Eugene Chadbourne’s first gig in Greensboro didn’t go so well.
“The very first night we played in North Carolina,” Chadbourne said. “We got thrown out of the place immediately.”
This was at a club called the Belstone Fox, on Tate Street, back in the late 1970s. Chadbourne lived in New York City at the time, but he was touring the south with a Japanese trumpet player, traveling by Greyhound bus, making stops in Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and elsewhere.
”I thought that would be a fun experience,” he said. I’m sitting with Chadbourne in the dark at a broken picnic table in a parking lot across the street from The Garage in Winston-Salem, where Chadbourne and his band are about to play their July show. Chadbourne is a wide-ranging guitarist, banjo player, bold experimentalist, avant-folkie, improviser and relentless interpreter of a vast musical canon ranging from Sun Ra, to J.S. Bach, Doug Sahm, the Rolling Stones, T.L.C and Katy Perry.
Chadbourne is wildly prolific, shrugging a guess at how many albums, cassettes or CDs he’s released over the course of his long career.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I had more than a hundred things on vinyl. I basically stopped counting when CDs came out. It got too confusing.”
The 63 year old has been living in Greensboro for over 35 years, and is well known in experimental and creative music circles. He’s hammered together a peculiar bridge between the arcane music of idiosyncratic jazz-based innovators like Anthony Braxton and John Zorn (both of whom he’s worked with) and the more ultra-broad, of-the-people stylings of artists like Willie Nelson or North Carolina’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Or even the impossible-to-pigeonhole work of soul poets like Gil Scott-Heron or, maybe, split the difference between Captain Beefheart and hep-cat country crooner Roger Miller (both of whom Chadbourne has covered as well).
Chadbourne is, like all of them, an American original. Whether on five-string banjo or electric guitar, often singing, he plays rock classics, country, standards, originals, snippets of classical, jazz, and dance-pop tunes of the day. He’s cited Bugs Bunny and Boris Karloff as influences, which might seem like an off-the-cuff joke, but there’s a mix of madcap effervescence and lurching, stitched-together humor that comes through on a lot of his music.
Take an avant-garde and Pop Art sensibility, with a disregard for hierarchical traditions, a taste for ecstatic excursions into anything-goes terrain, and hungry appropriations from mass culture — apply it all to country music, protest songs, psychedelic rock, jazz, folk and you might arrive at a place that resembles the world of Chadbourne.
If jazz musicians routinely learn their way around over a century of music–pulling from Broadway hits, bebop, soul of the 1970s, Brazilian bossa nova, hard bop, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and more–Chadbourne does something similar, but from a rippling, seemingly endless pool of source material. He might play tunes by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Albert Ayler, the Dead Kennedys, Merle Haggard, John Coltrane, Steppenwolf, Gershwin, Gram Parsons, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.
This kind of feverish omnivorousness might not strike hip music-lovers of the 21st Century as odd, but 30 years ago genre distinctions used to mean a lot more than they do now. To cross-pollinate the worlds of skronking free jazz and redneck country was unthinkable back in the day. The most radical improvisers of the downtown New York scene — musicians who eagerly embraced the most abrasive and far-flung experiments — couldn’t understand why Chadbourne would play country.
“They thought I was out of my mind playing country and western,” Chadbourne said. “They would ask me stupid questions like ‘Where’s your cowboy hat?’”
One of the reasons Chadbourne said he came to North Carolina was that he couldn’t find drummers who could properly play country in New York City.
Some thought Chadbourne was being ironic, or that he was ridiculing the traditionally conservative values associated with country music. But like the harmonizing hippie rockers of the late 1960s who heard plenty they liked in the Louvin Brothers and Buck Owens, Chadbourne relates to it as music.
“I’m just playing and doing my thing with it, that’s all,” he said. “It doesn’t have to have any extra meaning.”
His thing is, admittedly, sometimes quite a bit different from the buttoned-up vibe of the Grand Ole Opry. Chadbourne’s approach to a cover song is often along the lines of Hendrix doing the National Anthem, complete with pyrotechnic tonal divebombs, abstract smears, skittering rhythmic breaks, abrupt digressions and allusive asides.
This is a man, after all, who invented and made something of a name for himself playing the electric rake. He’s built stringed instruments that used toasters and plungers as well. Though, inventing new sonic contraptions is something he’s sort of stopped doing in recent years, since it became a distraction, both for himself and for over-cautious prospective booking agents, who would sometimes stumble on video clips of the musician playing amplified lawn tools and conclude that the result would be too off-putting for a regular night of listeners. Not knowing that Chadbourne would be more likely to play tunes by Nick Drake or Billy Strayhorn.
“I know it was kind of entertaining for people,” Chadbourne said of the electric rake. “But it is something that hurts people’s ears sometimes. I just kind of lost interest. It’s also an example of — you can do something really brilliant and people will ignore it, but you do something completely fucking stupid and people want to talk about it.”
Chadbourne’s musical aesthetic contains multitudes, and his life has been similarly all over the place. He was raised in Colorado, but he moved to Calgary, Alberta, to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. While in Canada, Chadbourne worked at a daily newspaper as a reporter covering the entertainment beat, family living and features. He also got to write about new music, which helped keep him in a steady supply of records for the multiple pirate radio shows he has hosted.
When he got to New York City in the 1970s he entered a high-art downtown scene, one where Chadbourne’s zaniness was probably revolutionary in its own way. When he moved to North Carolina, people thought that was pretty far out, too. He tours a lot, teaming up with like-minded and agile improvisers (such as Winston-Salem drummer Aaron Bachelder) in other parts of the world, or taking his solo show on the road.
Among the projects he’s preparing for is a Halloween show in Brighton, England, which will include backing by Monty Oxymoron, a former member of punk legends the Damned. In typically counterbalancing fashion, Chadbourne also has an upcoming performance at the venerable Donaueschingen Music Festival in Germany where he’ll be playing portions of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on five-string banjo.
On the subject of how he decides to venture down a particular stylistic path — whether it’s contemporary radio pop or baroque music — Chadbourne said he doesn’t bother much with what the mass audience is flocking toward.
“Some things are popular then they’re not,” he said. “You never know what’s going to be popular. That’s not something that concerns me one way or another. If I like something, I don’t care if it’s popular or not.”
See Eugene Chadbourne at Greensboro’s On Pop of the World Studios, Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. $10.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.