When you think of underground music, you think of the extreme and the forbidden. Groups rapping in basements or East German punks holed up in churches to escape state censure. You don’t usually picture quiet, guitar-driven dad music, but there is this amazing network of house shows and cafes keeping the practitioners of American primitive out on the road serenading. That’s what brings the brilliant Ross Hammond to town.
Hailing from Kentucky via Sacramento, California, he’s a lot of things. Sometimes he’s blues, sometimes he’s folk, and there’s some new age and some jazz. Mostly though, he’s just a guy with a guitar who comes and goes like the wind. He’s released three albums in 2019 alone, usually by partnering with other musicians. Across Oceans teamed him up with sitar player Poly Varghese for a solid trip into the deeper reaches of smooth sound. He put out a more solidly blues record called Sacramentans with Neil Franklin, and a slightly more experimental blues one called New Milwaukee with Jon Bafus (of which “The Small and Dangerous Wolves” is a wicked earworm). That’s a lot of music one just one year, and all of it is good.
“In the digital age there is no limit to what you can do,” says Hammond. “If one person buys it I’m in the black. I’m an acoustic guy. My recording is literally free.”
For the first time he’s coming to Texas for a brief five-city tour. He usually hits the road for micro events once his nine-year-old daughter is back in school. Often he lands in his home state of Kentucky and uses the open road to spend time with his dad. It’s a slow-paced life bereft of most types of wild adventure, but it suits him well.
“At this point in my life if it wasn’t working I wouldn’t leave Sacramento, but it does work so here I am,” says Hammond. “I just want to go where people listen.”
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The key to his success is the American primitive underground. The style faded from popularity from the heyday of Leo Kottke, though there was a resurgence of it in the ‘90s thanks to a renewed interest in John Fahey’s Blind Joe Death. Fahey lived just long enough to record some more music and capitalize on the hype before passing away in 2001, but the genre has kept alive thanks partially to awesome releases by Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square Records.
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Making connections and keeping things lean in the tradition of The Minutemen has been instrumental in Hammond’s ongoing career. He regularly books acts wanting to play California in little house shows and cafes, and in return he gets reciprocated all over the country. In Houston his contact is Will Csorba, who runs the awesome record label Blue Hole Recordings. Csorba played at Duke University with some help from Hammond, and decided to return the favor by schlepping Hammond around with himself in Texas.
“I’m playing a lot of steel guitar now,” says Hammond. “It’s a bit intimidating, to be honest. I’m not going to waltz into Texas and try to show them how that’s done or anything, but I am looking forward to seeing the state.”
American primitive is a quiet genre that doesn’t necessarily set the world on fire, but it does produce some beautiful music that carries with it the air of travel and notes on the wind. It’s getting harder and harder to find that sound in the wild now as it is played in hidden venues, but if you find yourself a part of the network then there’s a home for you all across America. You just have to look for it a bit. Follow the sound of the guitars.
The Ross Hammon/Will Csorba House Show is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday September 21 at 5128 Leeland. $5 suggested donation.