“In this new America — a land of fractured ideological lines and tribal rivalries,” says John Fusco in the liner notes of his new double-album, “I am so proud to have a band made up of northern and southern chapters … where music knows no borders.”
“John the Revelator,” released Friday, is Fusco’s second album with his band, the X-Road (pronounced “crossroad”) Riders. The album is a follow-up to Fusco’s stellar self-titled debut album, released last year.
An acclaimed Morrisville-based screenwriter, producer and musician, Fusco grew up in Connecticut but dropped out of school and ran away from home to travel the South on a mission to find pioneering Delta blues musicians who were living under the radar of mainstream America.
The odyssey inspired him to write the script for the 1986 movie “Crossroads,” a coming-of-age drama about a young guitarist traveling the South to learn about the blues.
The movie kick-started a successful career that has seen him write scripts for and produce such films as “Young Guns” (1988) and “Young Guns II” (1990), “Thunderheart” (1992), “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002), “Hidalgo” (2004) and “The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008).
Fusco, 61, also created the Netflix original series, “Marco Polo,” and more recently “The Highwaymen” starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. He’s also authored two novels and a children’s book.
But the blues has clearly remained close to Fusco’s heart. And while his first album featured mostly southern musicians, the new double-album includes a noteworthy cast of both northern and southern contingencies.
“John the Revelator” continues Fusco’s fruitful collaboration with Cody Dickinson of celebrated blues-rock band North Mississippi Allstars, Fusco’s partner in the “southern chapter” of the X-Road Riders, as he calls his Mississippi-based members. In addition to multi-instrumentalist Dickinson, the southern crew includes singer Risse Norman and trombonist Sarah Morrow (Dr. John, Ray Charles Orchestra).
The “northern chapter” includes renowned harmonica player Mark Lavoie of Middlebury, guitarist Kurt Pierson and bassist Denny Diego, of Barre, drummer Spencer Perry, of Montpelier, and fiddler Patrick Ross, of Newbury, among several others who perform with the band.
An assured and inspired collection of songs and stories with connecting themes, “John the Revelator” mines Fusco’s deep knowledge of blues and roots music and his compelling tales about colorful characters and deeper emotional landscapes.
In short, it’s a potent remedy for our troubled times and something we can all unite behind.
While writing “Crossroads,” Fusco worked with the late, legendary rock producer Jim Dickinson. Dickinson introduced Fusco to his two sons, Luther and Cody Dickinson, who were mostly interested in punk rock at the time, much to their father’s chagrin.
That is, until they saw an early test screening of “Crossroads” at their father’s urging. “They walked in there young teenage punk rockers, and they walked out ready to play the blues,” Fusco said. “What they said to me later was, ‘that movie taught us that the blues could be really cool,’” he said, adding, “So I feel a little pride in having inspired Luther and Cody to get into the blues.”
Fusco kept in touch with Cody, and when “The Highwaymen” got the green light, and Fusco found out he’d be in New Orleans for the shooting, Dickinson invited him to visit him in Mississippi.
When “The Highwaymen” wrapped, Fusco rented a car and drove across the Mississippi Delta to visit Dickinson — a journey that included “so many different landmarks from my music past that I revisited,” he said.
“It just felt like it was meant to be, a meaningful full-circle trip back,” said Fusco. “My movie career took off, but it started with ‘Crossroads,’ it started with a blues music background, and maybe I’m at the crossroads again now and maybe I get a chance to look down that road I didn’t take. And, at least creatively, have that catharsis and create again.”
The rest, as they say, is history, the result of which is captured on Fusco’s seriously impressive first album.
“That just completely reinvigorated my music love and my songwriting love, and it just opened it up,” said Fusco. “It just became a really special creative experience. And it stuck.”
After recording the first album in Mississippi, Fusco kept writing new material upon returning to Vermont. “I wanted to keep playing the music, so I put together some local musicians here,” he said. “It’s Mississippi-based, but I live here, I love Vermont, and I want to play.”
Using the barn on his 200-acre farmstead as a rehearsal space, Fusco culled “some really strong, muscular southern-rock musicians and some young horn players, and some good background singers,” he said.
The “northern chapter” of the X-Road Riders started playing out, culminating with a sold-out November show at the Emergency 1st Responders Soul & Blues Bash at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe. The show also included southern chapter members Dickinson, Norman and Morrow.
Shortly after the release of Fusco’s first album, he headed back to Dickinson’s Checkerboard Lounge studio to lay down tracks for another album.
“No sooner did I come back from Mississippi that I was already writing new tunes,” Fusco said. “And they were coming fast and hard, to the point of accruing 20 or more original tunes that I had. And, right now, I actually have enough material for number three. It hasn’t stopped. It’s just been a really creative time, musically.”
Fusco wanted to finish some songs in Vermont and augment them with some of the northern chapter members. He brought world-renowned musician and producer George Petit, who lives in nearby Stowe, on board and the plan was to finish the songs together in Vermont music studios.
While they were finishing the existing songs, “I just kept rolling in new stuff, too,” Fusco said. “I had been wanting to do more kind of Leon Russell-type ballads that were still bluesy and still gospel-infused, but more reflective, emotional songs.”
“It’s just inspiration triggering inspiration,” Fusco said. “That process just started bubbling and boiling, and the next thing I knew we were accruing material and it was becoming a bigger project.”
Petit’s magic touch is on virtually all of the double-album’s 20 songs: In addition to co-producing, recording and mixing much of the album at Meadowlark Studios in Williston and in his own studio in Stowe — where he has a grand piano that Fusco used — he played guitar and bass on 10 tunes, tambourine on four more, and added sound effects to the opening title track.
“I just feel so fortunate to have him as a world-class axe player on the record,” said Fusco of Petit. “He reminded me a lot of film directors that I’ve worked with, in that he really would get a performance out of me, get me to open up, and get me thinking about things. So that was a bit of a different approach than the Mississippi sweaty jams.”
“I feel blessed to have had these two pros overseeing a project that means a lot to me,” Fusco said of Dickinson and Petit, adding, “I found that the diversity in styles was like hitting that whiskey blend you dream of.”