Attacking a group of musicians within the liner notes of its album requires some audacity.
In fact, what it really requires is some eccentricity.
More specifically, it requires John Fahey.
In the essay Fahey penned for the American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel
(1926-36) -- one of the first releases from his 18-month-old Revenant Records label --
the iconoclastic 59-year-old folk guitarist pointedly questions the sincerity of the same
musicians whose work he's bringing to light.
"Most of those preachers on there are phony preachers," he said recently of
gospel shouters, speaking with a deep laugh from the Portland, Ore., hotel
room he calls home. "It's great music, but it's not to my mind religious at
all. We've done a lot of research on 'em. Beneath the floor of the
recording studio or church, wherever this stuff was recorded, I think I
hear a cloven hoof tapping. The Reverend Moses Mason? He was not a
reverend -- he also recorded as Red Hot Old Mose!"
American Primitive is a typically raw release from Revenant, a label
that first garnered attention with last spring's Country Blues collection of haunting
Dock Boggs banjo songs from the 1920s [
While Boggs hardly could be considered part of the musical mainstream, neither are
most of the artists who capture the ears of Fahey and his Revenant partner, Dean
Blackwood. In addition to Boggs, there is experimental jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, modern
avant-garde guitarist Jim O'Rourke, the early Stanley Brothers, Don Howland's
elemental Bassholes and cowboy singer Jenks Tex Carman.
"There are things that tie all these people together: It's stuff from the
primordial gloop," Blackwood, 29, said recently from the Nashville, Tenn., law
office where he keeps his day job as a mergers attorney. "It all has that
raw earth quality."
It's that same raw earth quality that defines much of Fahey's own massive
catalog of releases that date back to the late '50s. Over several decades,
the idiosyncratic guitarist has become a cult figure based on the strength
of releases that can only loosely be called folk -- at various times,
they also weave in elements of experimental noise, Indian music, blues,
bluegrass and pop.
"I'm trying to bring out the primordial in its sensual feelings to the
public, and so are these other guys to some extent," Fahey said. "I'm
concentrating on emotions in the slime more than the others are, but
they're coming from the slime, too. They're all individualists. They try
not to let the qualities of ordinary popular music influence them, to
whatever extent it's possible."
Blackwood first approached the guitarist about working together back in
1994, when he released a two-record set of Fahey's music on his exclusively
78 revolutions-per-minute label, Perfect. "To me there's nothing better as a vehicle for
music than this nice, dense slab of shellac," said Blackwood, a self-described "78
Fahey himself has been collecting old discs now for four decades.
Though Revenant plies its wares in updated, '90s fashion with compact discs,
the label's releases feature lovingly crafted packaging that appeals to the
same tactile sensibility of those who lust after the old 78s. Country
Blues by the late Boggs, for example, comes bound in a CD-sized
hardcover book that features a lengthy essay by noted music critic Greil Marcus (who
also writes a column for SonicNet sister site Addicted To Noise). The two CDs of
Charlie Feathers' recently released Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69)
come in a stately red gatefold case that underscores the nobility of the work within.
Despite his fascination with old music and records, Blackwood said he thinks of
himself as a music collector rather than a record hound. "I don't care if
something is exceedingly rare," he said. "Ultimately, I want to have the best-sounding
copy of something I can get."
It's that quest that has led him, most recently, on a search for rare music
by Captain Beefheart for an upcoming release; and, before that, to
Feathers' own house to sift through long-shelved music, some of which turns
up on Get With It.
"He has all these tapes and he has no idea what's on them," Blackwood said
of the oft-overlooked singer whose style sometimes ran to rockabilly, at
other times to traditional country and sentimental ballads.
"We were listening to things and there was this one tape that had a snippet of Charlie
playing with someone else, and it sounded like [late blues singer] Junior Kimbrough to
me," Blackwood said. "They grew up together, so it made sense, but there was only this
snippet on cassette. We eventually found this reel that had two jams -- 'Release Me' and
'Feel Good Again' -- they did in '69."
Because most of the music that Fahey and Blackwood are interested in issuing has
never appealed to wide audiences, tracking down the work can be an arduous, ongoing
"The people we're reissuing were alternative at the time they recorded; they may have
even had a couple of hits, but they're forgotten now," Fahey said. "We're looking for any
kind of unusual stuff that has some value, some integrity. If it does, it will sell."