Mike Disfarmer was a reclusive eccentric in Heber Springs, Ark. Fifteen years after his death in 1959, when 3,000 of his glass plate negatives were discovered, it became known that he was also one of the greatest artists in the history of photographic portraiture.
Encountering Disfarmer’s indelible human images for the first time is a disturbing yet uplifting experience. The faces of farmers and soldiers from the Depression and World War II eras look startled by how hard life is, yet undefeated. When guitarist-composer Bill Frisell discovered these works, they inspired him to create musical miniatures as stark and unexplained as Disfarmer’s photographs. Frisell’s 26 pieces, many under two minutes, are music in praise of the deep silence contained in Disfarmer’s single frames.
Greg Leisz (steel guitars and mandolin), Jenny Scheinman (violin) and Viktor Krauss (bass) play with concise, quiet intensity. They must also have looked long and hard at Disfarmer’s pictures. Sometimes Frisell’s vivid original melodies segue seamlessly to preexisting songs of the era like “That’s Alright, Mama” and “Lovesick Blues.” Many of the pieces are unadorned, but there are also complex group improvisations like “Shutter, Dream,” a collective act of the imagination that comes close to deciphering Disfarmer’s mystery.
This highly personal response to the work of an “outsider artist” is one of Frisell’s most accessible albums, perhaps because the haunting sonorities of rural America are universal in their longing and loneliness. When Frisell’s four-person string choir sighs and twangs and interlaces its counterpoint through a solemn version of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It,” it is old and new, rich in common history, and beyond genre.