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On ‘Josh Billings Voyage,’ Tim Eriksen finds local inspiration

Michael Murphree

Tim Eriksen, who has the distinction of being a triple threat (musician, musicologist, and educator), was born in Massachusetts and has devoted much of his life to exploring the region’s folklore. He has revived old ballads, delved deep into the tradition of shape-note singing, started the world’s largest Sacred Harp convention, and traces his roots to a folk-punk band he started in the late 1980s called Cordelia’s Dad.

But for “Josh Billings Voyage,” his new album that will be released on Tuesday, Eriksen didn’t tap into childhood nostalgia so much as he invented a parallel universe.

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“I wanted to make an album about a New England that felt more familiar to me. It’s the New England of my imagination, but also of my experience,” Eriksen says earlier this week from his home in downtown Amherst. “I had a couple of rules: I didn’t want to use any acoustic guitars. Sometimes really superficial things can be useful rubrics. I wanted a different sound.”

To do that, he created a fictional village called Pumpkintown and let the songs — two he wrote, 11 of traditional origin — tell the story of various townspeople.

“I wanted to get to the invisible multiculturalism that goes really deep in these little New England villages that we think of as culturally homogeneous,” says Eriksen, who celebrates the album’s release with a show at Club Passim on Sunday. “You can listen to a lot of old New England folk songs and not hear the deep multiculturalism in the local culture, but it’s there. And I wanted to draw it out.”

It was an ambitious project, to be sure, mixing musical styles and instruments while staying course with the storytelling. South Indian flourishes mingle with bowed banjos and glockenspiels, not to mention the presence of the bajo sexto, a 12-string acoustic guitar prevalent in Mexican norteño music. Did the album and its vast scope ever get away from Eriksen?

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It was so attractive because it was so slippery. I didn’t know what it was. I knew there was an aesthetic, a sound, a story. It was kind of like flying a kite — I kept letting it out and started feeling comfortable with it.”

The exact location is nebulous — probably in Western Massachusetts — but Eriksen says the album is set in modern times.

“My imagination of Pumpkintown is that it’s this place where they have a settled culture and it’s new and emerging. There’s Africans, Native Americans, Anglos, Irish, Germans, whatever,” he says. “I was imagining what the music in this village would sound like. I came up with that name because pumpkins were sort of the quintessential symbol of Yankee culture. That and corn.”

Eriksen, who has taught a variety of music-related courses at an even broader range of colleges (Dartmouth, Amherst, Smith, etc.), says his academic interests informed but didn’t necessarily dominate the project.

“It’s not just me musing about New England culture,” he says. “I wanted this record to be very accessible. Even if it seemed kind of mysterious, I wanted it to be internally coherent and make sense to people who don’t know anything about this topic.”

“I was working on the album for years, trying to figure out what the unifying factor was,” he adds. “There are almost more books about fictional New England villages than there are about real ones — Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder, every Stephen King novel. And these towns almost always have a choirmaster or a fiddler, or both, and they have this important role in the town.”

Peter Irvine, who plays percussion on “Josh Billings Voyage” and has a long history with Eriksen as the drummer for Cordelia’s Dad, says the album is in line with a mission Eriksen has always been on.

“I’ve been working with Tim for over 25 years, and that’s been a constant theme: discovering what’s in your own backyard,” says Irvine, who will join Eriksen at Club Passim along with fiddler Zoe Darrow. “Tim wants you to have a personal connection with his music. That’s why I love the distribution plan for this record.”

Eschewing typical channels — iTunes, Amazon, record stores — Eriksen is selling “Josh Billings Voyage” through four outlets. You can get it at his website (www.timeriksenmusic.com), at A.J. Hastings, a longtime stationery store in Amherst; and through Eriksen directly at his shows. More intriguing, though, is his recent experiment.

“Forget Facebook, the media, and all that. A pre-release copy of my new album . . . will be available tomorrow, somewhere in the Monk’s Cave,” Eriksen wrote on his Facebook page last week, referring to a root-cellar-like dwelling in Western Mass. “If anyone cares to go find it, take the opportunity to get out in the amazing cold and colors of the Valley.”

Sure enough, someone did and informed Eriksen on Facebook: “Found it! Thanks for a great treasure hunt! We left you something in return.” (It turned out to be a jar of homemade salsa.)

That tickles Irvine.

“It’s hard enough to sell records these days,” he says, “so this is moving it more into the realm of performance art. And that’s what Tim has always been about: If you want his music, you have to personally connect to Tim, which is unusual in this day and age.”

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.
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