"Like David Lynch, postjazz guitarist Bill Frisell has
a knack for insinuating an odd haze around the most wholesome
aspects of Americana. Disfarmer, named after the cranky Arkansas
photographer who created gripping images of his neighbors, finds
Frisell teamed with steel guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny
Scheinman and bassist Viktor Krauss for a set of 26 evocative
miniatures. Each one flits by like a half-remembered dream, yet
paradoxically their sum amounts to one of Frisell's loveliest,
most consistently affecting recent creations." - Steve
Smith, Time Out, New York
"The music of omnivorous guitarist Bill Frisell reflects
an eclectic range of influences .... On "Disfarmer," he
draws inspiration from the Depression-era portraits of little-known
Arkansas photographer Michael Disfarmer. The result is a provocative
soundscape that features a mixture of acoustic and
electric guitars.... Creatively restless, Frisell is best suited
for exploring vast territory and responding with imaginative
integrity, which is evidenced on "Disfarmer." - Dan
"Exquisite." - Independent on Sunday
"Frisell's filmic themes summon up the ghosts of a lost
America. The results are gently beautiful." The Times
"The tunes prove so hauntingly evocative that they conjure
the spirits of long-vanished people and places without the need
for visual accompaniment."
"The hymns and hoedowns of 'Disfarmer' are both affectionate
and atmospheric." - Daily Telegraph
"You practically feel the Arkansas soil slipping through
your fingers."- The Sun
NPR.org, July 13, 2009 -
This album is called Disfarmer, and it's by Bill Frisell. Frisell,
know: He's a guitar tactician with warmth and a composer of unclassifiable
songs. As a solo artist, Frisell is known largely for drawing
upon the affects of Americana ‹ folk, country and western,
what-have-you ‹ in ways you wouldn't immediately call
jazz, but which draw from jazz in a way that implies no better
But who, or what for that matter, is Disfarmer?
Mike Disfarmer was born Michael Meyers in 1884, the sixth of
seven children in a family of German immigrant farmers in Arkansas.
As he grew older, he came to reject both his family and its agrarian
lifestyle. (A tornado, he once claimed, uprooted him from his
birth parents and blew him into the Meyers household.) So he
chose a new surname. Upon learning, somewhat incorrectly, that
the German word "meyer" translated to "farmer" in
English, he reasoned that he could only be called an anti-farmer,
In other words, Disfarmer was something of an eccentric, and
a recluse to boot. But he was also an artist: Disfarmer ran a
portrait photography studio in rural Heber Springs, Ark. ‹ the
only such enterprise for miles around.
Thousands of black-and-white images captured his fellow townspeople
from the years preceding the Great Depression to the period following
WWII. And something about the solemn, stark plainness to his
style lent his subjects an unexpected intimacy, ensuring his
legacy as one of America's great outsider artists.
Disfarmer died in 1959, but his photographs were eventually
rediscovered, exhibited and anthologized. The candor of those
images would be a natural counterpart to the post-Americana music
of Bill Frisell ‹ so thought Chuck Helm, Director of the
Performing Arts at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. Sure
enough, when Helm introduced Frisell to Disfarmer's oeuvre, the
guitarist went on to create a touring multimedia work, scoring
a slideshow of Disfarmer images.
The recording of that music, on Frisell's latest album Disfarmer,
is what you can hear here in its entirety. It's filled with the
sounds of a 21st-century string band: Greg Leisz's mandolin and
pedal-steel atmospherics, Jenny Scheinman's sundry fiddle textures,
Viktor Krauss' rich acoustic bass plucking. And then there's
Frisell, the quiet tactician of the electric guitar, who engineers
loops and subtle distortions with phrasing you never knew you
There are evocative original themes and motifs here, surrounded
by backgrounds sounding distant echoes of country, bluegrass
and old-time mountain music. There's also a handful of carefully
selected covers, among them Hank Williams' lament "I Can't
Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)"
and Arthur Crudup's blues song "That's Alright, Mama," a
hit rockabilly vehicle for Elvis Presley. It's a record alternately
spare and full, languid and rollicking, pastoral and urbanely
And it's all in service to the work of the enigmatic Arkansas
photographer Mike Disfarmer.
"What was he thinking?" Frisell asks. "What did
he see? We'll never know, but as I write the music, I'd like
to imagine it coming from his point of view. The sound of him
looking through the lens."
The Houston Chronicle, August 2, 2009 Sunday
By Andrew Dansby
Like Bill Frisell, I'd not heard of Mike Disfarmer even though
I'd seen his work. Disfarmer, who died in 1959, was a weird genius
of photography who took haunting, beautiful and mysterious portraits
of the folks in his hometown of Heber Springs, Ark. Disfarmer's
photos tipped the paper boat into the water for the always innovative
guitarist Frisell, but Disfarmer is more than a soundtrack to
a collection of photos. Frisell took a road trip from North Carolina
to Arkansas to initiate the project. In both song selection and
instrumentation the album reflects that movement. Among the 26
compositions are three interpretations of well-known songs -
That's Alright, Mama, Lovesick Blues and I Can't Help It (If
I'm Still in Love With You) - that suggest he stopped at some
music landmarks along the way.
But the majority of these songs, with titles like Farmer, Little
Girl and Little Boy, were inspired by Disfarmer and/or his subjects.
Not only is there a continuity in Disfarmer's work (the crisp
black-and-white detail, the stillness of the subjects) but there's
also great range. Similarly Frisell's pieces flow together despite
great variance in their tones. Some, like the opening Disfarmer's
Theme, reflect the stoic darkness portrayed in the photos while
others are more colorful. The lightness Jenny Scheinman's pizzicato
violin plucking on Lost, Night are immersed in some more ominous
tones produced by Frisell and steel guitarist Greg Leisz. Together,
they give the song a gorgeous complexity.
I'm Not a Farmer has a sweeping country feel, tinged with resignation.
It's quickly followed by the intimate, acoustically picked Small
Town, a short composition that suggests a yearning to get outside
its titular subject.
American roots music is not new terrain for Frisell. He's also
no stranger to making music tied to a visual medium (he's done
recordings to accompany Buster Keaton films). Disfarmer, though,
is a particularly beautiful suite of music. Frisell's pacing
is magnificent, and the album sweeps along with purpose like
a gorgeous, spacious epic. It is full of sounds that suggest
settings and characters, including the mysterious eccentric who
inspired the recording.