Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton has an old-timey sound
According to his birth certificate, Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton was born in 1989.
More precisely, he was born Jan. 26, 1989, less than a week after George H.W. Bush became the 41st president of the United States.
Paxton's music, however, sounds straight out of the McKinley administration.
Sometimes he'll play a country blues song in the style of Lead Belly or Robert Johnson. Other times, he'll light up the strings of his guitar with a ragtime tune, or switch to the banjo for a rapid-fire dance number.
Although many of these songs are more than a hundred years old, and Paxton grew up at the same time as MP3s, iPods and AutoTune, he executes each one with an astonishing degree of authenticity.
Onstage he wears suits or overalls, just like the old-time bluesmen. He doesn't use electrified instruments. Even his promotional photos were shot with a vintage tintype camera, like the ones used in the Civil War era.
It comes from Paxton's respect for tradition. In his mind, the folk songs he sings onstage are already perfect.
"The only thing I could do to the song is make it worse," he said.
Paxton will bring his music to the West Virginia Culture Center theater at 8 p.m. this Saturday as part of the Friends of Old Time Music and Dance's 2013-2014 concert series. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased in advance at www.footmad.org or by calling 304-415-4668.
Paxton bristles at other folk acts - he won't name any names - who try to fuse old-time music with modern influences.
"People want to be original more so than they want to be good. People tend to make what I like to call 'cajun guacamole.' Guacamole is good, and Cajun seasoning is good, but certain things are best left not put together," he said.
He said the blending of traditions is fine. That's how the accordion wound up in Cajun music and the German harmonica is now synonymous with the blues. But Paxton said fusion should be allowed to occur naturally.
Although Paxton is usually billed as a country musician, he tells audiences (and interviewers) he really plays "American music."
"It's just like America, it's got everything in it. I play music from everywhere, from every sort of people," he said.
He remembers the first time he heard Buck White, patriarch of the old-timey gospel group The Whites and Ricky Skaggs' eventual father-in-law.
"It was the voice of people I knew, People I grew up with, people that raised me," he said. "When I heard that, I knew I'd found where I came from."
Paxton's grandmother grew up in Louisiana but moved to California to escape life as a sharecropper.
"She said 'If I'm going to be broke, I might as well be broke in the city.'"
The family wound up in south central Los Angeles and, like many transplants from the Deep South, sought to distance themselves from their past.
But Paxton said his family was so rooted in those tradition that, hard as they tried, they were never able to break free.
While he would eventually use those traditions to shape his repertoire, Paxton's early interest in music was driven more by a fascination with instruments rather than the tones they produced. He wanted to figure out how a violin worked, how it produced music just by pulling a bow across some nylon strings.
He begged his parents to buy him a fiddle, and they agreed ... but only if he would take lessons. It was in those lessons that Paxton became interested in playing music, although he didn't make much progress with the violin.
"It's a difficult instrument to get good at," he said. "I didn't get much past 'Twinkle, Twinkle.'"
When he was about 14, Paxton switched to the banjo. He found a teacher who taught him how to play three-finger bluegrass banjo, a style invented by Earl Scruggs. But as he talked to his grandmother about the kind of music she listened to growing up in Louisiana - his great-grandfather was a banjo player - he switched to the more traditional "clawhammer" style.
For a long time, Paxton only made music for himself and his family. But when he got older, he moved across the country and spent three or four years in New York City playing jazz piano and six-string banjo at nightclubs.
Last year, he hired a manager and has begun touring on the folk festival circuit, which has taken him all over the United States, to Canada and Europe.
He also has recorded a new album, which will be released in a few months. It wasn't enjoyable for Paxton, though.
"When I play music for people, I play music for people. When I play music for a microphone, that's awkward," he said. "It's artificial."
For an artist so obsessed with authenticity, it's an understandable pet peeve.