Bound for glory

Singer-guitarist Bodhi Busick is a throwback to an earlier era—think freight trains and Woody Guthrie

Funny, singer Bodhi Busick doesn’t look like he fell off a passing freight train.

Funny, singer Bodhi Busick doesn’t look like he fell off a passing freight train.

9:30 a.m. Sunday, at a rally on the west steps at the State Capitol. Also, 8 p.m. Monday at the Blue Lamp, 1400 Alhambra Boulevard, on “Nashville Nights” with Richard March and Scott McChane, 21 and over, free. Also, 6 p.m. Thursday, October 21 at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street; benefit for “Get Out and Vote 2004,” with Los Mocosos, ¡Búcho! and Bob’s Child; $10 advance, $14 at the door.

No one likes to be pigeonholed. But when an associate of Nevada County singer-songwriter Bodhi Busick stated, as an aside, that young Busick doesn’t like to be categorized as a folk singer, I laughed. Not a minute before that, the same associate had handed over a home-burned CD of “Take It to the Street,” a song Busick had co-written with Utah Phillips—as close as you’ll get to an old-school folkie legend in these parts—which Busick had sung, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. And the music on it was, well, rather Woody Guthrie-esque for a 21st-century recording.

In a conversation the following day, Busick seemed amused. “Well,” he said, suppressing a laugh, “I don’t like to be categorized as anything”—before adding, after a pregnant pause: “I love folk music. But I’ve just been a rock ’n’ roller for a lot of years.”

Truth be told, Busick, 26, is a musical jack of all trades. He can replicate the soaring elliptical-melodic runs of Jerry Garcia on electric guitar, which he does on a song called “Only One” that he recorded with Jerry Garcia Band organist Melvin Seals. He can whip off lightning-fast flat-picked acoustic-guitar runs like some California foothill-billy version of Doc Watson, as he does on live versions of his original “Angels Song” and a cover of the traditional “Shady Grove.” And he’s also got a nice feel for blues and Latin styles, too.

Still, for Busick, there’s no running away from his voice. A deep, resonant baritone with a pinched nasality that evokes roadside weeds and railroad tracks, all dust and gravel and creosote-soaked wood, his vocals sound like late nights in a 1930s-vintage labor-camp cabin, with a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco with papers, a bottle of cheap-ass sour-mash whiskey and a dog-eared deck of playing cards on the table, and the harsh light of a lonesome light bulb burning overhead and some guy straight out of a John Steinbeck novel sitting in a chair picking notes on a battered old Martin guitar.

Busick, who was born in rural Marin County and grew up on Nevada County’s San Juan Ridge, hung out with the local punk rockers but never quite assembled his own band. “I was a little too punk to get it together,” he confessed. He had some kind of transformative experience when listening to a Johnny Cash record at around age 20, which prompted him to pick up an acoustic guitar.

After a brief sojourn to Washington state, Busick moved back to Nevada County, and then to Nashville. “I thought I wanted to try to sell some songs to country singers, and be part of that whole songwriting community,” he said. Easier said than done, and the realization that every cabbie, bellhop and dishwasher in town is waiting to hit the mother lode, after they land that first album cut, can be brutal. “I had some good connections,” he mused. “But everybody else did, too.” Busick worked with an R&B group, a Tejano band and he played guitar in that city’s Broadway clubs. Somewhere along the line, he recorded an entire album with a producer, who took the liberty of adding too many of his own touches. Busick would like to forget that CD. He is, however, working on a CD, backed by drummer Bruce Spencer, bassist Marty Holland and mandolinist Travers Clifford, which should be out early next year.

These days, Busick often can be found performing his music in the service of some progressive political cause. He’s appearing at a rally at the State Capitol on Sunday, October 17; the following Thursday, October 21, he’s on the “Get Out the Vote 2004” bill at the Crest Theatre; the following Tuesday, October 26, he’s appearing at a “Yes on Proposition 63, the Mental Health Initiative” benefit for Loaves & Fishes at the Empire with Jackie Greene and Sherman Baker. He’ll also be appearing as a guest at Richard March and Scott McChane’s free “Nashville Nights” series at the Blue Lamp on Monday, October 18, and he will appear with Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn at the 24th Street Theater on the first Saturday in November. You can’t miss him.