Commissions + Collaborations

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The Ramblin’ Session of Austin McCutchen & Xaviera Simmons

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Wednesday, October 13th introduced singer, songwriter and musician Austin McCutchen into Xaviera Simmons’s studio space down on East Third Street. Austin has been playing in the local music scene for over four years. His work reaches deep into the traditions of authentic bluegrass and country music, immediately channeling Americana, Appalachia and the American South, producing a sound that is distinctly traditional. Austin and Xaviera have known each other for about two years, and this past year Xaviera invited him to collaborate on a song for an exhibition called The Record at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.

On Wednesday, the two discussed music as it intersects with history and art, aided by YouTube, iTunes, and Xaviera’s record player. Xaviera, who often incorporates sound or musical history directly into her work (and also has a flourishing career as a DJ), said what draws her to Austin’s music is the American landscape it evokes, and how for her it creates a nostalgia and timelessness that she associates with these landscapes (though it is perhaps not always a uniformly positive association). Her artistic practice is concerned with the legacy and history of landscapes and their relationships to the bodies that have existed against and within them. The figures in Xaviera’s photographs are constructed specifically as characters, using the conventions of traditional photographic style (large scale, technical perfection and precision) to re-think the way photography communicates a sense of history and “grandeur.” Artists’ portrayals of the natural environment have proved potent inspiration for Xaviera too. She has worked with specific American photographers in mind such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who became the iconic chroniclers of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras. In the studio with Austin, Xaviera channeled these artists, and envisioned Austin’s music as the accompanying soundtrack—or perhaps the natural descendant of what would have been the soundtrack to those photographs (Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and other “outlaw” musicians who consciously worked apart from the growing, increasingly corporate Nashville music industry). Essentially, all of this gets to the idea of putting a “visual narrative” to music, which is something that Xaviera mentioned on Wednesday night as a link between her and Austin’s practices.

As the conversation turned to process and the pressures of creating art or music in real-time, Xaviera played a YouTube excerpt of artist Paul McCarthy’s 1995 video Painter, admiring the risks he takes as an artist, especially in his video work. Austin mentioned that the video reminded him of cheerful TV painter Bob Ross whose videos the two then juxtaposed side by side with McCarthy’s.

-Abbe Schriber, Program Assistant

*Editor's Note: A previous version of this post mentioned that Xaviera and Austin met while collaborating on The Record. They in fact met and became friends several years before that, in New York.