Judson Claiborne’s journey to his own roots

Categories: No Depression

By Mark Guarino

In the suh-un, the group harmonizes, In the su-uh-uh-un. Dollops of sweet guitar bend to the floor, like a Stax house band fatigued after recording until dawn but not yet ready to call it a night. The music lazes as if drifting from a front porch in August, the only shade across a horizon of golden farmland for miles.

On “Bloody Holiday In The Sun”, Judson Claiborne sings of a wild woman in her prime, on her third husband, an insurance agent and con artist intent on robbing the company safe and stealing his family past midnight to the southwest to start a new life, one he knew was better, with mountains lining the backdrop of every decision, good or bad.

She begged her husband to stay; she wasn’t about to leave this place. She was in her mid-20, a grown adult. She already survived her teen bride years, pregnancies, two previous husbands. She moved enough at a speed twice her years.

That’s when he brought out his gun.

When Crow shot Vida in the entryway
She stumbled out without a whimper
The pouring blood was like water, all down her face
She plugged up the wound with her finger.

A mandolin softly spiders underneathl the music is so gentle, it pillows the violence. In the suh-un, in the su-uh-uh-un. In the suh-un…

If the day is pretty enough, sometimes life refuses to die. Claiborne’s great-grandmother walked across the street to the firehouse and asked for a ride to the hospital. She had a bullet in her head. The one her husband sent through his skull penetrated his brain and killed him instantly, but hers missed and found a home between the two hemispheres of her brain, where it rested for seven decades until 2007, when Vida turned 94 and died.

“She was the sweetest, strongest, most amazing woman,” Claiborne says. “She lived an amazingly full life.”

Judson Claiborne performs at the Hideout in Chicago Nov. 10.

When one can digitize a fife, the idea of cherishing roots music for its simplicity and tradition may now be archaic, just like how “alternative rock” became hollow once Candlebox got a record contract. For a musician who was known to play music described as rootsy, Chris Salveter did not particularly know what it meant. He also did not particularly know what connected him to storytelling; and worse, he was unsure even what stories were worth telling.

“I guess it’s considered a genre,” he says. “But I think the idea of roots music was paralleling what I was feeling: wanting to get into the roots of who I am and what is happening in my life.”

So Chris Salveter became Judson Claiborne, a pseudonym that, upon inquiry, is relatively organic in much the same way as the name Bob Dylan is more organic than, say, the name Sting. Judson selectively chose the name that goes back through his father’s family; his father campaigned for the name, but lost because his mother thought it “sounded too redneck.” Claiborne also comes from his ancestors on his father’s side, settlers in New Orleans who eventually migrated north to settle alongside the St. Louis River.

The songs on Before Midnight Scholar, Claiborne’s haunting self-released solo debut, are the result of turning up personal roots. After two well-received albums and one EP sung under his real name and credited to the band Low Skies, he decided to record as Judson Claiborne. He meant to dig through stories from both sides of his family to get at the essence of where he came from, what he was meant to do, and other questions many people in the limbo years between 25 and 30 ask relentlessly.
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“I felt I needed a lot of space,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make this different kind of record. I had some ideas but wasn’t sure what they were about, or what the songs were going to be. So I decided to do some traveling.”

Claiborne had already made one big move in his life, to Chicago in 2000 from St. Charles, Missouri, a hamlet 40 miles west of St. Louis that had overnight been swallowed by suburban sprawl. Before the McMansions took root, he grew up a teenage bass player, at age 13 playing in a band that had the archetypal ingredients for that age group: They played thrash metal and called themselves Clitoris. “The most perfect name we could think of,” says Claiborne, who’s now 28.

He moved to Chicago to finish an art degree at the School of the Art Institute, but he soon fell into the city’s music current. Almost from the start, Low Skies fit with Chicago’s long and fertile tradition of bands that incorporate textures of Americana, gothic storytelling and mystical overtones. The band won accolades from the underground press for its albums on Flameshovel, but after seven years together, Claiborne got a gut feeling: “I had to choose to ride the wave of change or sink deeper in curmudgeony.”

The band played its final tour and went on indefinite hiatus. In the meantime, he was soaking up the new wave of psychedelic folk troubadours that were in the midst of building audiences, and he had become particularly enamored with Van Morrison’s transcendent classic Astral Weeks.

Before Midnight Scholar has a similar dreamy quality, though underneath the sophisticated textures of country mysticism is a steely edge that suggests a bottom dropping out at any moment. While the music is continually seductive, its core appeal is Claiborne’s voice, which is as nuanced and filled with tremors as those of Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley.

Ryan Boyles, who arranged the music and plays violin and organ in Claiborne’s band, says the heavily draped moods they created were based on the solo performances Claiborne would give on just guitar. “He is able to transfer that performance to people so they feel more or less where he’s coming from,” Boyles says.

The band recorded at 850, a studio owned by Leroy Bach, the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist. They returned there recently to start work on a more rock-oriented follow-up that Claiborne plans to shop to labels in 2009.

The busy season in Claiborne’s adopted hometown is in drastic contrast to his life three years earlier. He boxed his bicycle and shipped it to himself in Southeast Asia, where he and a few friends biked for almost three months. He returned and let just a few weeks pass until he turned back around, this time to Rhinebeck, New York, a Catskills community where he took a job at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an institute for health and wellness workshops and seminars. He spent another six months interacting with healers, writers and, incidentally but not unexpectedly, sassy Vassar girls. (Thus the Before Midnight Scholar track “Vassar Girl”.)

The retreat from Chicago’s grind and grime helped launch Judson Claiborne and the songs he found by reaching deeper into his past. “They brought a lot of things to the surface and made me deal with it and think,” he says. “I was going through a lot of changes, so I wrote songs about change….I think that’s a constant process that will be there my entire life.”

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