Nathan Salsburg’s “Third”: Both New and Inevitable

I have to confess: I have a soft spot for solo acoustic guitar. Not that I’m embarrassed about that exactly. It’s more that hearing it can still stir up my untested teen dreams of being that guy, the one who can pick up and play the guitar flawlessly, with silent reserve and perfect hair, as if his (my!) talent weren’t the result of thousands of hours of patience and practice but simply the purest expression of my deep and mysterious soul. This probably explains why I don’t play any instruments at all.

There’s something different, though, about Nathan Salsburg’s music – the piercingly sweet melodies that sound both new and inevitable, or the nimble command of his playing, or the balance he strikes in his music between virtuosity and feeling. Whatever it is, all I know is that his album Third, released in 2018, revives all of my foolish musicianship fantasies and lays them to rest at the same time.

There’s not a dud on the record, nothing that’s ever less than thoughtful or moving or surprising. There’s also a quality of timelessness, as if the freshness of songwriting – the exploration of what a new song might be, discovered in the moments of just playing around, as I imagine it – has been preserved in the recording process. Favorites are nearly impossible to pick, but if pressed, I’d have to say that “B.B.” (the “chorus” puts me in mind of some of Joni Mitchell’s playing on Ladies of the Canyon), “Ruby’s Freilach/Low Spirits,” and “Walls of the World” always make me pause in whatever I’m doing and dig in. But “Timoney’s” and “Impossible Air” and “Exilic Excursions” do the same thing too. All are graced with lovely melodies expressed in fluid, intricate fingerwork. In fact, there’s great sweetness throughout the whole album yet Salsburg deftly avoids slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia for its own sake. He mines many traditions yet never becomes mired in any of them.

I’ve been listening to this album steadily for months now and have yet to grow tired of it. It really is kind of shocking to me how good and deep and satisfying it is.

B.B. – Nathan Salsburg

Third is – no spoiler here – Salsburg’s third album, and I also strongly recommend his first two: Affirmed (named after the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1978) from 2011, and 2013’s Hard For to Win And Can’t Be Won, a title that could’ve come from Samuel Beckett if he’d been born your grim southern grandpa. Salsburg has also recorded two captivating albums with James Elkington, Avos (available on iTunes) and Ambsace. Not surprisingly, both are on a par with his solo work. Check out their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” from Ambsace. It is heart-stopping.

Fleurette Africaine – Nathan Salsburg & James Elkington

Salsburg has a dayjob as a curator at the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. I mention that because it takes me back to ideas of exposure and influence. For all of the various DNA strands in Salsburg’s music that inform and shape his sound – some British folk here, some “American Primitive” there, the foundational bedrock of American blues and jazz underpinning it all – the end result is still unique. He’s got his own thing; no small feat.

So yeah, I love this guy. As for those daydreams about being that guy, it’s enough for me to simply love this music without having to measure any version of myself, real or imaginary, against it. Only took me most of my life to get there, but better late than never.