Spellbinding guitar work
by Patrick Dunn
From the May, 2015 issue
Watching Rollie Tussing play, you get the feeling that the Ann Arbor-born guitarist and singer ought to be holding court in a college classroom rather than brightening the corners of noisy bars. Tussing's knowledge of American folk music is nearly encyclopedic, and the skill with which he plays it is remarkable. He knows multiple genres inside and out and switches between them with a fluid, virtuosic ease.
While Tussing has the knowledge to fill hours lecturing on our nation's musical traditions, he's a man of few words. If you're paying attention, though, you can learn just as much listening to him play--and when he's got his Midwest Territory Band in tow, you'll likely find yourself wanting to dance your way through musical history as well.
Tussing started learning his way around Americana in the mid-'80s, at the tender age of fourteen. Acoustic blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins became his guiding star, as Tussing learned his first finger positions and picking patterns from a Hopkins videotape he'd found. He's since interviewed veteran guitar players around the country, and the knowledge he's absorbed as a result is impressive. A Tussing show flows seamlessly from Delta blues to gypsy jazz to bluegrass picking to standard folk and country, emphasizing covers of decades-old traditional songs.
Tussing calls his wide-ranging show "raggedy folk," and the description fits his physical appearance as well: Tussing looks like he stepped out of the Depression era that many of his musical inspirations hark back to. He's usually clad in a beaten blazer, vest, and hat (although the hat and blazer are likely to come off, and Tussing's shirtsleeves to roll up, as the musical energy in the room increases). His face is heavily lined, wise, and somber. Not much for banter in performance, he draws little attention to himself as he plays. His raspy voice is strong enough to carry the tunes, although not necessarily notable in itself. The focus is all on Tussing's spellbinding guitar work, which can
range from a driving Django Reinhardt beat one moment to delicate, seemingly effortless fingerpicking the next.
While Tussing is an engrossing performer on his own, he's even more enjoyable with his Midwest Territory Band. With Serge van der Voo on upright bass and Jim Carey handling an appropriately "raggedy" percussion kit, the trio usually opts for a propulsive set that can get any dance floor going. Van der Voo is easily the most animated of the trio, swaying emphatically with his instrument in what looks like some sort of drunken dance. Carey navigates the band's wide range of rhythms with panache, working with a seemingly cobbled-together drum set incorporating cowbell and tambourine.
The trio, which hosts a show at Hathaway's Hideaway on Saturday, May 30, has quite a thump to it for an all-acoustic band, and it's not uncommon for the dancing to turn into a hoedown. Tussing and his band are keepers of the authentic spirit of American folk, performing it in the traditional style with verve and finesse. It's a pleasure to watch them summon up that classic spirit, whether from a barstool or from the dance floor.
[Originally published in May, 2015.]
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