There is a unity expressed in musician Cian Nugent’s work beyond the ruminations of one man’s guitar. But hearing snatches of his recordings, it’d be easy to attribute various tracks to as many different performers. “I don’t mean to become stylistically incoherent,” he said by phone from his native Dublin. “I just got to keep it fresh for myself.”
A persistent feeling oscillates through each movement of his compositions. It’s an unimpeachable vibe that evokes what driving around rural Virginia should sound like. Nugent’s tied to this place—not from having been here in the past, but through the company he’s kept over the years.
“Jack a few years ago was always really nice,” Nugent said of the late Jack Rose, a Fredericksburg-born guitarist, accepted in some circles as the latest generation’s finger-picking figurehead. “And that’s how I hooked up with VHF Records…and Mike [Gangloff] and Nathan [Bowles] from the Black Twig Pickers. We all got on well.”
The VHF imprint, based in Fairfax Station and run by Bill Kellum, tracks back to the early ’90s and has a history of issuing work derived from the folk vernacular, while insinuating a range of avant styles. Blacksburg’s Twig Pickers are a reasonably traditional acoustic group, but the players have been involved in the Spiral Joy Band, as well as the better-known drone ensemble Pelt, which included Rose prior to his December 2009 death.
Encountering some well-respected performers from the Old Dominion wasn’t Nugent’s first exposure to acoustic music from rural America. “I first heard [Buell Kazee’s ‘Wagoner’s Lad’] on The Anthology of American Folk Music,” he said of a song included on his a 2009 live album, Childhood, Christian Lies & Slaughter. “I had a friend Danny, who was from Georgia…he had loads of CDs he got in America. And he had the anthology.”
Kazee’s recording comes out of an Irish folk tradition—just like a good deal of music associated with Virginia. Of course, it’s all the same thing, jiggered together for future generations to repeat, each one adding a subtle, personalized imprimatur.
Nugent recollects hearing a Bert Jansch version of “Wagoner’s Lad,” too. “He’s sort of a Scottish and Irish singer, so it all kind of mixes in. You can trace it back to Ireland, but I heard it first as an American song,” Nugent said. “It’s probably similar to Virginia. There could be a whole bunch of Virginia fiddle tunes you’ve never heard.”
Nugent’s proclivities swing in a folksy direction, using traditional instrumentation and simple melodic concepts to propel his imagination—that’s how his album, Doubles, released on VHF in 2011, spins off a pair of 20-minute compositions with the help of a droning keyboard and a bit of rock ensemble accompaniment.
The three proper albums Nugent has issued have moved from a solo guitar treatment, to one with a bit of added instrumentation and an occasional full band, to his most recent, which utilizes supplemental players for most of its duration. “You go through phases with these things. You get fed up with playing solo all the time,” he said. “I started playing out with a few different bands, which I’m enjoying, and fleshed out my own solo guitar thing into a band.”
He’s also playing in Desert Heat along with guitarist Steve Gunn, whom Nugent met during his first trip through the U.S. and subsequently toured Europe with, and drummer John Truscinski.
A YouTube video of Desert Heat’s first performance features a more dominant Gunn, as Nugent sticks to rhythmic statements. The entire thing being impromptu, it captures a distinctly different way of performing than on Nugent’s recordings. “We ended up playing at a bowling alley,” said Nugent. “We showed up, and Eternal Tapestry was playing. We were supposed to follow them, and I remember thinking, ‘Fuckin’ hell, this is gonna be terrifying.’ We had no songs, we weren’t prepared. So, we just got really drunk and went for it.”
Themes they’d jammed on before were the only guides. It all sounds cohesive, if not a bit loose. Strands of Nugent’s style are evident, sitting somewhere between what he’d work up in a vacuum and his more bucolic work as represented on Born with a Caul, the guitarist’s most recent effort. Over three extended tracks, the 2013 album relies on contributions from a variety of players, none of which will be accompanying him on tour.
“The first two, those kind of existed as solo guitar songs before there was the band treatment,” Nugent said of his latest release. “I can kind of put them back into the solo guitar thing—they work both ways. The third one, we kind of came up with that one as a band. And the guitar part isn’t really an autonomous piece.”
It’s an odd endeavor, taking ensemble work that’s helped the guitarist gain peak visibility and reducing it to its essential parts. But Nugent is not surprised that the music is collecting fans across the globe, despite being released in relatively low runs. A bit of chance is likely a part of it, though. “Maybe there’s some celestial convergence in what we’re all doing,” he said.
Cian Nugent performs at The Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on February 21.
~ Dave Cantor