Genre Hopping: American primitive guitar
Based on the fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing of its pioneering father, Chris Parkin traces the genre’s lineage from John Fahey to the modern day.
Anyone wishing to avoid the stuck-groove sonic terrorism that is festive pop music should drop the needle on John Fahey’s 1968 album The New Possibility, on which carols and festive folksong are worked into striking American primitive guitar arrangements. Indeed, much of this self-taught, fingerpicked, wintry guitar music – a mix of haunting improv, hillbilly folk and neo-classical composition – is perfect for this time of year.
John Fahey is the most celebrated purveyor of guitar soli, but at college was joined in his studies by Daniel R Robinson Jr. Or Robbie Basho, as he’s better known. Basho’s raison d’être was a cosmic but earthy sound inspired as much by astrology, mysticism and Indian classical music as it was by backwoods US traditions and the blues. With drones and unorthodox melody, Basho joined the dots between raga, Latin guitar and Appalachian shit kicking as he tried to turn the steel guitar into something profound and fiery.
Basho died aged 45 in 1986, but his influence has grown steadily. In 2015, a film about his life was released, Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho. And now comes Traffic Entertainment’s vinyl reissue of Basho’s imperious sixth album from 1969, Venus In Cancer. Its 50 minutes of gorgeous improvisations marked the end of his American primitive playing before he went full new age.
Basho was a huge influence on Jack Rose, the US noise and folk guitarist and member of Pelt, who died in 2009, aged 38. His dark, roiling album Raag Manifestos, from 2004, is up there with anything released by the pioneers of American primitive playing and is still affordable on Discogs. Before he passed on, Rose handed the baton to a new generation.
Byron Coley, a music writer and collector of outsider art, literature and US avant-folk, and an expert on all things American primitive, recently described Virginia-born Nathan Bowles as a “superb blend of avant and hillbilly,” likening his style to that of Jack Rose’s “strange tradition”. Bowles’ latest album for Paradise Of Bachelors, Plainly Mistaken, is a doozy for fans of banjo picking, swinging between sweet old-timey string band music, motorik drone and the ghostly sounds of Greil Marcus’s old, weird America, while entrancing with elements akin to spiritual jazz and Moroccan gnawa music.
Marisa Anderson’s first album for Thrill Jockey, Cloud Corner, doesn’t sound anything like Bowles’ album, but does share its emboldened spirit. Her playing is rooted in US folk and the fingerpicking of Basho and Fahey, but on Cloud Corner Anderson revitalises this tradition with incisive, post-rocky tones and the uplifting sound of West African highlife and Tuareg desert rock.
It’s Daniel Bachman, though, who is the true heir to Fahey and Basho’s “visionary” title. Still not 30, The Morning Star, out on the reliably incredible Three Lobed, is his 12th album and yet the six-string and lap guitar player is in new territory, moving on from transcendental fingerwork into dark, immersive and spirit-haunted experimentalism that would deeply satisfy Fahey and Basho.