Essential New Music: Joseph Allred’s “Traveler”

Joseph Allred is on a roll. In the last year, he has released a CD-R, two tapes and three LPs on various labels, and each has its own character. Traveler constitutes both an advancement of the goal posts and a reckoning with the Tennessee-bred/, Massachusetts-based Allred’s current place on the musical map. 

A multi-instrumentalist and sound experimenter with a strong grasp of folk forms, he confines himself to voice and stringed instruments on Traveler. Each instrument serves a particular function. A pair of banjo instrumentals affirm the rustic roots of his music. Allred uses the dense sonics of the 12-string acoustic guitar to evoke mystery and induce reverie, working within a field cleared before him by Robbie Basho and James Blackshaw. On “Single Me A Stranger,” the lap-steel acoustic guitar tethers Allred to the bluesy heritage of John Fahey and Jack Rose. And the six-string acoustic guitar is a multi-purpose tool. On “The Giant Who Shrank Himself,” Allred uses it to pay tribute to another contemporary American Primitive elder, Glenn Jones, by showing just how much he has learned from the guy. On the title track, it’s a platform for his high, reedy voice, which Allred has never used with so much precision or confidence. 

The instrumental music on Traveler acknowledges Allred’s place within the lineage of American Primitive guitarists; he knows the music’s foundations, and uses that understanding to make work that’s just as emotionally and historically deep as his forbears. But he also has things to communicate directly about belonging and displacement, and on Traveler, he puts those messages into words with similar fluency.

—Bill Meyer