Interview: Jeffrey Silverstein

By Roberto Johnson

Jeffrey Silverstein continues to carve out his own lane in the world of cosmic guitar music

Western Sky Music. For some, those words might trigger thoughts of Jimi Hendrix and the description he ascribed to the sound of fellow Woodstock performers Crosby, Stills & Nash. ‘I’ve seen Crosby, Stills and Nash burnin’ ass,’ Hendrix declared after seeing the band play live in 1969. ‘They’re groovy, western-sky music.’ The late guitarist’s assessment was dead on. CSN’s laid back style and distinct blend of voices helped define the west coast sound that catapulted rock into its next decade.

When broached in current contexts, the phrase invokes an even more dynamic appeal, something far beyond what Hendrix or the folkie supergroup might have ever imagined. It’s also the name of the newest record from Portland musician and songwriter Jeffrey Silverstein, whose string of recent releases have entrenched him in the middle of the ongoing wave of new pastoralists making liberal use of pedal steel and fusing classic country and western elements with contemporary DIY sounds.

A Pacific Northwest transplant by way of New Jersey, Silverstein has been a steady supplier of earthy frequencies since venturing out as a solo artist near the end of last decade. An avid runner and part-time DJ, you’re likely to find him cruising a park trail or digging his way through the dollar bin at one of many local record stores. These days, his 12-inch collection features a rotating cast of hard-to-find vinyl treasures: private pressings of lost outlaw country classics, loner folk staples, and hidden gems from top tier crooners like Ricky Nelson and Charlie Rich, all of which help inform a key sensibility in his songwriting.

‘There’s a lot of humor and humility built into country music. I think that’s really important to have. Not just as a songwriter, but as a human,’ he says. ‘A lot of country songs are full of brutal heartache while also being super funny. I like people that can toe that line.’

Being surrounded by the natural splendor of his adopted home has also had its effect on Silverstein. His songs project a sense of being, often personifying the ecology from which they were born, both on a grandiose and intimate scale. Slow moving streams trickle their way towards the ocean to the count of a sparse drum machine. Clouds drift overhead in silence, holding up a mirror to past and present as they float by. Bird songs echo through the canopy of a forest whose floor is cushioned with leafy beds of gently-strummed guitars – imagery that underscores the connectedness between scape and song, a recurring theme on Western Sky Music.

The LP arrives after a two year stretch in which Silverstein remained highly active despite not formally releasing any music. Most recently, he traversed the UK alongside Bobby Lee in the Cosmic Country Revue, secured a string of dates supporting indie stalwart Eric D. Johnson’s Fruit Bats, and launched a vinyl release for 2020’s You Become The Mountain, a record that has quietly amassed cult adoration for its tranquil soundscapes.

That album’s continued success, along with expanding touring efforts, are a testament to Silverstein’s dedication to cultivating community, an idea that reverberates through each of his endeavors. ‘The fact of the matter is I’m gonna do this no matter what. I’m a lifer,’ he says. ‘I’m about to hit the 15-year mark of booking my own shows, doing my own press, and all of that. None of that is possible without family members, friends, and other bands. The amount of people, energy, and time it can take to make even one show happen is really important. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.’

Those sentiments of trust and connection permeate the new record as well, Silverstein’s second full-length release for Georgia-based imprint Arrowhawk Records. With accompaniment from producer Ryan Oxford, pedal steel guitarist Barry Walker Jr, bassist Alex Chapman, and new drummer Dana Buoy, Western Sky Music is another patiently constructed constellation of sounds, ripe with the soothing textures and pastoral iconography that have come to characterize Silverstein’s songs. 

As its title suggests, the album sees the modern day troubadour turn skyward for inspiration, its concept taking shape after a trip to Cottonwood Canyon State Park, an arid outpost in the high deserts of Eastern Oregon known for its vast and rugged terrain.

‘It was the first time we had gotten out of the city for a minute. I don’t think I ever remembered seeing the stars that well. The air felt so good. We had gone swimming that day and we didn’t even need the tent, just slept outside on bags. It was such a nice picture moment. I was like, ‘How can I try to capture that feeling in song?’

Silverstein’s sonic landscape materializes as a tapestry of personal mantras, playful pieces of wisdom, and fragments of melody that on their own hold a wealth of beauty and meaning. ‘Heavy is the load / When you’re all alone / If you keep doing / Only what you’re told’ he sings on opener Cowboy Grass, a standout burner with an infectious drawl and backbeat.

The other lyrical tracks adopt a similar tone of endearment, one concerned more with consciousness than consequence. Voyager In The Clear Light meditates on the blissful feeling of rediscovering simple pleasures in unexpected times, its downtrodden strums and dreamy steel crescendos channeling the comforting glow of a peach-peel sunset. Intimate affirmations suffuse the soft boogie of Sunny Jean, where the versatile drumming of Buoy, a founding member of Akron/Family – a band Silverstein cites as one of the major influences in his life, supplements the atmosphere with an added dimension of grooves.

The instrumental compositions, which comprise over half of the record’s runtime, set up camp in the psychedelic middle ground between ambient, indie folk, and country – a mesh of styles that, in addition to producing a wealth of wonderful music in recent years, has garnered an extensive list of nicknames stemming from the ‘Cosmic American music’ family tree.

‘Whatever people need to call it is fine,’ Silverstein chuckles. ‘Words like ‘cosmic’ and ‘psychedelic’ have become so commonplace, but I still put a positive connotation on them. For people hearing those terms for the first time, it does kind of awaken something where you have to do some imagining on your own and I think that’s cool.’

Genre aside, the allure of Silverstein’s music has always been in part to the space he creates in each song, a quality that encourages listeners to do their own reflecting. Even when the pace approaches a danceable tempo, such as on Chet, a kaleidoscopic reimagining of an old Chet Atkins riff featuring William Tyler, the gaps between the interlocking rhythms maintain the meditative mood of the record.

The slower numbers skew towards the serene. Instrumentation mimics elemental forces, such as on (Theme From) Western Sky Music, where Walker’s recurring lines liken to a slow-rising sun. It’s on these tracks where the steel guitarist’s trance-like touch is most pronounced, his palette teetering between rapture and face-melting fuzz.

‘There are reasons why Barry is as in demand as he is,’ says Silverstein, when asked of his partnership with Walker. ‘He’s so studied. He can go from more traditional sounds to full-on ambient or noise at the drop of a dime. I’ve been lucky to tour and play with a bunch of steel players, and it’s been fun to see other people’s approaches, but the fact that Barry is my hometown guy is special. I don’t lose sight of that.’

The same could be said for the kinship between Silverstein and his other bandmates. Their synergy is a direct reflection of the continuity across his growing discography. His deliberate choice to keep recording with the same group, while also bringing a new member into the fold, results in a collaborative energy that feels familiar yet invigorating.

‘I think choosing how you spend your time is a form of love, you know?’ says Silverstein, noting his mates’ ongoing commitments to family, separate recording projects, and work outside of music. ‘The fact we are choosing to spend ours together to create something is beautiful.’

On Western Sky Music, Silverstein continues to carve out his own lane in the world of cosmic guitar music, exploring the principles of place and presence, while reinforcing the timeless proverb that music is love.

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