TWO ADEPT young guns of the fingerstyle guitar, Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter really came to appreciate each other on a tour of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas.
The Trans-Pecos is a land of stark beauty, of ghost towns and mountain ranges; of sparse populations, viticulture; of javelinas, or skunk pigs. The pair spent the winter of 2018 gigging through the small towns out there: Marfa, Terlingua, Alpine, beyond. Each night they played solo and duo sets, interpreting traditional folk songs and showcasing their own, unifying seemingly disparate approaches to the guitar. As they got to know each other, a joint conversation in the guitar soli style, drawing on a line back through William Tyler, Jack Rose, Kicking Mule Records to Bert Jansch and John Fahey, became a very real prospect.
And so it came to pass: Anticipation, a first album of gorgeous duets by the two guitarists, and a product of this trip, documenting a musical juncture between desert and city, Eli’s Chicago and Cameron’s adopted South West, folk traditions and America’s musical avant-garde.
At first, Cameron says, their collaboration “seemed insurmountable conceptually”, but the pair – Cameron, resident in the Lone Star State by way of Yuma, Arizona, who came to bluegrass guitar through an obsession with Norman Blake, teaching himself over years of practice sessions 12 to 16 hours long, and 23-year-old Eli, led ever onward by his touchstones Daniel Bachman and Jack Rose, and seasoned on stage with artists such as Ryley Walker – laid down the record in a marathon nine-hour session in Houston, discovering a shared language as they played.
We’ve embedded the video for the lovely lead track, “Strawberry Milk”, down at the end there, since it led the album out upon announcement; it’s warm with the room of the recording, the count-in, and presents very much in the grand American folk tradition, unspooling and flowing with the kind of precision that comes from two players who know each other well. Like the forthcoming Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles album for Drag City, the chemistry of the players is all; precision, intricacy, insouciance and flow; plectrum harmonics, arpeggios and folky major sevenths make a miniature world of twelve combined strings, ripe to explore.
It sounds like they’re staring at each other with knowing concentration, waiting for that subtle inclination of the head to telegraph the change – on your porch, a tiny gathering rapt. Hear the way one or the other will spill off into a rivulet of melody that just needing outing to the world.
“And So I Did” is a rasping, swaggering slide blues that’s got a little acid in its DNA, so forthright is it, nodding I fancy at Texas punk, Roky Erickson. You can’t help but stomp along appreciatively to a deep, textural rag. “Cowboy noir”, they’ve noted it as; and if the hat fits that swell, wear it.
“Cumberland Application” is a wonder of a thing, gossamer intricate with melody, a back country thicket of harmony and intuition. Somewhere in there is the traditional tune “Cumberland Gap” rebuilt and allowed to spiral to any harmonic horizon it so chooses. Don’t bother extricating yourself; it has bite, and out here you just have to surrender yourself, come what may. It’s like a courtship, the two players dancing in accord, one then the other finding new harmonies that just must be teased out. I swear you can hear a little nod to Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” at the beginning. It’s closer to James Blackshaw’s “Elk With Jade Eyes” than anything so far on the album; truly beautiful.
“Sippin’ Amaretto” – and may I? – flips that dime high, lands other side up. Coming in with jazz chord voicings, a ragtime bursting out of the pocket into free modality and skittering out into a raag manifesto.
Another single drop was “Parapraxis Of A Dragonfly”; laidback, soothing, yet also complex and illustrative of the intense conversation that they had during that tour out west – and are still having today. You can hear the melody flow and change course across the landscape in real time. The title itself suggests the beauty of chance, of the ear and the fingers and the fretboard capitalising on the moment; a parapraxis being, in psychological theory, “an error in speech, memory, or physical action that occurs due to the interference of an unconscious subdued wish or internal train of thought.”
Hear the way their guitars mesh and explore, each looking for a new way through, following each other yet pulling away, wishing for other paths opening up every second in the iterative harmonic constellation.
“Caddo Lake” has geographical roots, being a huge acre of water and bayou straddling the Texas-Louisiana border. It’s the Michael Chapman tune pushed right out into imaginational anthem. From the opening ring of string harmonics, it’s a beautiful, chiming and pastoral journey through open space, open tuning; it’s a hymn to the ringing string; feel the breeze of the lakeside air refashioned as sonics. Partway through it moves from intricate, fluid runs in a folk mode and takes on a blue note, before cycling back round into that resonant crispness. Eventually it dives in a dualled six-string interplay of breathtaking rapidity, understanding and harmony. It’ll take you a while to shake free of that colourful whirlwind of sound. In-tense.
The record’s centrepiece, we’re told, is “A White Rose for Mark,” a tribute to late fingerstyle guitarist, Kentucky’s Mark Fosson, who recorded some cracking sets for Takoma and Drag City, and with whom Cameron and Eli played his last concert before his death. Cameron lays the bedrock for Eli to roll harmonies out over. It was spontaneously composed and is plaintive, a befitting tribute to one of their own, the torch now passed.
We finish up with a live take, Cameron and Eli’s run at bluegrass legend Tut Taylor’s “Southern Filibuster,” recorded live on that west Texan tour. It’s rousing, rooted in its tradition, alive with slide, and a lovely chance to hear these two at play for those of us thousands of miles across the pond.
That Cameron and Eli bonded so deeply on that tour out beyond El Paso is a bit of a result, not just for them, as they entwine their art; but for us and music in general. We don’t get to hear quite enough of the modern fingerpicking style this side of the Atlantic, so if you’ve drifted off from the form somewhat since Jack Rose passed, or wish to explore beyond William Tyler; then hell; start right here.
A grand tour of two instruments and two musical minds woven together so tightly and also unravelling like fronds of a fern, seeking all the multiplicity of new directions in folk. An excellent record.
Cameron Knowler & Eli Winter’s Anticipation will be released by American Dreams records digitally and on CD and LP on March 12th; you can place your order right now over at Bandcamp.