Mountain Music

Adam Ewing quietly updates old-fashioned music with Mountains of Moss

Mountains of Moss is mostly Adam Ewing, a 31-year-old printmaker and Memphis native who plays guitar and harmonica, sings, and sometimes adds an untutored but effectively evocative fiddle. Most of the time he performs by himself, but he'll occasionally collaborate with his friends. He usually plays acoustic guitar, but sometimes he plugs in. The only constant from one Mountains of Moss show to another is Ewing.

"It's kind of a blanket name for me being me, singing and playing guitar," Ewing says. "One time it was me, a bass player, and a drummer. We did some super-loud drone stuff with a fog machine. Or if a friend happens to be in town, we might end up doing something together.... I prefer to play with other people when I'm playing out, but a lot of times that doesn't end up happening."

Whichever formation Mountains of Moss happens to take at any point, though, the project is always marked by Ewing's distinctive take on old-timey music. He's not an archivist or musicologist—there's nothing in his catalog that's really like old-time mountain music or Delta blues—but echoes of antique forms are recognizable throughout his catalog, from the vibrating hum of a saw or slide guitar to Ewing's shape-note influenced accompaniment with himself on the a cappella "Of Parting."

Ewing is influenced by both John Fahey and Nick Drake, though his style falls somewhere between Fahey's intricate, cerebral re-imagining of American folk through Eastern music and 20th-century composition and Drake's more song-oriented work. His songs can unfold at a pace generously described as deliberate; the geologic time scale implied by the name Mountains of Moss is a fitting frame for Ewing's music.

"Everything informs it," he says. "A lot of the stuff I record's not real composed. I just play in this tuning and know how the chords work and what can go in between them. I'm not necessarily playing a repeating pattern. I guess I think it's pretty loose."

That theme of instant composition, of songs and performances existing right now, of recordings as a document of a particular place and time rather than a blueprint for the right version of a song, is reflected in the entire Mountains of Moss project. Ewing never really knows ahead of time just what's going to happen—who'll be on stage with him, whether a show will be acoustic or electric, even which songs he'll play. It even influences his approach to when and how often he performs.

"If somebody asks me, I'm happy to do it," he says. "But I don't seek out shows. I don't really know what I'm going to be doing....I've played some songs four or five times and they've been different every time. If I play it acoustic, it's three minutes long; other times, it's 15 minutes long with the electric guitar. I don't know, I feel like so many bands I go see, I say to myself, ‘I can't believe you're still playing that.' Maybe it's fun for them. But I like to spread out playing as much as I can so I can breathe in between, see and listen to other things that will show up in my playing."

He's adjusted that attitude in recent months, since the release of "The Page of Shame" on a split single with fellow underground folk outfit New Madrid. "The Page of Shame" is made up of a minimal line of acoustic guitar notes with two tracks of Ewing's hushed vocals and a coda of elegiac fiddle. It's a quiet song; the chord changes happen so slowly that they're nearly imperceptible. The recording was made at the request of the local label Laboratory Standard, which issued 333 copies in January with artwork by Ewing. "Now that the record's out, I feel like I have to play more," he says.

But that's not exactly a burden. "I like playing. I sit around and play guitar all the time. I may as well play for other people. It's therapeutic for me to play guitar. I appreciate how music calms me down. I feel like, if I can do that for someone else, that's good."