Nathan Salsburg, being both a solo acoustic guitar player and a champion of vernacular music (his Twos & Fews label, an imprint of Drag City, collects under-heard work by artists like Hamper McBee and Nimrod Workman), has already endured a slew of comparisons to the esteemed fingerpicker and noted record fiend John Fahey. But Affirmed, Salsburg’s solo debut, is more a counterpoint to Fahey’s rhythmic early work than an explicit homage: Bright and elastic, his songs are less concerned with pulses and scales than with the ripples they kick up in your gut.
The Louisville-based Salsburg can be a nimble, even virtuosic player, but Affirmed is a story-driven, heavily melodic paean to old Kentucky lore. Named after the last horse to seize the Triple Crown (in 1978, the year Salsburg was born), thoroughbreds loom here, particularly a 3-year-old filly named Eight Belles, who cracked both front ankles a few seconds after placing behind winner Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. (Her trainer later said she’d tripped over her own feet; she was swiftly euthanized). A fallen racehorse, especially one as imposing as Eight Belles, makes for an awfully good muse, and Affirmed includes two songs (“Blues For Eight Belles” and “Eight Belles Dreamt The Devil Was Dead”) composed in her honor; the latter, especially, contains an entire life cycle’s worth of agony and bliss in five quick minutes.
Instrumental guitar records being what they are (rare, improbable), Affirmed feels like something of a gift. Salsburg does sing on one track—a heartbreaking iteration of the traditional folk cut “The False True Love”—but by then, his words feel nearly superfluous.