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Music Preview: Paul Asbell


Published March 9, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Depression-era folk music has long fascinated Vermont guitar legend Paul Asbell. As a child, he thrilled at exploring his folk-singing father's collection of antique 78 records, and developed a lifelong connection to bygone styles. On his critically acclaimed 2000 release, Steel String Americana, Asbell wove various musical traditions into a vibrant, organic tapestry. Its upcoming sequel, Roots and Branches: Further Adventures in Steel String Americana, adds a few new threads. Featuring Delta blues, British Isles folk, reconfigured piano rolls and even a Leonard Bernstein composition, Roots is every bit as remarkable as its predecessor. A CD release party takes place this Sunday at the FlynnSpace in Burlington.

Now 56, Asbell grew up in the Chicago area, where he paid his dues as a sideman for such blues greats as Otis Rush, Junior Wells and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. On the legendary LP The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, the guitarist rubbed shoulders with Eric Clapton and members of The Rolling Stones.

Seeking a "spiritual battery recharge," he moved to the Green Mountains in 1971. The Windy City's loss was Vermont's gain -- as a member of Kilimanjaro and Big Joe Burrell's Unknown Blues Band, Asbell delighted audiences throughout the Northeast with cool blues and white-hot jazz. He's also taught fretboard maneuvers to some pretty formidable players, including six-string superstar Trey Anastasio.

Although Asbell has played on countless albums, Roots and Branches is only his second solo release. Seven Days recently chatted with the guitar maestro about several of the 14 cuts on the new disc, and what it's like to be alone in the spotlight.


(P. Asbell)

SEVEN DAYS: You wrote this tune for Ben &; Jerry's. Were you inspired by the ice cream flavor itself, or was there another muse?

PAUL ASBELL: It was really just the vibe that the ad campaign needed to have. My take on it was sort of a "rough-hewn" Americana approach -- the kind of guitar playing that still has some bark on it, you know what I mean? It's not based on anything specific, but I think it evokes familiarity. There are certain kinds of ragtime chord progressions that we've come to feel have an ease about them, a laziness. What's kind of ironic, of course, is that you can't be lazy and play it!



SD: Both of these songs are Southern spirituals. How did you come across them?

PA: I'm a real big gospel music fan. I've been into it since my dad took me to churches on the South Side of Chicago, which is where I used to live. I didn't really know what I was hearing then; I just knew I liked it in some way. It was only much later that I heard recordings of people like Blind Willie Johnson playing slide guitar and singing. It took awhile before I realized that these were the same songs, because those versions aren't at all like a church choir. They're both true folk songs that got treated very differently over decades, cultures and geography.


(H. Brooks/A. Razaf/T. Waller)

SD: It must be tough transposing a Fats Waller piano tune to guitar. Is the challenge part of the fun?

PA: Yeah, the challenge is fun. But once you've got the moves, the important part is to do it with grace. I've gotten myself to the point where I can pull the tune off, but the real challenge is to do it every time, and to make sure I don't get sloppy on it. This is part of the reason of doing solo stuff. For a while, I was really daunted by the idea of going onstage and saying, "Oh, I guess you're here to see me." You're in the middle of a tune, you look around and, hey, there's no one else here! But it's a way of keeping yourself honest. If you're gonna establish a benchmark for yourself, this will do it. You just hope you're up for the task. And I do ask myself that!


(C. Parker)

SD: You play this one with a Delta blues feel in spots, but Charlie Parker is not commonly associated with that style. What's the link?

PA: There's a bit of "what if" to a lot of these tunes. What if two people who are keenly associated with a style of music hooked up or cross-pollinated one another's musical notions? In this case, what if Robert Johnson and Charlie Parker did that? I have an odd background in that I play music that's related to Robert Johnson and other Mississippi stylists, but I have also, unusually, played a lot of bebop. And there's not a lot of perceived crossover there. But looking at musical history, some of these "what ifs" aren't that far-fetched. I mean, Robert Johnson probably learned as much from copying records as he did by watching Son House. And he was very future-oriented in his playing. There's no doubt he would've played an electric guitar, as soon as he could have gotten his hands on one. And he may have -- we just don't know. When the music itself takes me to places where certain things seem plausible, I start thinking, "Hmm. I bet I'm not the first person to try that." It's like a reverse-engineering of musical history.


(L. Bernstein)

SD: This one's from "West Side Story," which mixed ethnic and folk styles in symphonic composition. What's your take on the piece?

PA: On my first record, I did a piece from Porgy and Bess, which I heard as a kid, that just haunted me. It occurred to me that a lot of composers have tried to ennoble American roots stuff with a certain amount of technique, to bring out its inherent beauty. People have been doing that for a long time. There's a big tent that I try to create, under which a lot of American music can be played on this one instrument. West Side Story was just my next thought along these lines.



SD: These are both British Isles folk numbers. How did this music affect American roots styles

PA: Well, that's really where so much Appalachian music began. That area in particular was settled by a lot of British Isles folks, but I suspect that they had an ambivalence towards everything from their old world. On one hand, they really wanted to define themselves as Americans, and Ameri-cans should have their own music. On the other, it's like food. You grew up eating a certain food, and it's kind of hard to completely throw it aside. There's a certain darkness in a lot of the themes -- kind of an apocalyptic flavor in the Christianity that got inherited. That style eventually became blended with bluesy, African expressions. Now it's big, so to speak. Gillian Welch does that kind of stuff, and it's great.



SD: You first heard your dad sing this number as a child. Do you recall your impressions?

PA: I just thought it was a pretty tune, I didn't know anything about it. I probably started hearing it when I was about half a year old! My dad was a professional musician when I was a kid. He played with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly. He was part of the lefty folk, pro-labor movement. Through him, I inherited a sense of the meaning of the word "folk" that had very little to do with Peter, Paul &; Mary.


(H. Parker/S. Phillips)

SD: Elvis once cut this for Sun Records. Was his version, or early rock 'n' roll, an influence?

PA: My dad had this one as a 45, and I'm sure his friends thought, "Bernie, what are you doing? Elvis Presley? Have you gone nuts?" When I was a kid, I liked a couple of early Elvis things, but some stuff I thought was corny. I'd been listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie at the time, but when I found this in my dad's collection, I played it and thought, "It's kind of cool, actually, not like all that silly stuff on the radio." Elvis' version set a path for a certain amount of American electric music -- drawing from country and blues, and kind of making a third way out of it. And there's something about trains that's so quintessentially American, you know?