A Young Guitarist Shines In The Shadow Of American Primitivism
This week’s Another Country: “It’s easy to play an open-tuned acoustic and sound like John Fahey. You have to fight those influences.”—Hayden Pedigo
Every other Thursday, in his column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that’s so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.
The 20-year-old guitarist Hayden Pedigo hit me up on Facebook recently. He thought I'd like his music and I very much did. Hearing songs like "L'hannah," which is premiering below, featuring the formerly Takoma Records-signed veteran Mark Fosson, the obvious reaction is that Pedigo is the latest upstart of American primitivism-ish, the way every few years there seems to be someone new mastering avant-garde blues fingerpicking. In fact, the last question in our interview is one I've already asked Daniel Bachman; someday there'll be a new occasion to ask someone else. But Pedigo does seem to be really excitingly upping and starting. Listen to this bad boy, then I'll explain.
On November 4th, Pedigo will release a new album called Five Steps that pairs acoustic guitar playing with dreamy ambient collage, a poignant combo; the label he works on, Grass-Tops, is about to reissue some great Robbie Basho; next year, Tompkins Square will put out the seventh volume of their seminal Imaginational Anthem series, which he curated; and his rock band, Western Plaza, just got picked up by Burger Records. And it's fuckin' all good! How could you not want to support him, whatever his age?
I called Pedigo up while he was on lunch break from his job at Amarillo National Bank. A few years ago, I was a bank teller myself, and I look back at that time fondly—during the day I'd work absentmindedly, then at night I'd go nuts with projects of my own design. Given Pedigo's similar setup, it's only right that his evenings are full and his output on fire. "I’m not saying it’s the best job ever, but it’s not the worst," he says. "You never have to work past five o’clock, and you never have to work nights. You can dress kind of nicer and once you get off work, you’ve got time to make music." We talked about the good work he's getting into.
Did you grow up in Amarillo? I was born here, and I’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s kind of an odd town, even for being a smaller Texas town. It has its own weird art community. I think Stanley Marsh brought a lot of that here. It’s kind of strange because even doing the music I do gets weird looks around here.
But you seem to have a solid network. Is that from touring? I’ve never played a live gig outside of Amarillo. It definitely isn’t a choice, it’s just that I’ve always done my music out of my house. I always work full-time, so I really can’t go anywhere, but I can record and do all this stuff and if I want to get it to people, I can just get on my computer and see what I can do.
The archival-minded label you work for, Grass-Tops, is really cool. How’d you get involved? Kyle Fosburgh is the one who started Grass-Tops. I met him when I was 18 years old through complete coincidence. I did my music, he did his, and we discovered each other. After only knowing each other for a few months through email, he flew down to Amarillo and stayed with me for a week. We were both obsessed with Robbie Basho and John Fahey, and we both had these same ideas, and he was like, “I’m starting this label, if you want to be a part of it.” I’m 20 now, and we’re releasing a lot of Robbie Basho’s old catalogue and lost tapes of his. It’s really just turned into this beautiful project for me and Kyle.
Is most of what you listen to guitar music? Oddly enough, since I’ve been playing guitar it’s kind of gotten less and less. Most of the stuff I find myself listen to—I really think Oneohtrix Point Never is my favorite thing going now. It just speaks to me a lot. It’s so totally different.
I can see a similar spirit on your new album, actually. Why’d you decide to pair acoustic tracks and sound collages? When I was doing the record, I just sat down and wrote all the acoustic stuff. Once I finished, I started doing some field recordings, and I was like, these are both equal parts of my music. Noise and drone stuff—I’ve been doing both styles for just as long. I think they’re both sides of me and they agree with each other in a strange way.
What connects them? I think they’re connected in the music itself: in acoustic music there are a lot of open elements, similar to what Robbie Basho did, and they’re experimental in the writing process. And if you have a pretty-sounding acoustic thing, after 12 tracks of that you start to crave something that feels different. I think John Fahey did the same thing, put drone music with acoustic. He would mutate noise and all that, but then follow it with a nice acoustic track.
Every song on the album has a collaborator, and often they’re more than twice your age. What was that like? Everyone on there that I asked has been a huge inspiration and has so many more years and experience than me. I’d have all the songs written and I’d email them and say, “Hey, I have a song that’s already written but I wanted to see if you’d contribute to it. You can do anything.” It was weird. Each artist was different. Mark Fosson, I sent him the track and within a week he was done and sent me a perfect take. Steffen Basho Junghans, I asked him and he seemed unsure at first because I don’t know him that well. After about two months, I got an unexpected email with the finished track. Every one had its own special sound.
It’s such a wide swath of people. How were you able to get them all? They were actually all done over email because I’m just stuck here in Amarillo. Zappi from Faust is in Germany, Fred Frith is from California, Robert Rich as well. Everybody was somewhere different. On the acoustic side, I’ve worked with a lot of those guys because of Tompkins Square. I did the new Imaginational Anthem that comes out in February, Volume 7. And with Grass-Tops, doing Robbie Basho stuff, that got me access to people like Steffen Basho, who’s probably more knowledgeable about Robbie Basho than anyone in the world. On the drone side, one person that made that stuff happen is one of my best friends, Merlin Hayward. She’s Charles Hayward’s daughter, and we had done music together and she asked her dad to join in. That was huge for me—he was in probably my favorite group as a teenager, influence-wise. He got me connected to Fred Frith, and that got me connected with Zappi from Faust. After I did the track with Zappi, Makoto from Acid Mother’s Temple wanted to join in, too. Once you have one person on, it’s easy to get four more.
How did you get to do the new Imaginational Anthem? When I was 18, I corresponded a lot with Daniel Bachman. One day he called me to say, “Hey, I’m coming through Texas, would you want to do a show?” I got him a show in Canyon, which is a tiny town right outside of Amarillo. The night the show happened, he came with Josh Rosenthal, who runs Tompkins Square. Daniel played his gig, and afterward we went to some old bar and grill on the edge of town, and I talked Josh’s ear off about music. A few months later, I emailed Josh and said, “Hey, I’m that kid you met in Canyon. Would you consider letting me do Imaginational Anthem?” He didn’t respond, but two months later he asked if I still wanted to do it. I probably spent a year looking for the tracks to make it. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best in the series.
That’s funny because Daniel Bachman famously booked a Jack Rose show when he was pretty young. I like that there’s a direct line. And he drew the cover to the Jack Rose album called Luck in the Valley. For my first album, he drew the insert. He drew this guitar with all these designs. So there’s another connection to that.
Do you feel a responsibility to add something new to this style of music? I think it’s a major concern for me. I think it’d be disappointing if this younger generation just played John Fahey pieces over and over. I think John Fahey would want people to pick up the guitar and bring it somewhere else. He was listening to Charley Patton or Bill Monroe but I think he wanted to look at the past to reinvent it and find what’s next, to make something totally new. He was never recreating the past, but he was always referencing it. In my own experience, it’s really easy to play an open-tuned acoustic with finger picks and sound like John Fahey, but that's a barrier you have to break down. It’s something I struggle with. You have to fight those influences, because their shadows are huge.