eventually he wrote a whole book about the tradition going on there. My sister and I got to know the Georgia Sea Island Singers really well. That’s where I learned the song ‘Raggy Levy.’”
Jake was always obsessed with music as a kid. He played drums and “kind of screwed around with a lot of instruments but never really stayed focused on any one thing until [he] was about 12 and started getting pretty heavy into fingerpicking guitar.” He says: “I got into all the prewar blues stuff like Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake and all that complicated ragtime stuff and also the gentler things like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt.”
What were you doing at 12? I might’ve been reading Jim Thompson and James Ellroy at a too-young age, but I was also cooped up plugging away at Galaga and Tecmo Bowl. I was lost to the smallness of my world. I went to Catholic school. I didn’t see a guitar until my friends started forming bad punk bands when we were 15. I was awkward, fumbling, and terrified of saying dumb things.
If I’m being honest, I’m pretty jealous of Jake’s childhood. His sister, Coulter, who runs Yalo Studios in Water Valley, Mississippi, recently posted two of his Christmas lists from around that age online. He was asking for Dylan CDs, guitar strings, books by Alan Lomax, and bike tires. The lists are beautiful and precise. He wants the Alan Lomax book about Mississippi blues with photographs by George Mitchell. He wants a frame for a Chicago blues poster. As a 36-year-old part-time sad sack, all I can think is: I wish I’d made lists like that.
With access to such a wide variety of skilled musicians, Jake’s playing developed quickly. He says: “There was this newspaper editor guy in Columbus named Billy Winn who was a friend of my parents—he was kind of an old folkie and a good fingerpicker. He and I used to play a lot of that stuff together, and he showed me some basic things early on. And, of course, I made the immediate connection between the prewar recordings and the guitar playing of Precious Bryant, who I’d already known my whole life.” Jake’s teen years were shaped by the presence of Bryant. “Precious didn’t drive, so my parents took her to gigs around Atlanta and other places,” he tells me. “My mom even flew with her to Switzerland one time. When I got old enough to drive, I started going out to Precious’s place in Talbot County and tried picking up specific things from her on the guitar. So that was sort of my tutelage, I guess you could say. And then I would drive Precious to gigs and sometimes perform with her.”
Since then, Jake has toured and played with Etta Baker, Reverend John Wilkins, and Shannon McNally. He’s played in a bunch of bands—my favorite, The Cowboy Killers with Tyler Keith and Wallace Lester, graced the bars of Oxford plenty over the last few years. Before Oxford, Jake lived in Berkeley, where he hung out with Les Blank. (If you’re ever afforded the opportunity to get a drink with Jake, have him tell you about his run-in with Werner Herzog.) Point is, Jake’s story is compelling and rare. A great guy, raised by great people interested in important things, has now made a great record. And that should be the main takeaway here: His debut, Jake Xerxes Fussell, just out from Paradise of Bachelors, is pretty damn perfect. I can’t speak to it from a scholarly angle—what and how his song choices mean—but I can say, as a mere fan, this is the kind of record I feel like I was born to listen to. That voice. That guitar. Man.