Guitarist Shane Parish had no intention of making an album when he sat down at the foot of his bed one night and recorded 14 Appalachian folk songs. “I had sheet music, but I was loosely improvising on them with no effort whatsoever,” he says. When he listened back, he liked the result. “It was almost like I’d let go, because I’d worked so hard for 25 years to improve my playing, improve my music concept and fine-tune everything. There was this moment of interpreting this music with all that prior preparation.” That preparation includes more than a decade as half of Ahleuchatistas (with drummer Ryan Oslance) as well as solo recordings and collaborations with fellow guitarist Tashi Dorji, experimental percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and others.
Parish sent the bedroom recording out to a number of people, including composer and producer John Zorn. It was Zorn who immediately suggested the project — which he called “radical traditionalism” — be recorded in a studio and released on his Tzadik Records label.
“Originally the theme was death and judgment,” says Parish of the album that would become Undertaker Please Drive Slow. He’ll release it with a show at The Grey Eagle on Sunday, Nov. 27.
Parish brought in producer David Allen, who helmed the last Ahleuchatistas album, and they recorded over two days in Marshall — appropriate, considering the songs’ Appalachian roots.
The name of the collection is taken from a line in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” one of the 15 final tracks. Only two or three of the original 14 made the cut after Parish spent six months researching and transcribing additional folk songs. Tracks include a sparse and haunting rendition of Claude Ely’s gospel song, “Ain’t No Grave”; a tender and dusky “Danville Girl” that seems to cull the airy sweetness from the banjo-led version by Dock Boggs; and a chilling reworking of “Katie Cruel,” a folk song said to date to the Revolutionary War era.
All 15 tracks are in a different tuning “because the guitar resonates if the open strings can be played, and there’s only a handful of keys that the guitar is meant to play, in my controversial opinion,” Parish says. “I didn’t want to go and record a floaty improv album based on this music, so after I transcribed [the songs] and arranged it for guitar, I got comfortable in the tunings and with the arrangements enough to where I could improvise with them. There are these raw materials, and they’re different for every song.”
Zorn suggested “Oh Death” (also by Boggs) and “Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson. Parish says that while some of the album’s choices were new to him, he’d loved the song “Last Kind Words” for years. But when he sat down to make the record, he reworked it in a John Cage-style arrangement with slide guitar at the end.
“Oh Death” is also the subject of the album’s first video, set to scenes — shot by Parish’s wife, Courtney Chappell — of Parish and their daughter in a pumpkin patch. That rendering, he says, is fairly conventional, though it was arranged “the way John Heard or Elizabeth Cotton would play something like that, because I’ve studied both of them.”
Parish adds, “But there are other things in the album that I feel come from the classical guitar perspective or Brazilian guitar or jazz or free-improv. … I thought it would be really boring if the whole album was totally abstract, so there’s actually some more traditional country blues vibe on a couple of tunes.”
Though the guitarist is schooled in many styles, “I felt like there was a moment of arrival, as far as my voice and playing was concerned, [when] I felt completely in my own element.” He wasn’t striving to emulate a particular player. Years of improvising also informed the project — “maintaining composure, equanimity and the ability to react to what happens … is this whole album in terms of performance strategy,” he says.
The release show will include Parish’s other projects and collaborators (including a set of a few songs each with Dorji, Library of Babel — a trio with Emmalee Hunnicutt and Frank Meadows — and Ahleuchatistas) as well as a performance of the songs from the new album.
And — at the Tatsuya Nakatani and Makoto Kawabata Duo show at The Mothlight on Friday, Nov. 25 — Parish’s project, A Few More Days (with Michael Libramento on drums), will perform free-jazz electric versions of the music from Undertaker Please Drive Slow.
“This is actually my fourth record release of the year. It’s kind of the capstone,” Parish says. Others were by Library of Babel and his duo with Dorji, both on labels from London; and a cassette with the drummer Frank Rosaly.
“Those were all acoustic guitar albums,” Parish notes, before making the understatement of the decade: “It’s been a productive year, I guess.”
WHO: Shane Parish releases Undertaker Please Drive Slow with Shane Parish & Tashi Dorji (guitar duo), Library of Babel and Ahleuchatistas
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 27, 7 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show