Ryan Gustafson remembers very little about the origins of the ten songs on Unsung Passage, his profound new reflection on the emotional architecture of love, loneliness, and life at large.
He mostly knows that the songs were written during quick spans scattered between various tours of the last two years—as a supporting guitarist for his kindred North Carolina spirits Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook’s Guitarheels and as the leader of his own long-evolving vehicle for a beautifully fractured vision of folk, country, blues, and cosmic American rock, The Dead Tongues. Gustafson’s third and best album under that name, Unsung Passage depends more on the songs themselves than the sounds around them. It is a first-person reckoning with the things Gustafson, a chronically peripatetic adventurer, has seen enough to sing about. “Every turn, every changing that occurs,” Gustafson offers during “The Broken Side of People Everywhere,” his voice sweetly yearning for whatever it is that might come next. “There’s a string attached, with a promise at the end.”
Indeed, funneling the lessons of the road into songs isn’t new for Gustafson; during the last two decades, it has become his standard practice. When he was twenty, he left North Carolina for the first of many backpacking trips across Europe, little but a sense of adventure and wonder to his name. He has hitchhiked from Oregon to New Orleans with a banjo and a bag and lived in and rebuilt an aging school bus, meant for an extended trek across the continent (that is, until the cost of gas proved prohibitive). After several years in a commune in the western woods of Asheville, North Carolina, he now lives in a nearby camper, at least when he’s off the road long enough to call anything home. “When I’m traveling, it’s like walking into these different windows. I’m a witness, with my mouth shut,” Gustafson says. “The people you meet, the way the landscape speaks to you, how a desert is different than a mountain: It has the potential to bring out something you didn’t know was there.”