Real and raw: Reed Turchi plays country blues for the 21st Century
Reed Turchi might have reasonably been expected to gravitate toward bluegrass and murder ballads, but he found the slide guitar instead. Turchi grew up in a part of the state where old-time music has deep roots and a strong presence. It just didn’t catch his ear. Turchi, a guitarist and singer, lived in Swannanoa, between Black Mountain and Asheville, right up the road from Warren Wilson College, where both of his parents taught. The college has long-standing ties to string bands and shape-note singing and other strains of mountain music. Yet that wasn’t the flavor of American music that Turchi became obsessed with. Turchi connected with the blues, and he’s had some powerful experiences working with players and labels in the North Mississippi and Memphis music scenes.
Turchi, who now lives in Nashville, will play a show at Winston-Salem’s Wise Man Brewing on Wednesday, April 10. I spoke with him by phone last week from his home in Tennessee.
On record, Turchi’s music has the stomp, slur and moan of the blues, of older grittier country strains of blues, of the blues that just got plugged in and electrified and citified but still retained its rural roots. He’s called it swamp boogie. He sounds like he’s soaked up his share of John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf and R.L. Burnside. But, depending on which recording you listen to, Turchi, 28, also sounds like he’s synthesized the vibe of the Rolling Stones, T Rex and Beck, too, particularly on his 2016 record Speaking In Shadows. And there are moments, like on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” from his 2012 debut, when his slide playing can suggest Blind Willie Johnson or Elmore James. You might even be able to draw a line back from Turchi’s playing to the fife and drum music of Othar Turner, with its marching rhythms and ecstatic minimalist sizzle. In a few other places, Turchi has expanded the geographical scope of his explorations, making music inspired by the Saharan blues of artists like Tinariwen, players who were in turn influenced by Delta and Chicago blues and American rock ‘n’ roll. Turchi’s not a preservationist exactly. He’s not one of those guys who wants to pretend it’s 1928 or 1954. But he does want to keep a certain energy of the music, particularly the hill country blues, alive, updated for the 21st Century.
“I feel very strongly about preserving and maintaining the spirit of a lot of that music, which is party music, built for people who are having a good time,” Turchi said.
It’s Burnside and the community of Northern Mississippi players that may have most shaped Turchi’s trajectory.
A bit of good advice from a family friend got Turchi pointed toward Mississippi when he was a first-year student at Chapel Hill. At UNC he connected with folklorist, historian and scholar William Ferris, who became a mentor while Turchi majored in Southern Studies. (Ferris just won a Grammy this year for his work on the box set Voices of Mississippi.)
“That pretty much just changed the whole shape of my life,” Turchi said.
With help and encouragement from Ferris, Turchi was able to work some with Mary Lindsay Dickinson, the (at the time) recently widowed wife of producer and recording artist Jim Dickinson, and mother of the North Mississippi Allstars. He helped her track down paperwork, royalty statements, publishing rights and other bits of music arcana in the makeshift filing cabinet/storage shed on their property.
“It was like 130 degrees in this bus that’s been sitting there for a decade — there were wasps and rats, and I rooted through boxes of receipts and cassette tapes,” Turchi said.
He also ended up connecting with a guy named Kenny Brown who had been R.L. Burnside’s slide guitar player.
“I tried to offer whatever I could in exchange for basically getting to hang around and play guitar, trying to get enmeshed in this small and very often reclusive group of people,” Turchi said.
Meanwhile, Turchi started his own record label, Devil Down Records, to document some of the artists he was meeting in Mississippi, all this before graduating from Chapel Hill.
“I was playing and recording my own music,” he said. “I was recording a bunch of these blues guys.”
And he also eventually started working at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis. In another brush with American sound-recording holy ground, Turchi and his Kudzu Choir recently did a live session at Sun Studios. The record, Midnight In Memphis, came out in March.
My familiarity with Turchi requires a small “full disclosure”-type digression. I first met him over 20 years ago, when he was a boy, while my wife was working with Turchi’s father, the writer Peter Turchi, at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. (I had an interest in his career based on having known his family, but also because of a shared love of American roots music.) Reed was basically raised surrounded by world-class fiction writers and poets, National Book Award winners and MacArthur “genius grant” recipients. They were all serious teachers. This had an effect on him.
The first track on the new release is “Teacher’s Blues,” a song built around grim first-hand experiences from some of Turchi’s friends who teach in the public schools in Buncombe County. They have to find paying jobs come summertime, because “folks down in Raleigh decided to cut her pay.” They’re teaching kids who “eat one meal a day” and one child, in particular, who had broken limbs: “that’s how his mama kept him from crawling away.”
“All of the verses in that song are just straight-up stories from my friends,” he said. “My parents are teachers, too, so I’m very sympathetic with that cause. This is pretty real, and playing blues music, for me, a big question is finding lyrics that I can really care about when I’m singing them. It’s about making the music meaningful in 2019. I want the lyrics to resonate today.”
Turchi said he felt that during his time at Ardent Studios he might have gotten a little dazzled by the effects, production tools, and all-around sound-sculpting that can take place behind the mixing board. He’s returning to a more austere and unfiltered approach to music-making.
“All the stuff that I’ve been doing now, all of that is stuff with no cheating. It’s all real stuff that I can sit down and play for you in the living room by myself,” he said. “It feels like no one can take that away. What’s on the album is what I can play, and what I can play goes on the records.”
Turchi said he doesn’t use any pedals these days. “I don’t even use a tuner,” he said. “I just want this straight-up.”
When I ask Turchi about where he picked up his ethos about working and playing, he said it was in his formative years in Swannanoa, often in the company of writing instructors who took their work so seriously.
“What they taught everyone was: Work on your craft, and that’s all that’s going to lead to success,” Turchi said. “With playing, it’s in your hands, or it’s not, and the only way to get it in your hands is to practice.”
The idea, which seems as relevant to the blues as it is to a Chekhov story, is to strip away all the excess so that you’re left with the vital, real emotion at the heart of what you’re doing.
“It’s really important for me to continue the spirit of people playing music for people,” Turchi said. “This is what playing music as one human being for another should be. We are trying to create a moment together.”
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.
See Reed Turchi at Wise Man Brewing Company, 826 Angelo Bros. Ave., Winston-Salem, on Wednesday, April 10, at 7 p.m. wisemanbrewing.com