Most acoustic guitarists perfect, or become associated with, a particular genre—Delta or Piedmont blues, for instance, or Celtic, ragtime, or traditional folk (however you define that). Some, like John Fahey or Robbie Basho or Alex de Grassi, create a personal amalgam that becomes an influential style unto itself.
Duck Baker is not like most acoustic guitarists. Between May of 2016 and the end of the year, he will have released at least five new albums—The County Set, Shades of Blue, The Preacher’s Son, Deja Vouty, and Outside—on three different labels, with more albums on the horizon. The music on the new releases ranges from traditional Irish and Appalachian dance pieces to American folk, blues, gospel, Western swing, and Appalachian fiddle tunes owing to Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Wills, the Indian Creek Delta Boys, and others. Then there’s jazz—old-time, modern, and free—showing Baker’s deep familiarity with swing, bebop, and hard-bop, and referencing everybody from Slim Gaillard and Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane and Derek Bailey.
If you’re scratching your head and thinking you’ve seen the name “Duck Baker” in these pages before, well, you’re right. Since September 2009 Duck has contributed to every issue of The Absolute Sound, the scope of his interests making for memorable writing in both the jazz and rock sections. Often his insights into different genres comes from his experience as a musician. As did many baby boomers of his generation, Richard R. Baker IV, a native of Richmond, Virginia, and now 67, started playing guitar as an early teenager, smitten with rock and roll. He got an electric guitar in 1964 and fell under the sway, he recalls, of “people like Chuck Berry, Lonnie Mack, and Mike Bloomfield (on the first Paul Butterfield record).” But other sounds in the mid-60s air (and on the mid-60s airwaves) soon captured the attention of the budding guitarist.
“This was the era of what Utah Phillips would later call ‘the great folk scare,’” Baker explained in an email from his home in Reading, England. “I heard local kids playing the pop/folk stuff in bands. At some point, I started picking up the basic kinds of fingerpicking patterns that people like Peter, Paul & Mary used, just from watching these local kids. Then I started hanging out in local coffeehouses and meeting slightly older kids who were trying to play blues, jug band music, bluegrass, etc. Before long I was buying records by Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGee, and Robert Johnson.”
As a young kid with dreams of growing up to be a “real musician,” Baker knew he should pay attention to jazz and initially gravitated toward the soul jazz of Jimmy Smith and the Jazz Crusaders. It was a piano player named Buck Evans who introduced Baker to earlier jazz: ragtime, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke. “Buck was one of those oddballs for whom musical history sort of stopped in the 1930s,” Baker explained. “I think his low opinion of rock contributed to my doing less and less of that, though I was still playing in electric bands up until the time I left Richmond in 1968.”
Also in the mid-60s, Baker started listening to more modern jazz. When he was 16 or 17, he bought Thelonious Monk’s Riverside LP Misterioso. “I did not understand one note on that record but I fell completely in love with it,” he said. He then moved on to Miles Davis and, thanks to a woman he dated and would latter marry, Archie Shepp and Andrew Hill. “Those records just floored me, and from there I progressed pretty quickly to being a hardcore free jazz fan, working through Coltrane, Ornette, Sun Ra, et al. What’s interesting is that I started from the beginning and the end as a jazz listener. When I moved back through to people like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, the hard-boppers, and so on, it was a matter of acquiring the taste, at first. But the free jazz and the early stuff spoke to me right away.”
By the time Baker made his recording debut in 1975, for Stefan Grossman’s Kicking Mule label, he had moved to San Francisco and practiced his way into becoming something of an acoustic guitar phenom. (He also started writing about jazz during that period, and has been a freelance music critic ever since.) He was able to integrate guitar influences as diverse as Doc Watson (“The way I figured out ‘Deep River Blues’ was harder in some ways than Doc’s arrangement”), Sonny Sharrock (“As soon as I heard him, I started trying to play like that, and trying to work out an outside style that was more like trying to imitate sax players”), and Chet Atkins (“I wasn’t impressed with the very MOR things I heard him play, but Chet made me feel like you could play any kind of music as a guitar solo”).
And once he brought Irish, English, and Scottish material into his repertoire—after hearing “real” Irish music, first in San Francisco and then while touring the UK, where he hung out in pubs and connected with such guitarists as Davy Graham, Dave Evans, and Dan Ar Braz—Baker established himself as not only a recognized fingerstyle guitar virtuoso, but also as one of the most unpredictably eclectic.