Guitarist Ross Hammond to play a free show in Winston-Salem
California guitarist Ross Hammond has covered much stylistic ground over the past 20 years or so.
Some artists start on the inside of things and make their way outside, meaning they begin their work practicing the standard fundamentals of the tradition and then slowly abandon rules and forms, drifting toward a kind of freedom. Hammond embraced the aspect of freedom early on in his career, playing free jazz, making ambient loops of processed electric guitar and generally pressing out in different directions of improvised music. Over the years though, Hammond has gravitated toward a type of playing that is rooted in folk forms and tunes, but which slides and slips in directions that have elements of Indian raga, ambient music, roots, old-time, and expressive American-primitive style playing. The element of improvisation remains, with a large part of each of Hammond’s performances and each recording being extemporaneous.
Hammond plays a free show at Bright Leaf Books in Winston-Salem on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., assuming the hurricane doesn’t affect travel. (I should add that I helped arrange this show and I work very occasionally part-time at the bookstore. However, the event is free and neither the bookstore nor I will profit from the performance.)
I spoke to Hammond recently by phone from his home in Sacramento. Hammond, who has been active in the creative-music scene in California since the ‘90s, has been self-releasing solo and duo albums over the last several years that generally focus on acoustic, 12-string and resonator guitars. The duos have featured percussionists. “Upward,” from 2016, was a collaboration with tabla player Sameer Gupta, a longtime friend of Hammond’s. In 2017, Hammond put out “Masonic Lawn,” a project with drummer Jon Bafus. Those outings can bring to mind the pairings between Sandy Bull and Billy Higgins or Larry Coryell teaming up with Elvin Jones. And the raga-tinged material can prompt comparison to John McLaughlin’s work with the Shakti.
But Hammond generates plenty of sound on his own, without any accomplices. His solo guitar records “Follow Your Heart”, released at the start of last year, and “Riding Dragons In Winter,” set for release this fall, showcase the breadth of tone and color that Hammond can summon from the instrument, using alternate tunings, partial capos and slides. His playing is deeply melodic, too, with pretty phrases that curl and rise, some that have the familiar echo of hymns or folk songs.
“A lot of the melodies usually come from me singing something around the house,” Hammond said.
Hammond’s techniques add a lot of texture to the songs. There are drones from the open strings, metallic clang and grind from the slide hitting the strings or being lifted off of them, and — particularly with the 12-string — an almost churning atmosphere that can bring to mind the thrum of a hurdy-gurdy. One minute he sounds like he’s playing an autoharp and the next you might confuse his guitar for a sitar. His pulls and hammers sometimes suggest a banjo.
When talking about his music, Hammond, who grew up in Kentucky before moving out to California, often refers to the twin influences of Appalachian folk traditions and an untutored appreciation of Indian ragas all filtered through his improvisatory sensibility.
“You throw all that together, and that’s what I do,” he said.
Hammond is especially expressive with his slide playing, executing gentle vibrato, dramatic swoops and singing sustains. He plays with control, maintaining space and breathing room for the phrases to take shape and bloom in the air.
“I’ve really dedicated myself to playing slide, to being a slide player,” Hammond said.
The slide tends to deepen the sense of action in the music, creating dramatic counterpoint against the open strings. It adds a buzz and rattle as well. Hammond’s music can have elements in common with the trance-inducing ambient work of Laraaji, and it can just as quickly move into gentle melodic territory that evokes the early recordings of Windham Hill guitarist William Ackerman.
We seem to be experiencing a renaissance in acoustic guitar music in America these days. If it’s not a full-on rebirth, then it’s just a strong and steady growth that’s been underway for over half a century now, flowing out and blooming since John Fahey made his first recordings. This spring guitarist Glenn Jones helped organize The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose festival in Maryland, which showcased the varieties of American Primitive and related guitar styles on the scene these days. The event featured dozens of guitarists over a three-day period.
“There are a lot of acoustic players — I don’t know if it’s a resurgence or if now I see it more,” Hammond said. “There’s a lot of really good acoustic music being made. I bet that it’s not new for a lot of folks, but from the left-of-center kind or fourth-stream kind of side, where it’s not necessarily traditional folk music or traditional, modern acoustic music, there’s definitely some underground acoustic music that I think is really happening.”
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.