Pairing Tom Brosseau with Modern Art

TBThe last time I went to an art museum by myself was probably never. I can recall middle school field trips, romantic dates on Sunday afternoons, and slouching through exhibitions in pack formation with my kids who were neither bored nor overly enchanted. With the youngest now off to college and my empty nest being the new norm, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on a hot summer night seemed in order.

Times have changed since my being-dragged-to-the-art-museum days, and I hadn’t anticipated a sea of selfie-stick-wielding tourists more interested in taking pictures than looking at them. For my part, it felt right to detach aurally by pumping Tom Brosseau’s music into my ears on a continuous loop, as soon as I walked through the door.

I’ve always suspected that I don’t behave properly at museums. Some people stand in front of a painting for what seems like an ungodly amount of time, staring at it until their eyeballs slither over their cheeks and onto the floor. Others like to read the little cards that have the name of the artist listed, when and where they were born and died, the name of the artwork and what they used to create it (“olive oil and burnt sienna sage on bleached linen with Albanian mud, lamb’s wool, and distilled gin”).

I, meawnhile, prefer a method of migratory motion and furtive glances, and Brosseau provided me with a soundtrack that served to enhance the visual experience by adding thoughtful lyricism, unexpected chord and rhythmic transitions, and shimmering under-production, all around a single microphone.

If you don’t know Brosseau, you should know that neither did I until I saw him at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, performing in a variety of configurations. He is a mainstay of John Reilly and Friends, which usually includes Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond on vocals and a bunch of other folks who slip in and out as they are able. At the Watkins Family Hour post-festival show, he performed solo and also did a few songs with Reilly. At some point Sean and Sara Watkins made it a quartet.

Looking in the window from far across the continent, I’m imagining that there is a strong alliance between both of the Friends and Family collectives with a cadre of Los Angeles-based players that appear on each other’s albums, perform together at shows, sing each other’s songs, are tapped into the art and film circles, and telegraph dotted lines of connectivity to other like-minded musical communities throughout the globe.

Brosseau is a California transplant originally from North Dakota, and trying to pin down an accurate discography proves to be a challenge. A friend has provided me with a make-believe digital box full of uncredited songs that come from several sources. There’s the Les Shelleys album on FatCat Records with partner Angela Correa, Brousseau’s seven-inch single of Delmore Brothers’ tunes with Reilly, the Grand Forks project produced by Gregory Page and John Doe, featuring Hilary Hahn on vocals, and his solo Grass Punks albumwhich Sean Watkins produced. I suppose I could leave you with lots of links, but I think it’s much more fulfilling to strike out on your own as if panning for gold.

Listening to Perfect Abandon while letting my eyes wander over a disconnected collection of modern artwork by artists ranging from Yoko Ono to Andy Warhol, turned out to be a perfect union. This is music rooted in the traditional, yet pushed beyond the borders to allow something new to bubble up. With Brosseau’s album, my ears heard the footfalls of both Woody Guthrie and Lou Reed; the lone prairie met the metropolis. It was a wonderful choice for the evening and, by any measure, it was a most excellent pairing.

This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.