by Sean Jewell:
In recent years there’s been a groundswell of support and longing for Amercian Primitive, or Takoma style guitar, first played by the Takoma Masters of the ’70s. The neo-classical style puts the grit and drone of blues into a blender with the gravitas and sophistication of classical music and sees artists pushing acoustic and electric 6 and 12 string compositions to stratospheric, mesmerizing levels of speed and beauty. Artists like Steve Gunn, Ryley Walker, and William Tyler are competing for –and winning– people’s attention in the media, on record labels, and in festival settings. American Primitive-style guitar playing was pioneered by legend John Fahey. Fahey, who spent much of his life poor, began his own label Takoma Records to put out his own first record Blind Joe Death.
Years later, with a masters in American folklore from UCLA, Fahey would record Bukka White, and continue to release his own records. Fahey was a true genius, with true faults –highly intelligent, and plagued by mental illness, with a penchant for booze and pills, he often found himself between Scylla and Charybdis with his addictions and his art. Later in his life, he was reduced to simply playing shows at the venues that would have him, or using his own encyclopedic knowledge of American roots music to score records cheap and resell them for enough money to pay for the hotel rooms he lived in. Earlier on his extreme devotion to his style of guitar playing, and his extreme talent, would attract the same. In the late ’60s he put out records by greats like Leo Kottke, Mike Bloomfield, Bola Sete, and even Canned Heat, not to mention his own, very sought after work. In the late ’70s Fahey’s fingerstyle guitar that incorporated a myriad of blues, classical, gamelan, psych rock, world music, and country techniques was well liked, and develolped a cult following. Fahey would sell the label in 1979, but not before creating a guitar style all his own, and a label with an unforgettable catalogue.
During this, his most productive period, he put out records by Peter Lang, Rick Ruskin, and Toulouse Engelhardt. They’ll be playing a Takoma Records Guitar Masters tour on the west coast and will be in Seattle March 10th, at Columbia City Theater.
One Seattle guitar luminary, Michael Wohl, will be joining them for the kickoff date, as well as for a few dates on the tour. He was kind enough to impart on us this wisdom about the very rare, very stacked bill of guitar men:
“Peter is probably best known for the Fahey-Kottke-Lang split LP on Takoma from the early ’70s. He put out another record on Takoma, The Thing at the Nursery Room Window before moving on to Flying Fish, and releasing Lycurgus. I guess back then the Grammys were a little more adventurous – Lycurgus was a 1975 nominee in the Folk category. He’s shared the stage and played with Ry Cooder, Jerry Garcia, and many more.
“Rick [Ruskin] cut his teeth as a kid in ’60s era Detroit. He was opening for John Lee Hooker and Rev. Gary Davis when he was a teenager, and lived and studied with Davis for a summer. He’s released many albums since, and continues playing, teaching, and arranging Steely Dan tunes for fingerstyle guitar.
“Toulouse took guitar tips from Wes Montgomery outside a jazz club in CA when he was growing up. His Toullusions LP was released when he toured with The Byrds as their opening act in the early 70s. He’s played with Bob Weir, Clarence White, David Lindley, and many more over his career.