Encountering a Eugene Chadbourne presentation is like unwrapping a Christmas present from an eccentric uncle. You never know what you might get, but you can be pretty sure it’ll be embedded in your consciousness from then on. The problem is finding a container to hold his gift.
Chadbourne’s take on music and his presentation of it don’t fit into any boxes, and left to run around loose, it may infect anything that gets close with a severe case of musical hysteria from its radicalness. It’s best just to say the heck with it, divorce yourself from the confines of convention, sit back and enjoy the musical mayhem that ensues.
The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native got his start on guitar at 12, with Hendrix and the Beatles as his gods. But Chadbourne soon made a left turn, discovering wigged-out jazz experimenters and never looked back.
Before his musical career got into gear, Chadbourne moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, working for the Calgary Herald as an entertainment writer and editor from 1970-76, the youngest writer and editor in the paper’s history.
The guitarist made his musical debut in 1975 with “Volume One, Solo Acoustic Guitar,” founding his own record label — Parachute. But as is with all things Chadbourne, his debut was not simply a record of acoustic solo guitar, but adventures in “prepared guitar,” in which objects are placed between the strings to alter the timbre of the instrument.
Relocating to New York City in ‘77, Chadbourne’s musical curiosity got him entangled with scores of experimental artists in improvisational music, most notably John Zorn, an early collaborator.
Chadbourne’s forays into jazz often seemed to be from outer space, but they paled in comparison to his pioneering work in taking country music to places where no human had gone before. That choice, and New Yorkers’ reaction to it, played a major role in Chadbourne relocating to Greensboro in 1977, where he still lives. But there was a musical connection here as well.
“I can’t exaggerate the importance of David Licht,” Chadbourne said by email of percussionist Licht, founding member of the Klezmatics. “We had a strong musical connection, and the local music scene he introduced me to, revolving around Tate Street and the Niteshade Cafe, but also involving other situations, seemed like it would be more receptive to my music than New York City at that point. The decision to involve country and Western music was not going over well there. I was about 20 years ahead of my time.”
Chadbourne’s improvisational skills could be upsetting to those acolytes who worshiped at the altar of three chords and the truth, as Harlan Howard put it. But Chadbourne seemed to look at it as a structure with enough unexplored space to drive a truck full of instrumental brainstorms through it.
“I always loved it and felt it had been a mix in many things I had been listening to growing up,” Chadbourne says. “Working with it in a jazz vein appealed initially in part because so many of my colleagues were baffled with the idea, making critical comments behind my back.”
He established the Chadbournes in New York with Zorn, a part of the initial lineup. Then when he relocated to Greensboro in 1981, he formed a Southern version of Chadbournes including Scott Manring, Becky Jordan, Tom Shephard and Chris Turner along with Licht.
The following year the Chadbournes became Shockabilly, spreading the gospel of seriously altered C&W stateside and overseas.
In addition to incorporating jazzy guitar excursions into the mix, Chadbourne employed a dazzling array of found items he electrified. “I had been using contact microphones for a few years, on objects such as afro combs, egg slicers, music boxes,” he says, inspired by the works of artists including electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A yard accident resulting in a broken rake the afternoon before a show at the Niteshade restructured Chadbourne’s instrumental arsenal for years afterward. “Rather than chuck it out, I took it down the gig and hooked it up through the fuzzbox, we taped the pick-up on. The audience responded to this immediately. There is even a demand for ‘all rake’ products.”
But some audience members weren’t so welcoming of Chadbourne’s treatment of their sacred cow, horse, dog and pickup genre. One non-fan at a gig at Charlotte’s Double Door Inn was so upset at what Chadbourne did to one of his favorite country songs, he threatened to kill the band.
Guitarist Scott Manring recalls considering asking to be paid in change so he could fashion a makeshift cudgel from coins stuffed in a sock. “I remember Scott talking about the sock/blackjack later that night, when we stopped for chow along the highway,” Chadbourne recalls.
“I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder onstage, and we were adding material from there on top of what we playing, which was sometimes pretty straight ahead ... Carl Perkins ... ‘Dixie Fried’ ... ‘Honey Don’t’ ... but then suddenly a section with ray guns, or dialogue from ‘The Twilight Zone.’ ‘I am going to take your tape recorder because it is an insult to your art.,’” Chadbourne remembers one of the bikers in attendance saying. The material is preserved on “There’ll Be No Tears Tonight,” released in ‘87.
Shockabilly tore around the area and later the world before breaking up in ‘85. Chadbourne has been involved in a dazzling array of avant-garde projects ever since that have kept him globetrotting, some years so much so that Greensboro was just a place to touch base now and then.
He’s still at it, insisting there’s no musical genre he would hesitate to tackle.
“Oh no,” he says. “I am like 007: Never say never.”
Chadbourne is recording a version of Olivier Messiaen’s “Catalog of the Birds for Banjos,” transcribing the experimental French composer’s birdsong melodies from piano to banjo, accompanying the project with his paintings of the avian musicians the work was based upon.
At one point, Chadbourne’s music became a family affair with daughters Lizzy and Molly chiming in on 2009’s “Country Boobs.” “Fooling around and making demented recordings with your kids is a pastime that I could dream about going on forever, but in reality, it was lucky it was able to happen once,” Chadbourne says. “My youngest daughter Lizzie and I get together to practice songs, we call it ‘rocking out,’ and it gives me a chance to teach her stuff on banjo. Molly has had much less time to sing with me since the birth of her daughter, Maybellene, who I hope to have backing me up on drums eventually.”
And when the rake is plucked for the last time, Chadbourne says he’d like to be remembered for never missing a day of practice. And for a legacy? “The results of that,” he says succinctly.
Contact Grant Britt at firstname.lastname@example.org.