John Doe, folkie? That’s certainly what the name his new project — “The John Doe Folk Trio” — seems to suggest, as does the trio’s just-released record, “Fables in a Foreign Land.” Has the man who founded X, the seminal punk band in which he’s been active for 40-plus years, traded the rock club for the coffeehouse?
“I’ll cop to the fact that [the album] was inspired by my childhood love of folk music — because people my age, their parents gave their kids folk songs to listen to, whether it was Burl Ives, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, or Cisco Houston,” says Doe, when reached via Zoom at his Austin, Texas, home to talk about this new turn. The Folk Trio is embarking on a tour that will bring it (fittingly) to Club Passim in June. As well, the X-man has not been averse to forays into folk territory, both with X’s acoustic alter ego, the Knitters, and in some of his solo work.
He’s not now trying to adopt a “folk persona,” however. (In fact, Doe will be back in Boston later this summer with X at House of Blues.) “I didn’t do a deep dive or study of ‘What is folk music, and how am I going to write songs like Pete Seeger, or the Mississippi Sheiks?’ I just did my version of it.”
He does see various elements of the folk tradition in the new album; he mentions the narrative character of the songs, and the presence of some social commentary (most visibly in “After the Fall” and “Guilty Bystander”). There’s also a folk-music staple in murder ballad “Destroying Angels” (co-written with Garbage’s Shirley Manson and X’s Exene Cervenka) and a Guthrie cop in the song “Travelin’ So Hard.” Most of all, though, it’s the album’s spareness and acoustic character that for him gives it some tincture of folk.
The project itself, like so many others of late, came out of the stasis imposed by pandemic lockdown. With time on his hands, Doe called up Kevin Smith, well-known to fans of a certain flavor of roots music for his participation in traditional rockabilly trio High Noon, whose main gig these days is playing bass in Willie Nelson’s road band. Doe and Smith, along with drummer extraordinaire Conrad Choucroun, started getting together in socially-distanced fashion about once a week to play, and a certain sound emerged.
Doe calls it a “stripped-down, shuffle-y sound.” “I’ve had this idea of stripping things down for maybe seven or eight years,” he relates. “I’ve used some people that I’ve recorded with in the past, and it always got a little bit bigger, a little bit louder. It didn’t stay with the sound that I had in mind. But Kevin and Conrad just got it.”
“Fables in a Foreign Land” has a certain theme or concept running through it, and that is by intention. “This is about pursuit, about searching, but it also has an element of isolation and loneliness and fear, which we all have experienced the last couple of years,” he says. The songs are also set in some fashion in the 1890s, a timeframe that emerged as Doe was writing them. “I thought ‘Oh, all right, I’ll go with this,’ but I didn’t do it in an academic kind of way. I did stay true to the idea. If there was anything modern that was influencing me, I just wrote that down, and I’ll use that for something else.”
As he explains it, the concept is a journey, “somebody fleeing, and what they might hear or see” along the way. The journey is framed by the album’s first song, “Never Coming Back (”Someone has to leave home, their parents are killed, their house is burned down, whether it’s actual or figuratively,” he says) and by closing song “Where the Songbirds Live.” Doe calls the latter song his version of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” “I hope that our hero or heroine ends up at the Pacific Ocean — a place that is a little gentler, a little safer, a place where they want to stay.”
The narrative is a loose one, adds Doe. “There’s a beginning, there’s an end, and there’s some stuff in the middle.” Some of the songs are the hero’s or heroine’s direct experience, others are stories heard along the way — a tall tale about a cowboy who willingly meets his end at the hands (or rather, paws) of a grizzly bear (“The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon”), a song about a braggart who calls himself “El Romance-o” (“He thought he was beloved, but he was below”).
Doe likes the ambiguity that this introduces. “My greatest hope is that someone can listen to this, relate to it in some fashion, and go into whatever world has been created, walk around there a little bit, get a sense of place and smell and see things, and come out of it and think. ‘Oh, wow! That was a trip! Cool!’”
THE JOHN DOE FOLK TRIO
At Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge. June 18 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. $30. 617-492-7679. www.passim.org
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com