The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Mark Fosson

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Interview with Mark Fosson.

“It took about one day to pack and head for California…couldn’t wait to get there. Then the first thing that happened was I opened for Fahey at a place called Bob Baxter’s Guitar Workshop. I remember being backstage with John and he was changing his strings. He got the new ones on, hit a chord and immediately cut all the strings off! Did this three times till he was satisfied…Then he started playing some stuff and it was just incredible to hear him up close like that.”

Mark Fosson

Words: Mark & Craig Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


(Note: The following opening essay was originally published in our previous article on “Digging In The Dust”).

Last year was my first introduction to the incredible Mark Fosson. My introduction came courtesy of a copy of ‘Digging In The Dust’, a record reissued in 2012 on the Tompkins Square label. The sleeve depicts a sepia photograph of a young Fosson in concentration as he plays a twelve-string acoustic guitar. What caught my attention most of all was the date written on the front: “Home Recordings 1976”. For as anyone who feel compelled to browse the racks of a trusted independent record store will know, we should never turn our eyes away from newly issued release from a bygone era. Over the last number of years, certain records by the likes of Linda Perhacs, Mark Fry, Kath Bloom and Vashti Bunyan have all found their ways onto the shelves of record shops only for a new generation of music lovers to embrace their music.

So, as I found myself with a copy of ‘Digging In The Dust’, in my own local independent record store (Plugd Records) I knew a similar sense of magic would soon reveal itself through the record in my hands. If any convincing was necessary, Fosson’s short message on the back of the sleeve would convince anyone to make the purchase:

“These 11 tracks are the songs I began writing after acquiring my first 12-String guitar. I recorded them in my living room on a Pioneer RT1050 2-track reel-to-reel with a rented microphone (I believe It was an AKG414 but I won’t swear to it). All are originals except for “Back In The Saddle Again” which resulted from my other obsession at the time of watching old black & white Gene Autry movies any chance I could…usually at 5:00AM! I met Mr. Autry many years later and tried to tell him this but the crowd was too loud & his ears were too old & he couldn’t hear a word I was saying. Anyway…thanks Gene.

Most of these songs would appear later in slightly altered form on ‘The Lost Takoma Sessions’, but these original versions are my personal favorites. I can’t believe the tapes have survived so long and still sound as clean as the day I recorded them.

It’s been a real joy rediscovering these tunes….Hope you will enjoy them.”

The story of Mark Fosson – a Kentucky native – is very much connected with John Fahey and his Takoma Records label. In the seventies, Fosson sent a number of demos to Fahey’s West-Coast label Takoma. Fahey was impressed with what he heard and offered Fosson a recording deal. In turn, Fosson moved from his Kentucky home to Los Angeles and embarked on a number of recordings with Fahey. Due to great misfortune, however, the Takoma Records label (in financial difficulty) would shortly fold. Crucially, though, Fahey would let Fosson keep possession of those prized master tapes of the sessions. For the next number of decades Fosson would record a number of albums and collaborations, beginning with the formation of the Bum Steers (alongside songwriter Edward Tree) in the eighties; a number of soundtracks in the nineties (including the 1992 Allison Anders film ‘Gas, Food Lodging’) and a solo project entitled ‘Jesus On A Greyhound’ released on Big Otis Records.

It was those treasured sessions with Fahey that proved most sought-after, however, and in 2006 – some thirty years later – Chicago based Drag City Records would finally release “The Lost Takoma Sessions”. The eleven tracks present in the ‘Digging In The Dust’ cut – released last year on Tompkins Square – would be the unaltered, original recordings, the versions Fosson himself hoped would someday see the light of day.

‘Digging In The Dust’ comprises nine pieces (all performed on Fosson’s first 12-string guitar) and concludes with a couple of alternate takes (of ‘Frozen Fingers’ and ‘Quarter Moon’). It’s only fitting that the wonderful people at Tompkins Square would issue this long-lost gem in all its former glory. Particularly as the label champions such wonderful contemporary musicians (William Tyler’s debut solo record ‘Behold The Spirit’ was released by the label) it also sees the necessity to champion those artists who were so influential to a new generation of musicians who never had their rightful widespread acclaim in their own time.

Mark Fosson concludes his essay on ‘Digging In The Dust’ by stating: “It’s been a real joy rediscovering these tunes….Hope you will enjoy them.” For the many of a new generation discovering Fosson for the first time, and on listening to ‘Digging In The Dust’, we can say with our hearts, “Thank you, Mark Fosson, for the real joy you’ve given to each of us.”



Interview with Mark Fosson.

Please take me back to 1976 and your wonderful album ‘Digging In The Dust’. These joyous guitar instrumentals you began writing after acquiring your first 12 string guitar. Discuss the time and place that ‘Digging In The Dust’ was in effect, given its wings and created?

I had just been discharged from the Air Force and wasn’t working yet, so I had lots of time to write and play guitar, which is pretty much all I did!


‘Sky Piece’ is my current favourite. Can you shed some light on this piece please?

That’s one of my favorites too. Sky Piece is actually slang for a cowboy hat. I heard it in one of the old  westerns and stole it for a title. This was the first song I wrote in “C” tuning.


‘Digging In The Dust’ is such a beautiful title. It reminds me of a John Fante novel. Discuss the importance of this title please? It serves as an inspiring symbol that perfectly embodies the music.

Well, that’s the picture that went through my mind as I was looking through these old tapes. Sort of like an archaeological dig…not dead & gone, just covered with the dust of time.


Describe for me please the hold your precious 12-string guitar has on you and what is it about this instrument that inspires you?

I had always heard that 12-strings were harder to play but when I first picked one up it seemed way easier for me than a six-string. Maybe it was the wider neck. Somehow it seems more forgiving than a six-string, especially when you’re playing in open tuning, and the mistakes are not as glaringly apparent. Some of my best licks are mistakes!


Discuss for me please the importance that guitarist John Fahey has had on your life and career? He offered you a recording deal on his West Coast based Takoma Records label and you have often declared him as your biggest musical influence.

To me, Takoma Records was just the coolest label going back then. Seemed to be all I was listening to. I must have worn a hole clear through the Kottke/Lang/Fahey LP…and also “The Thing At The Nursery Room Window”…that was a definite favorite! It was the only label I wanted to be on and the only label I sent a tape to, so as you can guess, when they called and offered me a deal I was blown away! I figured I must be doing something right.

It took about one day to pack and head for California…couldn’t wait to get there. Then the first thing that happened was I opened for Fahey at a place called Bob Baxter’s Guitar Workshop. I remember being backstage with John and he was changing his strings. He got the new ones on, hit a chord and immediately cut all the strings off! Did this three times till he was satisfied…Then he started playing some stuff and it was just incredible to hear him up close like that. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to do those shows with him. He actually taught me how to play “Sunflower River Blues” that first night, which I perform to this day.


The Fahey material finally saw the light of day as “The Last Takoma Sessions” on Drag City in 2006. Discuss please the creative process in working and collaborating with John Fahey?

There was actually some tape of the two of us playing one of my tunes which is probably erased forever…they use to re-record over the 2″ tape ’cause it was so expensive. It was actually a lot of fun being in the studio with John. He was recording some of his ideas as well and he and the engineer Doug Decker showed me about splicing different takes together to get a more perfect whole. I had no idea people did that…what a shock!

The studio was in a pretty bad part of town so we had to look over our shoulders as we were leaving the sessions. And walk real fast!


As your music has been reissued recently, it must be a wonderful feeling for you, personally to be re-discovering these special songs. They have this remarkable timeless feel. It’s hard to believe they are from the mid-70’s! What are your feelings on the music industry today, and how it has changed since the mid-70s when your career as a recording musician began?

I not only got to re-discover them I got to re-learn them…had quite a time with a few of them! It really is a great feeling to know that folks are listening to and enjoying those tunes…I owe a huge thanks to my cousin Tiffany Anders for making me dig those recordings out and to Drag City and Tompkins Square for releasing them.

Studio time was outrageously expensive back then so there were  fewer self-produced records …some really good ones though as we’re discovering today. The digital recording programs blew it all wide open. You can put out a record for next to nothing nowadays. I have  a little Sony digital IC Recorder that cost me $40 and records fantastic…I’m thinking of doing a whole album on it.

Guess the only thing that hasn’t changed about the music business is you still don’t get paid!!!….just joking….I think.


What are your current inspirations? What artists and records have made the biggest impact on you in recent years?

I like a lot of the new younger players. Daniel Bachman is tearing it up…a really  excellent musician. We did a short tour together that was great fun. I believe he must play around 600 dates a year!

We did a show with Nathan Bowles, who’s an amazing clawhammer banjo player. I listen to his new CD “A Bottle, A Buckeye” all the time. Solo banjo….He also has a band called Black Twig Pickers that does some very cool stuff.

I listen to LastFM when I can…always hearing lots of unfamiliar artists there. Sideways Through Sound plays a lot of interesting stuff too. No shortage of good music if you’re willing to look for it and I look everywhere and every chance I get.


What was it like growing up in Kentucky in the 70’s? Can you pinpoint the time when you realized that music and the guitar was the path you were destined to walk down? 

Kentucky was  a great place to grow up. I  lived there until I joined the Air Force in 1971. Then they sent me to Grand Forks, North Dakota for the next four years. I  played a ton of music when I was stationed there. I was in a country band and a  rock band and I also did a lot  of solo gigs. They were pretty starved for entertainment up there so we made out alright! That’s also where I discovered Fahey and all the Takoma artists and began messing around with solo guitar.

My aunt Rachel played guitar and sang and I was always picking her guitar and trying to figure it out…she finally gave me a guitar when I was 12 years old and I was on my way. Then the Beatles showed up and that’s when I was absolutely certain I’d be a musician.


On moving to Los Angeles in the seventies, how did you find the city? Was it difficult to adapt to life there after living in Kentucky your whole life up to then? What was the music industry in L.A. like at that time?

I loved living in California…I love the west! I ended up living there for 33 years. I’m a big fan of the desert and I spent all the time I could out there.

I met some great people out there who are still my best friends and played with some amazing musicians. After Takoma I started up some bands that were a real joy to be a part of. I was in a duo  called Crazy Hearts with Karen Tobin. We were featured on the compilation LP “A Town South Of Bakersfield” along with Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Jim Lauderdale and a host of other killer acts. She went on to get a deal on Atlantic Records.

Later I started a country rock outfit with Edward Tree, Taras Prodaniuk and Billy Block called The Bum Steers. We were way ahead of our time and way too cool for Nashville. Porter Wagoner invited us to play the Grand Ol Opry…which ain’t a shabby gig! We were on Opry radio more times than I can count and did a lot of TV and shows in Nashville but never quite made that giant leap into the national consciousness! Had a hell of a good time trying though. We still play once in a while and we put out a new record a couple years ago.

So California ended up being my home for the largest and best part of my life.  Thank you John Fahey.


In 2001 you collaborated with singer/songwriter Lisa O’ Kane. Tell me about this particular project and what releases were born from this? I must seek out these recordings ASAP!

My buddy Edward Tree was producing her album “Am I Too Blue?”and she was doing one of our tunes (“Little Black Cloud”),  I did some harmonies on the record  and the we started writing together and came up with a bunch of tunes which ended up on her next CD, “Peace Of Mind”. Did quite a bit of touring in Europe and the UK and really burned it up for a while. She did another CD, “It Don’t Hurt” and then we went our separate ways, proving that you probably shouldn’t get romantically involved with your writing partner…


It is a fitting testament to your music that today, some years later, there is such an endearing response and acclaim for your music. You must feel very proud. 

I’m very proud indeed! I have about 3 albums worth of new material to put out and I’m hoping it will get the same response.


‘Digging In The Dust: Home Recordings 1976′ by Mark Fosson is out now on the Tompkins Square label.


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  1. […] Design for Mark Fosson’s classic 1976 recordings ‘Digging In the Dust’, re-issued in 2012 by Tompkins Square. To coincide with Fractured Air’s interview with Mark Fosson HERE. […]

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