Frisell Concert Explores the Roots of Country Music
Posted 1/21/2014

Guitarist Bill Frisell explored murder ballads, fiddle and banjo tunes, and the work songs of country music pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family during his Jan. 18 concert at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Frisell’s accompanists, both of whom provided vocals, were guitarist Buddy Miller and fiddler Carrie Rodriguez. It was the third of four shows that the trio played on Jan. 17–18.

Titled “Reflections on The Bristol Sessions,” the concert series reprised songs from one of America’s most important recording sessions, which occurred in Bristol (a town along the Tennessee-Virginia border) in 1927. The sessions were conducted by the Victor Talking Machine Company (later to become the RCA label). Frisell’s knowledge of these historic sessions certainly informed his performance, but he was not interested in a faithful recital of the original arrangements.

The bright idea of producer Ralph Peer, The Bristol Sessions came about when Peer traveled from New York City to the Appalachian town of Bristol in hopes of securing more hits like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Cluck Old Hen,” which sold out its 500 print run of OKeh Records 78s in a mere two weeks in 1923. Newly employed by Victor, Peer originated the now common practice of paying royalties to musicians for their songs—but he would own the publishing. Peer set up his remote recording studio (an innovation at the time) in downtown Bristol then put out a call for local musicians to record their gospel, country and blues tunes for $50 per track.

The talent included protest singer Blind Alfred Reed, blues banjo player B.F. Shelton, harmonica whiz Henry Whitter and soon-to-be stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A total of 19 acts performing 76 songs took part in The Bristol Sessions, often referred to as the “big bang” of country music because of its impact on the genre’s early development.

In the hands and voices of Frisell, Miller and Rodriguez, innocence turned to angst, sweetness to somber weirdness, and sprightly tales into nightmarish visions. Frisell is no stranger to framing vintage music in trademark guitar treatments, as he did on his 2009 album Disfarmer (Nonesuch), which was inspired by the work of rural Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer (1884–1959). Frisell and Miller know each other’s style well, having collaborated on the 2011 album Majestic Silver Strings (New West) alongside guitarists Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz.

Frisell’s palette—featuring ghostly howls, steel guitar shimmers, atonal effects and spectral sparks—combined with Miller’s deep vocals and the fleet bow-work of classical violinist turned fiddle player Rodriguez gave this 1927 music an exciting, decidedly 2014 recontextualization.

The Carter Family’s mournful but rhythmically bright “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” was transformed into a requiem-dark dirge as Miller intoned lyrics and Frisell ripped upper register peals and ’50s sci-fi movie effects. Miller and Frisell channeled ancient souls on Alfred Karnes’ “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” turning the rustic gospel song into pulse-less dual-guitar drenched Americana.

Though never overshadowing Miller and Rodriguez, Frisell’s sonic sorcery was captivating, whether he was picking Jim Hall–styled notes or injecting a blast of rockabilly, but always weaving his melodic lines into the fabric of the song. Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” plenty weird in its own right, was transformed into a busker’s delight, with Miller’s voice booming and gloomy while Frisell explored the song’s outer edges with searing notes. The trio closed with the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” Frisell picking sweetly while Rodriguez sang and fiddled.

Many audience members looking out over Columbus Circle from Lincoln Center’s Allen Room at 59th Street and Broadway did not miss the irony of hearing simple, rural music reimagined by visionary musicians for an upscale Manhattan audience. This virtual visit to Bristol will not soon be forgotten.

Ken Micallef

Buddy Miller (left), Bill Frisell and Carrie Rodriguez onstage Jan. 17 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York (Photo: Frank Stewart/Jazz at Lincoln Center)


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