Nathan Salsburg and James Elkington play the Marble Bar on Oct. 30 

From the hills of old Kentucky

Last month, Nathan Salsburg and James Elkington released their second album of sweet acoustic guitar duets. It's called Ambsace, it absolutely rules, and it's out on Paradise of Bachelors. When you go to see superb guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Gunn perform at the Marble Bar on Friday, Oct. 30, get there extra early in order to catch Salsburg and Elkington duet. We spoke with Salsburg via email in advance of the show.

Metro Times: How did you get started playing this kind of music you play?

Nathan Salsburg: My dad was a folkie and played me to sleep with songs like "Goodnight Irene," "Donna Donna," and "Railroad Bill." He was a passable acoustic guitarist and when I started going to summer camp at the age of 10, I learned a few chords and started to follow in his footsteps as a passable guitarist. 

MT: So how did you meet this Elkington guy, and what's the process like of collaborating with him?

Salsburg: Jim is married to my oldest friend, who I've known since we were 5-year-olds at Hebrew school in Louisville. We started playing together about 2009, when we started fooling with some guitar demos he put together in his spare time. Those turned into a record called Avos that Tompkins Square put out in 2011. We had so much fun with that, and pushed each other in such satisfying ways, that we wanted to do another.

This time, it was more equal compositionally. He'd email me parts and I'd add things on. When I came to do some tracking at his attic studio in Chicago, we just churned stuff out over coffee and beers and that was Ambsace. We have a hoot together no matter what we're doing, so touring should be much the same. We're a lot alike, though —both slightly anxious dudes — and just got pulled over in Ohio: Jim was driving sensibly within the speed limit when he saw a cop, but in his anxiety starting almost immediately driving so erratically that the cop pulled us over just to make sure we were "awake enough to drive."

MT: Do you have melodies invade your brain or do your songs come from playing, or what?

Salsburg: No melody has ever come into my head that I have yet been able to effectively translate to performance. I've had to play my way to everything I've ever written, which is why I don't do nearly as much writing as I'd like to. 

MT: Do you still have the same day job as curator at the Alan Lomax Archive? What have you been working on of late?

Salsburg: I do. It's been 15 years this month that I've been thus employed. Just last week we launched, in partnership with the American Folklife Center and two Kentucky universities, a website devoted to the 70 hours of recordings made in Eastern Kentucky by John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, Alan's wife Elizabeth, and the folklorist Mary Barnicle. I've been working on cataloging and editing that stuff for four years, and it's a dream come true. We're starting something similar with Lomax's 1941-1942 Mississippi recordings next year. Meantime we have a 6 LP set due out on Mississippi Records by the end of this year. It's a commemorative box for Lomax's centennial year (2015), out just in time for that year to be over — 100 songs, 100 years, is the idea. More than half of them are previously unreleased. It was a lot of fun to put together. 

MT: How is life in Louisville these days? Do you feel like you are in any way part of a music scene, either at home or farther afield?

Salsburg: Life in Louisville is extraordinarily easy, and I don't use that adjective idly. I like it a lot and it works well for me. There are a lot of good people making good music in Louisville, and doing other good non-musical things. With the exception of Joan Shelley, with whom I made a record earlier this year and have been touring a lot, I don't have close collaborators in town. Those folks, both actual or hopeful collaborators, are strewn around. A lot of folks in North Carolina. Couple in California. Guitar partner Jim is in Chicago.

MT: How does being a talented/ original musician reinforce your archivist/collector passions? How do they inform one another?

Salsburg: I gave up playing music for a couple of years after starting at the Lomax Archive. I recall it now as being a concerted effort to become a better listener, but I doubt I would have formulated that thought then. Instead, I was probably just cowed by the enormity of the collection, next to which any music I made seemed laughably puny. So when I came back to playing around 2005-2006, I found that I had a lot of interests and influences that I had cultivated as a listener which I could bring to bear on my playing and writing. That kind of synthesis still works really well for me although these days I do about 95.5 percent listening to 4 percent playing and 0.5 percent writing.

MT: Please describe in detail your greatest recent record find.

Salsburg: I was in Bowling Green, Kentucky, earlier in the summer and stopped by Freeman Kitchens' place in nearby Drake. Drake Vintage Music & Curios has been there since the 1940s, when Freeman, who was then the postmaster of the now-defunct Drake post office started the Carter Family fan club. He's had dead-stock 78s there since then, although they've all been picked over and picked over again for decades. When I went, though, he pointed to a stack of records someone had dropped off a day earlier. He said he hadn't time to clean them with Windex yet. Right on top of the stack was a record by the sublime Mississippi string band the Carter Brothers and Son, on Vocalion; apparently the rarest of them. It was in good shape. He wanted 50 cents for it. I gave him a bit more.  

MT: What's next for you musically? What have you not done that you really want to do?

Salsburg: I've wanted to do a kind of memory project that would get me spending more time in the Salsburg ancestral homeland of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where I was born and where my people have been since the 1870s. Not sure how much of it would be textual, how much musical. I want to get up there and eat a few weeks' worth of white pizza from Old Forge, Pa., and see what happens.  

Elkington and Salsburg open for Steve Gunn at the Marble Bar on Friday, Oct. 30; Starts at 9 p.m.; 1501 Holden St., Detroit; brownpapertickets,com; $10.

More by Mike McGonigal

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