“I’m a proud member of the family phone plan,” Chris Acker tells me from the other end of a Seattle phone number, getting choked up on dry bread from inside his place in New Orleans parish, where the alluvial floodplains along the nearby Mississippi River sometimes rise taller than the houses they envelope. Acker’s family still lives out west in Washington, where he was born on the heels of grunge’s death rattle and the Mariners’ victory over the New York Yankees in the ‘95 American League Division Series. “No matter where I go, I think that 206 area code will follow,” he adds.
By day, Acker is a line cook at 1000 Figs, a Mediterranean restaurant neighboring the Bayou St. John Waterway. By night, he moonlights as a folk-singing troubadour, shouldering the legacies of his crooning forefathers, eulogizing John Prine and Guy Clark even when the $100 take from a dive bar show doesn’t pay the rent. “You want the balance to be, like, 95% folk singing and 5% working,” Acker says. “But, your employer can really start to tell when you’re giving 5%—which has always been my dilemma.”
Acker carries Washington state with him even in the South. Where his friends can shoot the shit on post-Civil War Reconstruction and Great American Songbook like it’s water-cooler catch-up, Acker’s got a tight two hours on his hometown Mariners and the now-defunct Supersonics, tactilely willing the legend of the team’s former right fielder, Jay Buhner, being able to puke on demand on listeners, or uplifting the now-squashed birthright of once-budding Pacific Northwest superstar Kevin Durant, or gospelizing Ichiro Suzuki’s record-book 2001 campaign.
But Acker’s a transplant among the Cajun, Creole, and Yats parading around French Quarter, having dropped out of college and hitchhiked to New Orleans in 2014 for Mardi Gras with some kids he busked alongside in Asheville. In the time since, he’s steadily been creating, putting out a handful of records, some now long gone in the cobwebbed dungeons of the internet. But even with his new full-length record, 'Odd, Ordinary & Otherwise', on the way, one question breaks through the dirt beneath the magnolias and irises of his home state: “Who the fuck is Chris Acker?”
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A balding, baby-faced, purveyor of nasally folk-rock, Chris Acker is one of America’s great translators of absurd mundanity. Often said to be a torch carrier for the legacy of the late John Prine, Acker possesses both the bravado of a backroads sing-a-long emcee and the fashion of a Goodwill rack hound who’s just happy to be here. But he’s as much a descendent of poet Frank O’Hara as he is of Prine, fusing the unavoidable humor of human existence with the vernaculars of assorted lands he’s had the privilege of thumbing around, showcasing the trades he picked up from stays in cities he hasn’t thought about since leaving them. “I love the conversation between New Orleans music and Western Louisiana music and Zydeco and Cajun and R&B. Cajun people even started making swamp pop music, which is a style of 1950s R&B that I fucking adore,” Acker says. “One of my favourite parts about folk music is, you can track its development through economic and migration patterns.”
And that migration has always been on Acker’s radar. Before he was sleeping in Montana motel bathtubs under purple moons, recording YouTube duets in Langhorne Slim’s living room, and serving as the Yin to Nick Shoulders’ Yang, Acker was in college in Bellingham, Washington getting exposed to Sam Doores and The Tumbleweeds for the first time. The subsequent rabbit hole he went down culminated in how Bayou favorites Hurray For the Riff Raff wouldn’t exist without Cast King’s blues-soaked outlaw catalog from Mississippi Records in Portland. “I think it acknowledges the fluidity of American music, in the ways that certain things influence each other,” Acker adds.
He spent his teen years drunk on his father’s love for the folk revivalist era. His passion for writing was then augmented by his high school English teacher, who dedicated class periods to dissecting every word of Bob Dylan’s 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall'. “I just felt such a strong kinship to this guy,” Acker adds. “He didn’t just teach me guitar; he also turned me on to the stuff of Mississippi John Hurt and Billy Joe Shaver.” But Acker’s influences bend back as far as early childhood. His dad grew up in Chicago just after Prine had come to the city and got famous. “He really adored that,” Acker says. “My earliest memory of music is listening to [Prine] on a long family road trip to Idaho for Christmas.” Then came a period of brick and mortar for Acker: Getting stoked on Dylan’s 'Boots Of Spanish Leather', thinking his life would never be the same, and forming bands with dudes who shared that same naive, youthful admiration and excitement.
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And like his folk-singing ancestors, Acker has perfected the balance between articulating comedy and maturity into his songwriting. Whether it’s absurd fits of poetic slapstick, like “I wanna sunbathe by a satellite dish/With velcro shoes and store credit” on 'Styrofoam', or tender one-liners, like “Never is the hardest kind of forever” on 'Walking', Acker has built a keen sense of what authenticity goes into humour and heartbreak trading punches. “If you’re going to do music that is supposed to reflect humanity or reflect yourself, and you don’t have playfulness, then I don’t fucking believe you, really,” he says.
But that balance hasn’t always come easy. Some of Acker’s earliest EPs were mostly novelty songs, written in the same vein as Dylan’s 'Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues'. “When I first started writing, it was a heavy-handed, humor all the time kind of thing,” he adds. “I think, reflecting on it now, maybe part of it was me just looking for a way to be candid.”
Acker attempts to show off the most well-rounded portrait of himself he can in his music. Humble accounts of his day-to-day life, like when he sings “My hairline’s losing real estate/My forehead is expanding my face/I spend five minutes a day/Pulling my head from the drain” on 'Panicked & Paralyzed', bridge the gap between him and his listeners with blunt transparency. “You can always hide behind a punch line,” he says. “But when you balance the comedy and the hyper-seriousness, and they play off of each other, you can be just as vulnerable being humorous as you can being serious. It’s interesting to listen to someone accomplish the same goal using different modes.”
In New Orleans, the folks Acker slams drinks with at dive bars are also the regular performers there. They’re the kin who hold church around backyard campfires, delivering sermons by way of busted guitars and the deep-throated reach of their vocals. “It’s a really loving, supportive group of people, and a lot of great bands with an impressive variety within the sounds of country and folk come out of here,” Acker says. But for decades, there’s been virtually no industry or studio presence in New Orleans. “A lot of these musicians in the city, in this scene, haven’t been recorded,” Acker says.
Then came Mashed Potato Records, a ragtag studio set up in Sam Doores’ house by Duff Thompson and Bill Howard. Built on using old Ampex tape machines and other vintage equipment, the studio became immediately accessible for budding and seasoned balladeers passing by, resulting in compilations showcasing the diversity of the region, and distributing them to select record stores across the country, for the first time. Acker recorded some of his earliest work at Mashed Potato, along with other Delta rhapsodists, like Nick Shoulders, The Lostines, and Twain & The Deslondes.
During Acker’s early days in the area, he sparked up a friendship with Shoulders, a socio-political, yodeling good old boy who’d moved down from the Ozarks after drumming in a Santa Cruz rockabilly band. Their oil-slick compatibility helped attract fans early, and, after the two songwriters became Mashed Potato alumni, they went on tours together, parading there preservations of “grandpa music” on the road far beyond the Four Points. “I’ve played more shows and spent more time on tour with Nick than anyone else,” Acker adds.
Before a release show for Shoulders’ 2019 record, 'Okay, Crawdad', at The Tigermen Den on Royal Street, two stripped down performances were shot for the Country and Western-loving YouTube channel Western AF: Shoulders’ rendition of 'Rather Low' in one of the venue’s hallways and Acker’s one-shot of fan-favourite 'Aloe Vera' on the streets outside. Both videos generated hefty buzz, with Acker’s throwing his then new record, 'Good Kid', into the forefront of the modern folk scene.
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Fast-forward a few months later to the beginning of the pandemic, when Shoulders moved back home to Fayetteville, Arkansas from New Orleans. Soon after the 'Rather Low' video went viral, Shoulders’ merch order numbers skyrocketed, and, to combat the sudden influx of traffic, he created Gar Hole Records—a label he’d go on to release his own 2021 album 'Home On The Rage' from—with Kurt 'Tape Dad' DeLashmet.
During the opening wake of lockdown, after listening to the repetitions of his roommate practicing pedal steel, Acker got off his ass and recorded an album without a label to back it up. With the help of his longtime backing band, The Growing Boys, Acker put together 13 songs, and sent them to a handful of friends, including Shoulders, with the hopes of receiving critical feedback in return. Instead, Shoulders offered to put the record out himself on his new label. “I think we’ve all had friends that have, like, ‘started a label,’” Acker chuckles. But on their Instagram account on March 5th, 2021, Gar Hole announced Acker as their first official outside artist, with the promise of a new record to follow.
That record, 'Odd, Ordinary & Otherwise', a combination of new stories written during lockdown and older, once-unfinished scraps finally put together, is not just the generous smorgasbord of IBS daydreams, closed-cell polystyrene foam allusions, sex workers eating Taco Bell on Thanksgiving, queer love story recitings, and maraudings around the backlit avenues of The Big Easy after a breakup it paints itself as. At its core, it’s a songwriter’s long, complicated love letter to New Orleans.
Across the city, on any given day, folks bring their fiddles to parties, on the off-chance a jam session at 2 A.M. breaks out. There’s a reason Chris and Nick went there. “Some of the best bands that no one has ever heard of live here,” Acker says. For a long time, he was one of those nobodies. But then, at a July show this summer with Shoulders and Willi Carlisle at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Acker showed up with new tunes to a room full of cowboy hats and flannel-wearing, yodel-loving Arkansawyers. He kicked up jokes with the crowd while sitting middle-stage, rolling with the ups and downs of his first post-quarantine show, after spending a lot of days “building up the confidence to say ‘Are you ready to rock?’ into a microphone” for the first time in over a year, in front of fans who came out early to catch his set.
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On the opening title track of 2020’s 'Good Kid', Acker sang, “Get by on your wit and your charm/Until you’re at your wit’s end.” But now, on the 'Odd, Ordinary & Otherwise' title track, he sings, “Would you look at that, they know my name at the corner store/Despite how it’s been looking, I’m not just anybody anymore.” Acker is no longer getting by on just being the quick-witted boy wonder he paraded as on previous releases. Across the country, folks know the lyrics to his songs, and he’s accumulated an interstate of couches to sleep on. Now a bonafide local celebrity ready to stay put, Acker’s going to hold his own in the midst of the low-key country and folk revival swelling across the upper Midwest and Deep South for the foreseeable future, funnelling more of his grandeur, dependable songs into the history of The Big Easy. “New Orleans is the only place I see myself in for a long time,” Acker says. “I like to visit other cities, but I’ve found such a home amongst these people. I admire the world I’m in.”
And it’s that world resting at the heart of the album’s centerpiece song: 'Nick and Joe', a five-minute ballad tracing the 40-year story of two lovers in the South drifting away and back to one another. Nick, a long-time neighborhood character, and Acker became friends outside of Frady’s, a po’ boy joint in the Bywater neighborhood near the Mississippi River, after sharing a night talking about Tammy Wynette and clowning on homophobes.
But some time after Nick and Acker met, Joe phoned Nick, saying he’d come down with a bad liver and didn’t have much longer to live. To keep Joe out of a nursing home or hospice, Nick took care of his former flame himself, cooking and loving him until his death not long after the two moved in together. “Late some spring evening/Two lovers lay sleeping/Down the hall from each other they listen/To each other breathing,” Acker sings at the resolution of 'Nick And Joe'. The song’s story wasn’t embellished, either. “[Nick] is the kind of guy where, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll tell you his entire life story,” Acker says. And just weeks before the record’s release, Acker finally showed Nick his song. Nick cried, because what started as corner store talk to pass the time quickly became a preservation of someone’s soulmate.
But besides being a curator of other folks’ stories, Acker also manifests the authentic folk singer breadth, in that he is ready to tell you his own life story if you’ve got an ear to lend him. If you catch wind of a neck-bearded, boyish character parading the alleyways beneath sea level, with a guitar held across his chest by a wiring string, in a Mariners shirt, overalls, and a rain jacket, he might indulge you in his vengeful sunburn revenge fantasies. Or, he might just sing you a number about the embarrassing, but endearing, pitfalls of growing up, like enlisting in medical tests to pay off debts, or the throwing up after eagerly swallowing the sun.
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'Odd, Ordinary & Otherwise' is out everywhere August 20th.
Words: Matt Mitchell
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