Nathan Salsurg can be described as a guitarist, songwriter, archivist, radio show host, and record collector. Salsburg has worked at the Alan Lomax Archive since 2000, and he released his solo debut album, Affirmed (No Quarter), and a collaboration with James Elkington called Avos (Tompkins Square) last year.
As a guitarist and songwriter, Mr. Salsburg has admired, and in turn, been influenced by the work of such legendary and innovative greats as John Fahey, Peter Lang, and Leo Kottke. It's evident from listening to Nathan Salsburg's albums that while he has studied the work of such masters, he is no imitator. Salsburg has brought his own unique set of sensibilities to the instrument, and has continued to innovate and develop his own songwriting along the way, defining an artistic identity that is all his own.
In addition to his work at the Alan Lomax Archive, Mr. Salsburg he is also the radio host of the Root Hog Or Die radio show (which is now being streamed online via the Dust to Digital website's Soundcloud page).
I recently had the opportunity to ask Nathan Salsburg some questions regarding his personal artistic development, his experiences working at the Alan Lomax Archive, and his latest recordings. It is my pleasure to present our conversation, which explores the ongoing exploration of Mr. Salsburg's multifaceted work.
Hi Nathan. Thanks very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to participate in this interview, and to discuss the many aspects of your work with our readers. I'd like to start with your earliest musical experiences and work our way through, up to, and including your latest projects.
First, can you discuss your early musical experiences, and what inspired you to learn, play, and seriously pursue music?
Nathan Salsburg: My father was a casual guitarist, a product of the 1950s folk revival, and he sung me to sleep with songs like "Railroad Bill," "Goodnight Irene," and "Wanderin' Blues." I went to a summer camp on a Quaker farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania as a kid, and started playing guitar there when I was 11, slavishly devoted to the Rise Up Singing songbook.
My favorites then were "The City of New Orleans" and "Mr. Bojangles", which were not at all folk songs, but they sure seemed like it then. Of course, they're part of their own kind of tradition now. I remember being confused when I realized that they weren't very old; that someone in particular actually wrote them.
Can you describe your experiences working at Alan Lomax Archive?
Nathan: I had only a passing familiarity with Lomax when I started working with the Archive, in October of 2000. I knew Woody Guthrie, who was a big deal to me as a teenager, and had some idea of the cowboy songs John A. Lomax collected, as well as the work songs father and son had recorded at Parchman Farm, though I did not know the slightest idea of the extent of Alan's collecting, in depth or breadth.
It's been over 11 years that I've been involved, and it's for all intents and purposes my only real job as an adult. Every time I'm asked what my involvement with the place has been, all I can say is that it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. The access I have to the material is an ineffable gift.
Here at my desk, I'm looking at three hard-drives that contain digital iterations of nearly every recording, photograph, and video clip that Lomax and his collaborators collected between 1946 and 1991. It's been from the start a full-on immersive education, and I feel I have a confident grasp of maybe a fifteenth of it at this point.
How did those experiences inspire and influence you?
Nathan: It's constantly reminding me of how much I don't know, how much there is to know, and how much I'd like to know it. It's also made me a better listener than I imagine I could ever be on my own, and that has made me a better musician.
When did you begin writing your own music?
Nathan: I started writing songs during my senior year in high school, having been content to sing songs from Rise Up Singing and others learned off records (though the only ones I can remember were Dylan's) before then.
I spent a few years in college, and shortly thereafter, writing songs I sung with a band, but I was happiest writing instrumental acoustic guitar music, as I was a tentative singer at best. Those songs were highly amateur, but they made me hitch my interest in lyric songs and my desire to sing them to an instrumental approach that I think later came to serve me much better.
Who were your biggest influences in both playing and your approach to writing?
Nathan: I was into punk rock and hardcore in middle and high school: Misfits, Bad Brains, and Born Against. The Clash were my absolute favorite band from fourth grade on. I suppose they still are, though I felt pulled in the opposite direction by my taste for folk songs.
I heard the Dead from the hippie counselors at farm camp, and Celtic music, that in passing, I somehow fell in love with. It was a tough reconciliation. Sometimes a twelve-year-old feels like he has to choose either Danzig or Garcia, and I stashed the folkish stuff away. But I kept up with my mom's Dylan records, and discovered her Mississippi John Hurt and Dave Van Ronk albums later in high school, and they won me over completely.
Then I got hipped to that three-way-split between Fahey, Kottke, and Peter Lang, through a friend who'd gotten it off his dad, who was into Kottke and the Fahey Christmas records. The enthusiasm in our group was all for those two guys, but from the beginning I fell entirely in love with Lang's stuff. I wanted to play like that. When I turned up a copy of his The Thing At the Nursery Room Window in college, it was everything I ever wanted to hear a guitar do.
Then I fell for Nick Drake, who pushed me to think about how a single guitar could fill up space in ways that didn't involve loud strumming. My increasing interest in the music of the British folk revival over the years has turned me onto players that I hold in the highest regard now: Archie Fisher, Dick Gaughan, Micheal O'Domnhaill, Paul Brady, and Nic Jones, first among them.
What they do with their guitars, sympathetic with their voices, in their compositions and arrangements of traditional ballads and songs, I try to do with mine as the sole melodic voice, arranging for it its own kind of ballads and songs.
Can you discuss your writing process of the songs that would become first album, Affirmed (for No Quarter Records)?
Nathan: Before I had songs, I just had scattered fragments that I'd play over and over until paths out of them, or into them, started to reveal themselves. I'd combine the two and play that combination over and over and the process would proceed until the combinations had an essential integrity; till they felt like songs.
It's not easy, and it's time-consuming, and that kind of exploration takes a lot out of me, but it's the only way I know to write songs. When I reached what I felt were enough to make an album, I made the album.
What was most unexpected/ surprising as you began writing and recording the record? What has most rewarding for you?
Nathan: That it happened at all. Honestly, I never thought I'd succeed in making a record. The task seemed so intimidating. And it was. I went to some dark places while recording.
I would also like to ask you about your new collaboration, Avos, with guitarist James Elkington (for Tompkins Square Records). How did that project come together?
Nathan: Jim's a childhood friend's husband, and became a fast friend to me. He's one of the best guitarists I know. He is certainly one of the most prolific guitar composers I've ever met – and he suggested we work up a duo together. The next thing I know, there's an album's worth of demos in my inbox, and my job is to find my way into them, writing parts and adding bits and pieces as the spirit moves me.
We maybe rehearsed the stuff a total of three days, just an hour or two at a time when he'd come down to Louisville or I'd get up to Chicago. We spent a total of two days tracking the record. Then another two days total for the mix and mastering, and that was it.
I was really surprised by the whole thing, having gone into it with some skepticism. I'm not a great guitarist in partnership. I play how I play and am not a very nimble collaborator. But the whole project was just so shockingly fun and easy and rewarding.
We came to admire and draw a lot of inspiration from the other's playing. Jim and I are both voracious listeners with diverse influences, and that to my ears, made the music something novel. We're also pals, so talking shit and cutting up and egging each other on comes naturally.
Can discuss the history of your radio show, Root Hog or Die?
Nathan: I started doing Root Hog Or Die for East Village Radio in March 2005, after turning in a dozen or so episodes of a show called Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone to WPS1.org, which was then the online radio station for the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York. (That station is now called ArtOnAir.org.)
The shows were comprised primarily of folk, traditional, and vernacular music from around America and the world which, obviously, was casting a huge net and intentionally so, as fooling with genre delineations when it comes to this sort of music is a fool's errand.
The shows were both really helpful exercises in close listening, and I hoped the role as a radio host would push me to think and speak more intelligently about the stuff, apart from the primary intention of just making it available to audiences who, I assumed, probably weren't very familiar with it. Sometimes I succeeded, other times not, but I tried to emphasize that the show's just the work of a fan, digging where I'm moved to, and presenting what sounds particularly good to me from week to week.
By the time this is interview will be posted, I'll have turned in my last show to EVR, as the weekly commitment has been getting increasingly harder to fulfill and, to be frank, I just haven't gotten the feedback or satisfaction I'd have liked from that medium.
I'll be uploading episodes as I can do them to the Soundcloud page of the Dust-to-Digital label in Atlanta, who have been sponsoring the show for the last year or so, and making them a more central part of the Root Hog Or Die blog.
Before we sign off here, can you share some news of what you're up to these days, and share some of the recordings that you been listening to lately?
Nathan: I'm working on a box-set, slated for release in the fall, that will be drawn primarily from the hillbilly 78 collection of a deceased collector/hoarder by the name of Don Wahle. It's a long story how the records came into my possession, but there are a couple thousand of them, and there are a number therein that were completely unknown quantities to me. It's been a lot of fun spending time with those.
Some recent favorite releases of mine include new records from contemporary songwriter-singers including Hiss Golden Messenger and Elephant Micah, The recent Freddie Gibbs mix-tape, Cold Day In Hell; and Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM, the Excavated Shellac-curated box for Dust-to-Digital. I've also been enjoying a few Jah Shaka productions from the '80s, and the Scottish Gaelic singer Ishbell Macaskill, who died last March.
Thanks again for taking the time and participating in this interview Nathan. Good luck with all of your work.
Nathan: Thanks for the interest.