In searching for the sounds and inspirations that define their work, many musical stylists revert to their roots – specifically, to the hometowns that served as literal as well as figurative starting points for their careers.
Tim Eriksen did exactly that for his new album, Josh Billings Voyage. But instead of retreating to a home village, he invented one.
The town he devised is called Pumpkintown. It possesses all the traditional intimacy of a New England community, which shouldn’t come as surprise given that the multi-instrumentalist and composer hails from Northampton, Mass. Similarity, the multicultural music emanating from Josh Billings Voyage – and, seemingly, Pumpkintown – should be equally expected. Eriksen is a musicologist versed in everything from sacred harp singing to the construction of generations-old ballads and dance tunes. Among his credits is participation in the T Bone Burnett-produced Cold Mountain soundtrack and the subsequent Great High Mountain Tour, which played Rupp Arena in 2004.
But what is this Pumpkintown? If Josh Billings Voyage is an indication, it exists as a melting pot where Celtic, German, African, Native American influences (and more) mingle. It might or might not be a product of New England, but Eriksen, percussionist Peter Irvine and fiddler Zoe Darrow – who collectively tour as the Trio de Pumpkintown – will bring the community’s stylistically expansive sound to Willie’s Locally Known on Friday night.
“It’s been really gratifying to see the audience response to a very personal take on traditional music based on this fictional village,” Eriksen said. “It’s kind of funny. In some ways, it seems that when Americans want to tell the truth, they have go to a fictional place, like Ichabod Crane or some other fictional character in American history. When we want to tell the truth, we go to this kind of imaginary village which is both New England and maybe an imaginary Southern village as well. I think they are united in this sense of an American village that doesn’t really exist but at the same time tells some truths that we can all relate to.
“I just decided – intuitively, I guess – that I wanted to be open to any kind of possible influence recognizing our country. But I wanted it to be in this fictional village – something that could be grounded in cultural fact, psychological fact and historical fact. So this village, Pumpkintown, which provides most of the music that is the basis of our repertoire, has a very deep multi-cultural background, from the kind of Anglo-Celtic-German-Native American-African context of its origin to more recent developments due to immigration from all over the world. It’s kind of a place like all of our villages, really. It has become so multi-dimensional. At the same time, it has this deep sense of history. But even at its very roots, it was multi-cultural before there was that term. The stuff that we all listen to, be it pop music, country or whatever, it’s all coming from a bunch of different sources.”
Perhaps the essential reason for a made-up land like Pumpkintown was to provide a means to represent and communicate the traditions of music that have continually fascinated Eriksen in a present-day context.
“Even in the work of trying to encourage traditional music, there is always this engagement with what’s happening now and with what people are thinking now. So all of this kind of experimental music I’m doing and the questioning I’m doing very much feeds into my interest and encouragement of traditional music-making.
“Everybody wants to be making music that’s alive even if their interest is in historical music. They want to be part of something that’s really happening. I think for people of all musical interests, there are elements of experimentation and exploration as well as elements of remembrance, learning and reverence for prior forms. It always has to make sense right now.”
Tim Eriksen and the Trio de Pumpkintown performs:
+ 12 noon April 11 at the Niles Gallery of the University of Kentucky’s Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center. Admission is free.
+ 7 p.m. April 11, also at the Niles Gallery, for a shape note singing workshop. Admission is free.
+ 7 pm April 12 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway with Ami Saraiya. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to Willieslex.com.