A little like Longfellow

The Tallest Man On Earth stands less than six-feet-tall, was born in Sweden and writes contemporary/American folk-inspired songs better than many of the snap-shirt wearing dudes from the States. He's a one-man-show, playing acoustic guitar and singing with a voice big enough to feed the canyon's mouth. How does a guy from Sweden do this, you might ask?

Beyond the Dylan Comparison: Kristian Matsson's music goes grave digging with Son House and Dave Von Ronk.

Simple: He's got the songs, he's got the playing chops and he's got the performance. And these three things have landed him on tour with indie-favorites Bon Iver (2008) and John Vanderslice (2009).

You may be wondering where the name "The Tallest Man On Earth" comes from. It is the moniker for singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson, and has nothing to do with Bao Xishun, the tallest living man at seven feet, nine inches.

When Xpress spoke to Matsson from his rural Swedish home, about the name he says, "I was reading a lot of Longfellow at the time." That answer led us to look up Longfellow on Wikipedia, where one entry reads, "Longfellow predominately wrote lyric poems, which are known for their musicality, and which often presented stories of mythology and legend."

Matsson's lyrics read much the same way. In the song "Thousand Ways," on his new album The Wild Hunt, he writes, "Oh, I have lived for ages, I'm a thousand turns of tides / I'm a thousand wakes of springtime and thousand infant cries. Oh, a thousand infant cries." His words have their own rhythm and meter and could stand alone as poems. When asked about this, Mattson says "When I write sometimes it fits a poem, or fits a song, or fits the trash bin. Sometimes for songs, you have to put yourself in the position where it becomes a song."

The Tallest Man On Earth is also one of the finest finger-picking guitar players on earth. Five out of the 10 tracks on The Wild Hunt feature nimble, dead-on, country-blues-influenced guitar playing. In these tunes, you can hear the ghosts of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. His list of influences reads like a section from the Anthology of American Folk Music.  Matsson's voice perked up when I told him that one of his influences, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was from the area.

But the music that informs his own does not just reside on reissues of old 78 RPM records. When speaking of musical influences, Matsson tells Xpress, "When I was 15, I discovered folk music and songs about hobos, and I love that music. But contemporary music hits the same way for me. I listen to lots of contemporary music." In the same list you will find Feist, Nick Drake, The Velvet Underground and yes, Bob Dylan.

Ah, the curse or compliment that comes with being a good singer/songwriter/guitar-playing guy — the Dylan Comparison. It's a fair comparison. Mattson writes great songs that are played on acoustic guitar, and some have a folk-bent to them. But when you really dig in and listen, his music goes grave digging between Son House and Dave Von Ronk, and rides shotgun with Neil Young. 

Mattson's voice is of now, sounds stingingly raw, and is an original new voice. Still, it was inevitable that we talked about Dylan. "Of course we talk about Dylan. I listen to lots of Bob Dylan. But you know, the comparisons drop at shows when people are having a good time."

Matsson has his way with the Dylan tag. By the time the listener gets half way through The Wild Hunt, he or she has probably already heard a bit of Bob in the music. Track six is titled "King Of Spain" and the third verse starts with, "and I'll wear my boots of Spanish leather." Matsson acknowledges the height of the influence by throwing in that line. "You know, King Of Spain is just another love song. It's actually a sad sad song. But you know, I've got to have my fun, too," he says. He plays the trickster — sending the listener one way, while holding on to the real story in his heart.

The Tallest Man On Earth sold out his Asheville show over a month ahead of time, and a second earlier show has been added. In the song, "The Wild Hunt" TTMOE sings, "And I plan to be forgotten when I'm gone." I don't think this will be the case when Mr. Matsson heads out of town.

[Brian McGee fronts Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed and can be reached at mcgeehollowspeed@yahoo.com.]

who: Tallest Man on Earth
what: Folk music
where: Forsythia Hall

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