The 19th-century folk song “Arkansas Traveler” is as much a part of the Southern landscape as kudzu, red mud, and humidity. Its melody, which has been borrowed by everyone from Charles Ives to Raffi, is simple and playful; you can picture someone playing it on a banjo in a Les Blank movie as easily as you can imagine hearing it spilling from an ice-cream truck’s speakers. Where some songs of its era command a gravitas that makes them feel brittle as parchment, “Arkansas Traveler” can be pulled like taffy in a Gatlinburg candy store window. Some might call it kitsch. But judging by the way they play it on their debut album, Salmon Graveyard see “Arkansas Traveler” the same way John Coltrane saw syrupy tunes by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer or Rodgers and Hammerstein: as a high-art gem that just needs a little polish.
Salmon Graveyard is the project of guitarist and electric mandolinist Corey Thuro, a regular in the Baltimore and D.C. improvised music scenes who has collaborated with Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt, among others. The music he and his band play is, in a sense, a countrified form of raga, long improvisations over phrases that repeat relentlessly. Drones have figured in American folk music for centuries—you can probably follow the hum of an open-string fiddle back to the Highlands bagpipe—and artists like Henry Flynt and Pelt have long used bluegrass instruments to make stridently, uncomfortably avant-garde music that’s still recognizably within the lineage of Bill Monroe or the Carters. While Salmon Graveyard are willing to take their explorations to challenging places, the plucky swirl of John Hoegberg’s pedal steel and the nonstop march of Jonah Guiliano’s snare give their music a glossy cosmopolitan feel that has more in common with Western swing. Think of it as Bob Wills gone free jazz.
That approach makes Salmon Graveyard unique in their musical realm: They are fun and easy to listen to. You can dance to them. Thuro’s distorted mandolin and Alani Sugar’s electrified violin wrap and tangle in “Arkansas Traveler,” squeezing the song so hard Hoegberg starts picking his bass like he’s playing hardcore, drawing out harmonics, playfully trying to push the song back open. It’s sprightly in a somewhat neurotic way, like it’s been up for two days, all black coffee and trucker speed. “Peak Bottom,” meanwhile, kicks off the 26-minute two-part composition that forms the center of the album with a long, slow whistle from Hoegberg’s pedal steel, the sound of a bomb dropping in a mid-century cartoon.
“Peak Bottom” and its companion track, “Salmon Graveyard,” are built around a single brief repeating phrase played by Thuro and Sugar. It’s an asymmetrical curlicue reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” that in a very short period of time manages to push and yank and finally resolve; it is also, in its gulping and hee-hawing and two-stepping, very funny. Turo and Sugar play it like they’re chasing chickens around a barnyard, full of cheek and light sarcasm. While both musicians tug apart and take solos of their own—Turo’s in particular edging toward the cosmic picking of Chris Forsyth—the piece is a showcase for Hoegberg, on both bass and pedal steel. On the former, he slurs and slides, sometimes sounding like he thinks he’s playing a fiddle and sometimes like he thinks he’s Fugazi’s Joe Lally. He plays his pedal steel with sparkle and twinkle, but he also lets it melt into a gooey mess of reverb and sustain. When the band regroups after a long period of deconstruction, he calls everyone back to the dance floor with a pinging harmonic and a train-whistle slide. He is probably the only pedal-steel player in history whose playing can credibly be called “angular.”
You can dip in and out of “Peak Bottom”/“Salmon Graveyard” and feel like you’re encountering several different bands. The good cheer and ticklish approach to Western swing recalls ’90s semi-ironists BR5-49 or Austin stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel. Catch them once they’ve started to slow down and they play with the heartbroken cornpone lope of Hank Williams. At a dead standstill, with Hoegberg plucking his bass and Sugar droning on her violin, you can picture Brian Eno carefully placing a spittoon in the corner of his German studio. You might hear Tortoise in the pulse of Giuliano’s rimshots. At one point late in the piece, Thuro pulls away from the theme and makes his mandolin shriek like Joey Santiago’s guitar in Pixies’ “Vamos.”
Remarkably, this never stops feeling like country music, even at its freest. Maybe it’s the way the perpetual one-two strike of Giuliano’s snare makes it sound like they’re vamping for time in an oversold beerhall, or the way the album’s democratic mix keeps the mandolin from taking over and pushing us into guitar-wonk territory, but Salmon Graveyard never feels as though its rusticity is something to be overcome. They may borrow an organizing principle from free improv, but Salmon Graveyard don’t have to look too far past country music’s borders to find new vistas; they’re already hypnotized by its past.