For a while now, Tompkins Square Records’ Josh Rosenthal has been putting together compilations of acoustic guitar playing. For the label’s latest volume, Imaginational Anthem 5 (out November 13th), Rosenthal recruited Sam Moss to put together a selection of young players like Daniel Bachman (formerly Sacred Harp) and Steve Gunn. Moss plays as well, but didn’t include himself in the compilation. You could do a whole lot worse than spend an entire day (or week or month) on his Bandcamp page. The compilation, though, is a pretty special, vibrant thing. While most of these players are working within a musical form that’s existed forever, they pull new sounds and ideas from organic drone, layered fingerpicking and a general sense of resonance. “Standing at the Entrance of a Hidden City,” by Alexander Turnquist, feels massive, with distant rhythmic booms punctuating layer upon layer of guitar. The entire record feels at once emotionally raw but controlled in its understanding of what came before it. I spoke with Moss about putting together the compilation, as well as the legacy of American guitar music.
What is it about guitar music that you think will resonate with a younger generation? I think that the idea of one human being making music will always resonate with a certain group. It can be very direct, yet without words, there are infinite interpretations to be made by the listener. But I guess I don’t really have an answer to that question.
How did you put the compilation together? Was there any specific criteria for you personally as far as who you included? Any message or view you were trying to get across? I just wanted to gather a handful of the best guitarists I could find. It was important to me that it be an eclectic group. Not everyone on here descends from the Takoma school, though that sound is well represented. There’s no way to cover all that can be done on an acoustic guitar with twelve players, but I think these twelve show a glimpse of the vast possibilities of the instrument.
How did you get involved with this music? When I was eighteen, I heard a friend of mine playing a rendition of a tune from Kottke’s 6 and 12-String Guitar, and that flipped a switch in my brain. A few months later, I saw Jack Rose and Glenn Jones play, and then got into James Blackshaw. I eventually made my way to Fahey and Basho, but not until people started telling me that my music reminded them of those guys. I actually don’t listen to either of them very much. My first solo guitar album is sort of ripping off Kottke, except with a flatpick. Growing up, I studied classical violin and then got into guitar as a teenager. From electric blues, I traced back to Blind Willie Johnson and Son House and then Jimmie Rodgers, etc. I studied classical composition in college. I think that training, coupled with a love of American roots music, explains why my music is how it is.
Was there any specific record that was particularly important in shaping your interests? Kensington Blues by Jack Rose is my favorite solo guitar album. I can always listen to it. Aside from the aforementioned Kottke album, Against Which The Sea Continually Beats by Glenn Jones was very important to me and gave me new ideas of what could be done compositionally in the field. Hearing Bill Orcutt’s work in the last two years was also an eye opener. I knew I needed to get him on this compilation.
Can you talk a little bit about putting together the compilation? Were you already familiar or friendly with everyone involved, or did compiling it yield any new discoveries for you? When I was invited to put it together a few names immediately sprang to mind. A couple are friends of mine whom I don’t think anyone else would have known to ask. But I did some extensive searching and found many players I did not know about before. The two new discoveries that I ended up asking were Tom Lecky (aka Hallock Hill) and Danny Paul Grody. Both contributed exceptional, individualistic tracks.
It feels like there’s a splintered scene of younger guys making primitive guitar music in the tradition of John Fahey, why do you think that is? Why now? Technology has become such an important part of so much contemporary music, and there is probably something appealing about rejecting that. I also think there is a power in the primitive guitar style that is hard to deny as a player. It is exciting—even addicting—to play in open tunings, to hear your instrument drone, and to play the bass line and melody at the same time. You learn that you can make a lot of sound with one acoustic guitar. When I got into the style I wasn’t singing publicly, but I wanted to perform alone. For me it suited my timid nature and still satisfied my desire to have total control over what I created.
Do you feel like there’s more of a scene for this stuff now than there’s been in the past? I don’t have much perspective on it since I have been more or less in the scene since I was in college. It feels very vibrant now, though. With regards to the more blues and country-influenced side of the acoustic guitar world, the roots music revival of the last decade must play a role. From my own perspective, I was really taken with the music in O Brother Where Art Thou? when I was in high school, and then I eventually found the fringe of the scene that descended from that music. I imagine that this experience is pretty common. I think it’s only natural that a small faction of folks that discover the Harry Smith Anthology will venture into contemporary outer Americana as well. The internet has made it easy to find the strange pockets of American folk music, past and present.