The Dead Tongues
When Ryan Gustafson finished recording Transmigration Blues, his fourth and best album under the name The Dead Tongues, in the summer of 2019, he slumped into a month-long haze of depression. For two decades, Gustafson—a preternaturally sensitive soul, interested in the mystic but grounded by his love of quiet woods and open deserts—had made many albums with various bands and under assorted guises. This one however, had left him wounded, momentarily empty. He couldn’t write songs, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for tapping into his emotions. Even the shows he played meant going through the motions. “The deeper wells of my being had run dry,” he remembers of how he felt when he returned to his mountain cabin, deep in a North Carolina holler. “There was just this big, open space.”
In the years since recording his 2018 breakthrough, Unsung Passage, Gustafson had built words and songs of intense emotional reckoning. He had wrestled with relationships that failed spectacularly. He had contemplated growing up in and then apart from a devoted religious household. He had surveyed the damage of living hard in his 20s, partying in the back of vans as he prowled the interstates of the United States, reckless and free.
Before any of the songs detailing these reckonings emerged, Gustafson had the title Transmigration Blues—a reference to the Buddhist concept of a dead body’s soul migrating into another host. For Gustafson, though, it also represents the “little deaths” we all experience as we grow and evolve, the lessons and fables (however indirect) we take with us as we molt and slip from an old skin into our next one. This baggage was daunting, Gustafson admits, but he’s better for having sorted through it, having pulled it from his body at last. “It took a while to come back from,” he says. “But I would rather walk out of the studio feeling that way instead of it just being another day at the office.”
Those thoughts—powerful personal reflections on his place in the world, tardy attempts to find meaning in the moments of life he thought he’d left behind—are the core of Transmigration Blues, an album that transmogrifies heavy emotional burdens into some of the most disarming folk-rock you’ll ever hear. From the graceful string-swept recollections of “Deep Water, Strange Wind” to the radiant calls and responses of “Bama Boys Circa 2005,” Gustafson drags past darkness into present light. Transmigration Blues gets to the idiosyncratic heart and unorthodox past of Gustafson, who lives the contemplative rural life about which many of his peers simply sing.
In the past, The Dead Tongues have been a pragmatically sparse project. All his adult life, Gustafson has been an itinerant sort, whether hitchhiking across the West or simply touring hard. His songs as The Dead Tongues tended toward elemental arrangements that could quickly be stripped onstage to their acoustic essence, should he need to perform them alone. But for more than a year, Gustafson has rented a century-old cabin on a 100-acre spread amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, writing songs in a little triangular greenhouse flooded by light.
This newfound stability, coupled with the wider audience that the tender but troubled Unsung Passage cultivated, allowed Gustafson’s imagination to wander, wondering what his decidedly intimate thoughts would sound like played by an all-star band of collaborators new and old. He invited some of his longtime companions from Chapel Hill’s fertile roots music scene, all of Mountain Man, and a drummer with a separate percussionist. For nine largely sleepless days living and working at North Carolina’s Fidelitorium, they gave these songs everything they had. “I had never had the experience of working like that,” says Gustafson. “It was really trying and completely rewarding, just a huge release.”
From its first notes, when organ and piano peal warmly beneath Gustafson’s strummed guitar, Transmigration Blues summons the sounds of friends supporting one of their own as he works through the annals of existence. Laced with sharp electric leads and a kaleidoscope of harmonies and hand drums, opener “Peaceful Ambassador” celebrates the lows, the highs, and the sense of salvation that singing about both can supply. He taps a surfeit of natural beauty for “Equinox Receiver”—the Badlands and the East River, green forests and golden fields—to show how we’re all suspended somewhere between despair and fulfillment, just trying to do our best with what we have. As his small studio choir joins him, you can imagine an endless audience, joining in this perfect ode to survival.
The album’s epic centerpiece is “Déjà Vu,” a song about trying to find the actual space and air to function with any kind of contentment in these increasingly harried times. It’s a gorgeous, candid confession about the odds we all face just to be happy. Gustafson and the band stretch out for seven minutes, returning for a reprise as if to remind us we’re all in this primitive quest together. “The sky is crowded/with a million lights just trying to get through a darkness/and find a way through,” Gustafson sings at the start of the second verse, his voice quiet from the exhaustion of just being. In the chorus, everyone sings together, lifting one another toward those lights.
The world has changed drastically since Gustafson wrote and recorded these songs—entropy, you may say, has found the freeway. In this stark moment of uncertainty, The Dead Tongues’ hymns to understanding your past and finding renewal in the changing seasons are more vital than Gustafson might have ever imagined. They feel like a homecoming for yourself, a farewell for all the guilt you’ve stockpiled. At a time when admitting that most of us are doing the very best we can seems revolutionary, Transmigration Blues is a welcome statement of radical acceptance.
Alexa Rose was born in the Alleghany Highlands of western Virginia, raised in the tiny railroad town of Clifton Forge. Though no one in her immediate family played or sang, she inherited a deep musical legacy.
“Growing up I would hear stories of my great-grandfather Alvie who, for a time, lived and played with [bluegrass great] Lester Flatt when they were both young men,” says Rose. “Apparently, Lester tried to get him to move to Nashville and pursue a career. But my great-grandfather decided to stay in the mountains with his wife on their farm.”
“There are so many musicians where I’m from, people who just play on their porch or in some local bar -- and they’re amazing. They don’t do it commercially, that’s not the essence of what they do. There’s a deep connection between their sense of place and the music they make. That’s what really inspires me about the musical culture in the South and the mountains, especially.”
That visceral connection is at the core of Rose’s debut album, Medicine for Living (Big Legal Mess, October 4th). A stunning ten-track effort, it finds the 25-year-old singer-songwriter bringing a wellspring of tradition to bear on an enlivening collection of contemporary roots songs.
A mostly self-taught musician, Rose picked up the guitar as a teen. “I always grew up with traditional mountain music in my ear and in my community, but I don’t think I actualized its influenced on me until I moved to North Carolina in 2013.” It was there, as a music major at Appalachian State University, that Rose was fully exposed to a wealth of old time music, regional stylists like Doc Watson, and most crucially, the ancient folk ballads carried over from the British Isles.
“Those traditional songs are presented in a stark way that preserves the stories. It’s all about the storytelling,” she says. “That really affected the way I started crafted my own songs and how I sang.”
Despite her studies, playing music was never a bloodless academic pursuit for Rose but rather a deeply intimate act. “I was a bedroom singer and songwriter. I didn’t perform out very much. Music was a very personal practice. I used it as something to come home to at the end of the day, and it always made me feel better. I don’t think I ever really considered it as a ‘career’ or had ambitions of performing – I was maybe like my great-grandfather in that way.”
But after graduating in 2016, Rose decided to take a leap, throwing herself into touring, playing as she explored the highways and byways of America. “I quit my job and started traveling and playing shows anywhere I could. That’s what I’ve done that the last three years. Going around that way – driving around in a beat-up van, earning very little money – you find yourself staying in truck stops, sleeping on people’s floors. You meet a lot of interesting folks that way. That experience informed the songs I’ve written.”
“In a way Medicine for Living is about all the lessons I’ve learned, of people and places that have shaped my worldview and my definitions of love and commitment. There’s a lot of tension between wanting to leave your home and go out into the world, and the roots that pull you back.”
Through her association with Tim Duffy – head of the non-profit Southern music preservation organization, Music Maker Relief Foundation -- Rose was brought to the attention of Big Legal Mess label head Bruce Watson. He signed Rose and brought her to his Memphis home base to cut her full-length debut. “This album is Appalachia-meets-Memphis,” says Rose. “The stories and inspiration emanate from the mountains, but the tracks have all these different musical elements coming in.”
Recorded at Watson’s Delta-Sonic Studio, Rose is backed by a crew of Bluff City all-stars including a core band led by legendary guitarist Will Sexton, drummer George Sluppick and bassist Mark Edgar Stuart, with guests including organists Rick Steff (Lucero) and Al Gamble (St. Paul & The Broken Bones), among others.
“The funny thing was I hadn’t met any of them at all before we started recording,” says Rose. “You know, playing your songs for someone in a studio is like getting naked in front of them; it’s a very personal thing to do. But when you play music together, you skip all the normal steps of a relationship immediately go to this really close place with people.”
Album co-producers Watson and Clay Jones (Modest Mouse, Buddy Guy) decided to keep the sessions feeling as fresh and immediate as possible. “None of the musicians had heard any of the songs or even heard me before we started. Bruce really wanted to capture their gut response to the music,” says Rose. “What came out of that was really cool – the songs moved and took shape in totally new and different ways. We sorta let the songs be like taffy – we let them get stretched and pulled however they want to get shaped.”
In an era where the term Americana has lost much of its meaning Medicine for Living is just that: a fully realized, multi-layered merger of old country music, traditional folk songs, colored by rock and roll and mountain soul. “There’s a lot of people I’m influenced by that show up in the songs in different ways,” says Rose. “Whether it’s Gillian Welch or John Prine or Townes Van Zandt or Alynda Segarra from Hurray for the Riff Raff.”
Although the material spans a five-year period of Rose’s writing, Medicine for Living ultimately works as a unified song cycle. “The theme of the album is the commonality of sorrow in the human experience,” she says. “I find a lot of beauty in everyday life. How we look upon the small things, and how we handle those larger obstacles that stand in our way.”
“Some of the songs are about being in a dark hole that life puts you in, and some of them are about pulling yourself out of that rut. It’s about that journey and how we nurse ourselves through it. And how love, ultimately, is the best medicine.”
Event Venue & Nearby Stays
The Evening Muse, 3227 N Davidson St, Charlotte, United States
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