THE NORTH COUNTRY PRIMER # 3: WILLIAM CSORBA, HOUSTON, TX
Originally published at North Country Primitive in March 2015
Here we are with another edition of the North Country Primer. This time it’s the turn of Texan guitarist, William Csorba, whose recent album, The Bear Creek Child Cemetery, has been getting a lot of ear time here at North Country Primitive. Our thanks go out to William for his illuminating responses to our not always illuminating questions…
Tell us a bit about yourself and the musical journey that took you to a place where you concluded that playing an acoustic guitar on your own was a good idea… Well, for the most part, playing music by myself is the only way I’ve ever played music. I grew up largely on the country music I heard from my mom as a kid. My family has really deep Texas roots on my mom’s side, going back to the time when Texas was an independent nation. I’ve always been really aware of and fascinated by that sort of thing and I think my taste in music has been influenced similarly. I listened to a lot of Texas country music early on - guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings and Guy Clark, along with many of the greats of classic country music - Hank Williams above all, of course. So I guess a lot of the music I’ve been drawn to tends towards being a solo affair. The great Texan songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, was a pretty close relative of mine, even though I never had the opportunity to know him - I would have been very young at the time of his passing. It’s kind of funny, actually - I remember growing up and hearing that I had a cousin who “wrote songs for Willie Nelson,” which was simply based on the fact that Willie had done a rather popular cover of Pancho and Lefty and that Townes had never had the commercial success that some of those dudes enjoyed. First hearing some of Townes’ recordings years later was a rather momentous event for me. I was really blown away by them and I guess knowing that I had a connection with him by blood only heightened the profundity of his music for me. To me, he should be remembered not only as a master songwriter, but really as a substantial American poet. I first picked up a guitar pretty much because I wanted to play some of his songs - as well as some Hank Williams songs. I soon recognised that I wasn’t that interested in singing, especially since I didn’t seem to have much of a talent for it. Anyway, through Townes I encountered the hometown blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, who he cited as a big influence, which led me to the world of pre-war blues and hillbilly music. This became something of an obsession around the time I went to college six years back. While I was at school out in New Mexico, I fell in with a group of friends who were real into old blues and old-time music. My roommate and good friend that first year, a guy named Michael Laudenbach, played fingerstyle guitar quite well and I made him teach me some of the basics of that kind of playing, with tunes picked up from Elizabeth Cotton, the Carter Family and some other similar stuff. He also introduced me to John Fahey, who, as it must surely come as no surprise, was my inspiration for getting pretty serious about music and on whom I felt compelled to model an approach to begin trying to make some music of my own. To me, Fahey is in many ways the consummate American artist. Aside from the particulars of his work and aesthetic, the most important and compelling significance for me lies in borrowing a method from him as a starting point for a way of doing serious music. In other words, the really decisive thing I got from Fahey was a novel philosophy for composing and art-making in general. This philosophy resonated strongly with me in so many ways, although it was of course the music itself that first got my attention. I wouldn’t even say that the guitar - specifically the solo guitar format he championed - was an absolutely essential element of what I interpret to be his artistic philosophy, but I would definitely say that it undoubtedly fits into it and cultivates this approach better than anything else I can come up with. And since I was already somewhat under the spell of the instrument, it seemed to be a pretty obvious direction for me to go in. What has influenced your music and why? As far as strictly musical influences go, in addition to the spectrum of stuff I’ve already suggested, I’ve always been pretty hugely into classical music - or formal music, if you like - more or less of all kinds and from all periods. There was a fantastic class I took in college, which I can best describe as a sort of survey of Western music. It was far more than simply an overviewt really allowed me to work out a lot of my thoughts and feelings about music and to grow significantly in the art of listening, which I feel to be one of the most important things for becoming a good musician. So, I have definitely gotten a lot of inspiration from many of the classical composers and also from some of the older traditions that play into the Western musical tradition. Perhaps my most important and primal musical influence is the church and sacred music. For me, this originally comes from having been brought up in the southern Baptist Church. Probably the greatest virtue of the southern Baptist denomination is in its hymnal, which is largely composed of strongly American-feeling melodies, mostly from the latter half of the 19th century. This differs from some of the other denominations that preserve and emphasise a lot more an older generation of hymns originating from Europe. My very strong, unhappy reaction to the disaster of the crappy contemporary worship music that was beginning to replace the traditional hymns sung in church while I was growing up is probably worth mentioning as well. Different kinds of world music have also definitely been a big interest for some time, especially after encountering the sounds of India when a friend and I spent a good bit time over there after graduating from high school. I like and listen to a lot of other kinds of music, but it’s hard to say what has really had an actual influence on the music I’ve been making, but there are probably many little bits of things from all over the place that come into it, if you know what I mean. Speaking more generally, I actually came to understand music as something I wanted to do by way of my studies in philosophy and literature. At an even more basic level, I’d say that music has come to occupy a place for me previously chiefly held by more explicitly religious concerns. My relationship to music definitely has a strong religious dimension, which I would say is right at the centre of what I’m trying to do with it. To put it more concretely, a lot what inspires me often comes from a desire, or maybe a need, to express various reflections on personal history, particular places and landscapes that have stuck with me and the diverse emotional states that make up the inner life. In addition to sometimes just going off of a kernel of what I’m feeling at a particular time, simply, I often try to write music while holding in mind certain mental images or memories - sometimes including, for instance, a feeling for the earth itself in a place I’ve been before, if that makes any sense. You know, like nature and stuff, although I’m not confident that’s quite my meaning exactly. I think what I’m trying to get at comes through most perspicuously in the first recording efforts I made last summer with an album I called The Bear Creek Child Cemetery, which is probably why it’s still my favorite thing I’ve made so far. What have you been up to recently? Well, I’m still in school, so I’m doing that stuff. But mostly my real preoccupation these days is, as much as possible, with the music - trying to write music and get better at composing. I’m also just starting to play out in public some lately, which is a lot of fun and pretty challenging. What are you listening to right now, old or new? Any recommendations you’d like to share with us? The first thing that comes to mind right now is that guy Abner Jay, who I listen to quite a lot. If you’re not familiar with him you got to check it out. The dude was a genius, and I don’t say that easily. I feel like he deserves a lot more recognition than he has probably gotten. I’ve got a CD in my car right now of some of Bartok’s piano music, which is pretty great. I’ve also been on a bit of a Brahms kick recently: the violin concerto, which is pretty new to me, but also the piano concertos and symphonies, which I’ve always really dug - especially the 3rd. I always have a healthy dose of old-time music going on at any given time. I guess that’s just like an essential nutrient or something at this point. I’ve been listening a bunch to this clawhammer banjo album by a guy I knew from New Mexico named Ariel Winnick. He’s a fantastic player. The album’s called Glory Beams and can be found on the web. I’d definitely recommend it, especially to folks already into old-time music and such. I should also mention that I’ve been checking out a lot of other the guitarists who I’ve been finding out about since I started trying to get my music out there over the past several months. I had no idea how many great players there are out there nowadays doing this kind of thing. Specifically, just to name a couple things I’ve come upon recently, I really like Chuck Johnson’s album Crows in the Basilica, which I’ve been listening to a lot. I’ve also got to mention that dude Daniel Bachman. I was super impressed by him when I first heard him sometime this past year and it still hasn’t worn off a bit - his playing really resonates with me. But yeah, it’s been really fun and, I guess, encouraging in a way, to check out all these similarly-minded musicians that are now coming to my attention. Oh, and because I just thought of it, that Irish guy Cian Nugent. The other day I listened to a pair of his pieces called Grass Above My Head and My War Blues. I really enjoyed those a lot. The guitar nerd bit: what guitars do you play and what do you like about them? Is there anything out there you’re coveting? I am honestly pretty ignorant when it comes to guitars and whatnot. I play a Johnson guitar, OM size, I think, which I bought off a friend a few years back. It’s not a particularly nice instrument or anything, but it works good and I like it a lot. It’s got a nice, pretty wide fretboard and the neck has a sort of v-shaped cut, which I really like the feel of. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten real comfortable with the thing. I like the size of it too. I’m not sure I’m really coveting anything, maybe just because I am not particularly aware of what’s out there, but I would really like to have one of those big, loud Martin Dreadnoughts one day. I’ve played some of those before and they felt and sounded really great. Banjos: yes or no? Oh yes. Personally, I love the banjo. As I actually already mentioned, when I lived in New Mexico there was a really great clawhammer player named Ariel Winnick at my school and I was just totally mesmerized by his playing. It made such an impression on me that I felt that I had to learn how to do it, so I began to pick it up. I still fool around and play fiddle tunes and stuff on the thing all the time. I’ve also always been a huge sucker for that classic hard-driving bluegrass banjo sound. There’s something marvelous about that relentless, cascading sound you get in really good Scruggs-style picking. I really could go on and on about banjos. They’re weird and American and really very attractive to me all round. What’s that Mark Twain quote about banjos? Something about smashing pianos and taking up instead the “glory beaming banjo.” What are you planning to do next? Well, I want to try to make another solo guitar record in the near future, but I want to try to take more time with it than I have with most of my releases so far. I feel like I want to work more deliberately on some much more fine-tuned composition. I also want to get better production values with the recording and get it sounding real nice. I’ve also been trying to start playing publicly a lot more and give that a shot. This means that I’m trying to pull together a more fully worked out repertoire of my songs - most of the stuff I’ve written and recorded over the past while, I haven’t really committed to memory. Oh, and I’ve actually been trying to work out some music to play with another musician I know, which is a lot fun and different for me. What should we have asked you and didn’t? Hmm… I don’t know. These have been very good, wide-ranging questions that have allowed me to talk about a lot of things that I like to talk about. I really appreciate the opportunity to reflect on these topics and share some of my thoughts. And forgive me if I went on and on a bit much - it’s hard to keep it brief when responding to questions like these.
You can find more of William Csorba’s music at his Bandcamp page.