Music On The Fringe

November 17, 2016

I’ve met a lot of people in my life who love exploring new music, and thankfully, streaming services have made that search easier than ever. Every major streaming service offers some kind of recommendation algorithm that introduces you to artists that naturally dovetail with your listening history. I was a music DJ on college and community radio for six years, so I naturally think I know everything about music, but I have to confess that Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist has actually become indispensible to me.

But sometimes you don’t want to make a natural progression from one beloved artist to something similar; sometimes you want to take a hard left into totally unknown musical territory. I’ve been listening to a lot of outsider music lately, so I figured I’d share some of my favorites. Happy listening!

Gary Wilson
Endicott, N.Y.-based Gary Wilson recorded one album and some singles in his parents’ basement in the late ’70s and delivered some jarring, cellophane-and-fake-blood-heavy concerts before abruptly retiring from performance. During that time, his album You Think You Really Know Me became a cult favorite among indie rockers, and renewed interest has given Wilson some of the recognition he deserves. If you’re a fan of Beck or Ariel Pink, you’ll love Gary Wilson.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
I owe my knowledge and love of “The Ledge” to the excellent Southern Minnesota radio show “Shuffle Function,” heard on KMSU out of my hometown of Mankato. Born Norman Odam, his space-inflected rockabilly and country music and psychotic performances blew people’s minds in the 1960s. David Bowie got the “Stardust” (as in Ziggy) from The Ledge, and later covered his music on 2002’s Heathen. That’s future Americana legend T Bone Burnett playing drums on, uh, “breakout single” “Paralyzed.” He’s still playing rare shows today — check out the album Live in Chicago for a rough idea of the chaos involved.

The Shaggs
Another cult favorite, and one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite records, is The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World. It’s a quasi-distressing story: New Hampshire dad Austin Wiggin became convinced that his daughters were pre-ordained to become superstars, so he pulled them out of school and gave them instruments. They recorded one full album and a few spare singles with vaguely creepy undertones (“Who Are Parents?”) and naïve stories about lost cats (“My Pal Foot Foot”). In the absence of professional instruction, The Shaggs created a totally unique musical language that bears little resemblance to anything I’ve ever heard. It’s sometimes disturbing but also energizing and unburdened from expectation. It’s a window into some thickly accented New Hampshire girls (“Wherever you ahhhhh“) translating their world into song.

Judson Fountain
I also owe KMSU’s “Shuffle Function” a huge debt for turning me on to Judson Fountain, an amateur radio-drama artist from New York who cranked out some hilarious, low-budget productions in the 1960s and ’70s. Plots swerve wildly from point to point, character voices get jumbled up, reactions are totally unexpected, throats are cleared into microphones and motivations remain unexplained. For instance, in “The Garbage Can from Thailand,” a youth named Johnny threatens to kill an old man and throw him in a garbage can (from Thailand) simply because Johnny is 18 years old. They are inane and some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. The voices alone are worth the price of admission. “Granny, Sing No More!” and “Hallowe’en Night” (“That tree… it looks kind of … spooky!!“) are old favorites.

Perhaps the original anonymous outsider artist of the modern era, Jandek is an anarchic artist who’s been releasing albums of badly tuned, improvisational guitar music and creepy poetry under his own Corwood Industries label for 40 years. His identity has since been revealed, but for much of his career, part of his fame lay in his anonymity. After dozens of self-released and puzzling releases, he started performing in the mid-2000s, and actually performs somewhat regularly now. Each performance is improvised using a local backing band with little to no rehearsal, meaning that every show has a totally different feel. I saw him perform in Mankato with some titans of the Minneapolis experimental and jazz scenes, which meant a dark night of ominous ambient music and random pluckings; in this YouTube video, he’s playing with a beast of a funk band. His music isn’t for everybody, and even fans don’t like everything he does, and that’s part of the mystery.

Washington Phillips
Washington Phillips is my newest discovery (as in today) and perhaps the most peaceful of them: a Texas-based gospel singer who played mysterious, possibly handcrafted instruments in the early 1900s. Only about 15 to 20 of his songs still survive, but their dreamlike, honest, pious tone resonate still today. That’s what outsider music is: an honest personal statement unburdened by the expectation that others will like or even understand it.