Nathan Bowles on the Banjo, Tradition and Aging

Music Features

Nathan Bowles is an adherent of an instrument with a pretty lengthily history. He doesn’t necessarily want to liberate the banjo from its past, though. The Virginia native’s more concerned with its applications to his own compositions and improvisations than any erstwhile forms. Getting caught up in the past, though, is in some ways what Bowles’ new album is about.

Two years after the release of his debut solo disc, A Bottle, A Buckeye, Bowles has put together Nansemond, a collection of mostly original tunes. In contrast to his first effort, there’s a bit of added instrumentation—some electric guitar and piano crops up along his plaintive banjo. He even sings a bit. But the entire album’s a meditation on where he grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater, a few hours from the nation’s capital, a place firmly ensconced in the South.

“Sleepy Lake Tire Swing”—like most of the album — can’t shake a certain relation to the area and old-time music in general. These are banjo tunes, after all. A concerted drone wavers through Bowles’ jaunty picking, partially inspired by 20th century avant-garde ideas, but still drawing from rural America.

Moving west to Blacksburg for school and eventually an adjunct teaching position in Virginia Tech’s Department of English took Bowles away from the landscape that surrounded him during childhood. And while the places, rivers and land he called home aren’t gone, they’ve changed and been developed to a certain extent. Bowles says he doesn’t visit too much, though his father still lives in the area. But the swampy territory weighs on his mind. He just doesn’t know why.

Nansemond is out now on the Paradise of Bachelors imprint. And in February 2015, a collaborative album between Steve Gunn and the Black Twig Pickers, an ensemble Bowles plays with, is due for release on Thrill Jockey.

Paste: Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, recently released Prospect Hill. It’s not all banjo tunes, but he clearly exhibits a desire to offer listeners a glimpse at how the instrument was used in the past. Your solo recordings contrast with that.
Nathan Bowles: That kind of tradition informs a lot of my playing, the way I approach banjo in terms of how I physically approach playing it. But I’m not interested in trying to uphold a tradition or record music in a way that illustrates that tradition. I know part of it comes across when I’m playing.

Paste: Your solo work, though, doesn’t seem as experimental as Paul Metzger or Bill Orcutt, who both seem to want a new language for acoustic instruments. And you’ve included a few traditional songs on each solo album.
Bowles: With the Twig Pickers or sitting around at home, I’ll play traditional songs. I like to get together with local, old-time players and just jam on music like that. But in terms of the kind of music I find myself wanting to explore or stretch out on—it’s not particularly interesting to me to record an album of old-time standards. People need to hear a lot of that beautiful and important music. But that’s not what drives me to pick up the instrument. Just taking it as museum pieces turns me off.

“Cindy” was just a song the Twigs played, and I loved playing it on banjo alone at the house. And “John Henry,” that was such a chestnut of traditional music. There’re all these different versions of that folk song—lyrically and melodically. The one on the record’s based on a version by this guy named Sid Hemphill. [Alan] Lomax made some recordings of him in the ’40s.

Paste: So, how does that song fit into the album, since track names refer to places that I assume are in the Tidewater area of Virginia.
Bowles: Part of it was that when I was writing, not so much on the surface, but my pieces were influenced a lot by thinking about childhood and the landscape of where I grew up. I felt like I needed something in the middle [of the album] to anchor some of the more exploratory pieces and illustrate the place where I’ve lived for the last decade. Sid Hemphill’s from the Mississippi hill country, so it’s not even a particularly Appalachian anchor, but the playing is more straight-ahead clawhammer.

Paste: The name of the album’s a reference to a river and a tribe of indigenous people from the Tidewater. What drew you to using those as signifiers?
Bowles: I was mostly thinking about the river. The name of the Suffolk County was initially Nansemond County. When I was writing those pieces—I’m not really a nostalgic person, but I just turned 30 and was thinking about why I don’t travel home often.

I was thinking about what my memories were. Sometimes I drive through there on the way to North Carolina, so I’ve seen it change. I’m not really sure why I was thinking about it so much. It might just have to do with aging.

Paste: Does the meticulous way you’ve sequenced the album relate to your academic pursuits?
Bowles: I tend to think about how pieces of art, whether it’s art or music or visual art or anything performative, are put together. But I also think I’m equally influenced by my being a record nerd and really getting into how records are put together: how they’re recorded and how they speak to other records that they’re influenced by.

I’ve never thought about it in terms of my studying in school.

Paste: Having Nansemond constructed so purposefully seems opposed to the improvisational nature of the Spiral Joy Band and Pelt.
Bowles: They don’t seem different to me. The way I approach that music, I don’t compartmentalize that stuff in my head. I really think of myself as an improviser. I guess I’m composing. The songs on the record are different every time I play them. The instances of those songs on the record are just the instances I caught on tape.

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