Essential New Music: Shane Parish’s “Death Bell Knellin'”

You could call Shane Parish a guitarist, or you could call him a cottage industry. Either way, you’d be right. The Asheville, N.C., resident has played pan-generic electric music with Ahleuchatistas, free improvisation with percussionists Frank Rosaly and Tatsuya Nakatani, and old American folk songs on Undertaker Please Drive Slow (a splendid CD released by Tzadik a few years ago). But in order to keep a household going, Parish is also a musician and instructor for hire; you might catch him playing rustic background sounds at the Biltmore Mansion, and you can drop him a line if you need a guitar lesson. He’s fully embraced the potentialities for self-releasing music that the internet affords. If he has a good session with a musician, he might put out a digital single, and if he goes down a topical rabbit hole, you’ll find the evidence on his Bandcamp page. 

A couple years ago Parish was gifted a copy of Fireside Book Of Folk Songs. He set himself the task of not only learning its contents, but documenting the effort, and over the summer of 2019, he put 14 volumes of solo recordings on Bandcamp. That’s 147 songs in all, and it’s all there if you want to take the deep dive with him.

If that sounds a bit overwhelming, however, there’s Death Bell Knellin’, which cherry-picks 11 tracks from the Fireside project. These include songs deeply familiar to American listeners (“Barbara Allen,” “Loch Lomond”), while others (“Hatikvah,” “Marche Lorraine”) are better known in other lands. One thing that’s apparent from the outset is that Parish didn’t just sit down and play these songs straight. He uses them as launchpads for improvisations informed less by the prescriptions of jazz or bluegrass than by his curiosity of where his ample technique might take them. Parish might halt the progress through a familiar melody to savor a bent note, or dig deep into a tune’s emotional vibe. Note that while these are songs with lyrics and vocal melodies, Parish lets his guitar do all the singing.

—Bill Meyer