Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue.
The term New Weird America (NWA) was used by The Wire’s David Keenan to describe the music at the Brattleboro Free Folk Festival in 2003. The phrase evolved as a play on the Old Weird America concept, which was first posited by Greil Marcus in Invisible Empire, his exquisite book about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, their source in the archival work of Harry Smith and their subsequent influence on various combos. Keenan’s term, while technically reactive, made immediate intuitive sense. It embraced an aesthetic that could semi-coherently include everything from the tenor sax ecstasies of Paul Flaherty to the minimalist ghost glimmer of Erika Elder’s harmonium to the chittering noise-toggles of Sunburned Hand Of The Man’s Conrad Capistran to the lush acoustic string inventions of Glenn Jones.
Initially, this breadth may make NWA seem like a useless terminological umbrella. But it’s not as loose as all that. Indeed, it is something like an extension of the varieties of enthusiasms embodied in one of the genre’s sainted figures, John Fahey, who died in February 2001. Even though he’d been dead for over two years by the time Keenan drunkenly spat the phrase onto a table at the Hampshire College Tavern, John Fahey was, in many important ways, its embodiment.
The whole NWA phenomenon is very much the product of record collectors, which is one of the many personae that Fahey fully embodied. John loved records – pre-war blues 78s, RCA Classical albums, spoken word discs, records of Indian ragas, train sounds… his passions were many. There is a similar fever (often even more obscurantist) heating the brows of many important NWA figures. The sheer ass-width of the styles massed under the heading buggers the idea that the movement is one whose genesis can be traced in a musically linear fashion. There’s a connective tissue having to do with a gestalt – certain kinds of creation, spontaneity and community, revolving equally around performance and documentation. But used as a purely stylistic shorthand, the term is critically inert.
This is why Fahey remains my figurehead of choice. To many in his audience, John was a ‘folk’ figure, but this was never a descriptive he was interested in ascribing to himself. The musics he created bridged many of the same style-chasms as those of the NWA gang. He once said he thought it would be neat if you could take some of the dissonance in Bartok’s work and syncopate it. And what he tried to do throughout his lifetime was something very much along those lines. During the course of these experiments, Fahey’s voracious appetite for styles (among other things) meant his burps might reek of blues, hillbilly, spirituals, pop, string bands, rock combos, musique concrete and who knows what else? When he was embraced by a legion of free improvisors and noise musicians in the last decade of his life, he absorbed their aesthetics as well, leaving behind a trail of empty Big Gulp cups and a recording/performance legacy that drove old fans to despair.
Fahey was also a pioneer of self-documentation, on a par with Sun Ra and Harry Partch (two other spiritual forefathers of the NWA). He released his own first LP in 1959 in an edition of 100 copies. In time, the label came to bear the name Takoma Records, and it issued an insanely broad array of squawk (some of it admittedly brought to term by John’s business partner, ED Denson). But the label’s roster is a wonder – from the country blues of Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams, to the strange trad yabber of Eddie ‘One String’ Jones and JB Smith, to the old time fiddling of Tony Thomas, the avant jazz of Charlie Nothing and Phil Yost, the electronics of Joseph Byrd and on and on. Most people knew only the work of the label’s guitarists – Fahey, Basho, Kottke, Gerlach, Sete, Gulezian, etc – but there was a huge cache of other weird and wonderful arcana to be found.
This tradition, as surely as others, has been borne out by the NWA folks. Nobody (except perhaps Matt Valentine in his Cocola stories) has mastered the purposely disorienting prose style Fahey employed for the liner note booklets of many of his Takoma albums, but the artist-run labels themselves have exploded laterally. Early examples, such as Charalambides’s Wholly Other, MVEE’s Child Of Microtones, Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace!, Sunburned Hand Of The Man’s Manhand and No-Neck Blues Band’s Sound@One, have cranked out hundreds of releases that can feature anything from earnest readymade-gal-folk to craven machine noise.
Consequently, there are no hard and fast rules about which performers even qualify for NWA status. In the sub-underground, where all this stuff really takes place, or at least, originates, there’s a porousness to divisions between genres that makes presuppositions idiotic. Take four groups – Eyes & Arms Of Smoke, Hair Police, Wolf Eyes, Graveyards. If you don’t know the stats and sounds on these guys, just check any search engine – you will find audio samples and information galore. But if you can tell me which of them is NWA and which is not, well, you are a better person than I.
Between the poles of jazz, noise, folk, psych, experimental, electronics and free rock there’s a kind of common ground. Maybe it’s imaginary and maybe its not, but all these artists inhabit that space. And I’m sure if Fahey would have lived long enough to visit, he would have really dug the place. For the sake of all the women involved, it may be better (or at least easier) that he didn’t. But it’s a place that could have easily existed in John’s head – a place where all differences could be reconciled around a warm plate of lasagna; New Weird Americans, all.