For a musician who works outside the mainstream music industry, Tim Eriksen has rubbed elbows with a lot of well-known icons. He's shared stages with artists ranging from Doc Watson to Nirvana, gone on the road with Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley as part of the 2004 Great High Mountain Tour, and taught 19th-century shape-note singing to Elvis Costello, Nicole Kidman and Sting.
Eriksen, who refers to his own music as hardcore Americana, takes a hands-on approach to musicology, one that's given him an experiential understanding of traditional folk music cultures around the globe. His students have been no less diverse, ranging from the senior citizens of the Young@Heart Chorus to the Romanian extras, 50 of them, that he coached for the Oscar-winning Cold Mountain.
Eriksen began his professional career fronting Cordelia's Dad, an Amherst, Mass., band with decidedly schizophrenic tendencies. From its first gig forward, the group played one acoustic set followed by a second set of noisy Eriksen originals more in keeping with local scenemates like Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. As a solo artist, he subsequently moved on to performing stark renditions of a mostly traditional repertoire.
On Eriksen's current tour, he and fellow traditionalists Betse Ellis and KC Groves play violin, banjo, guitar and the bajo sexto (a 12-string Mexican guitar). They also set aside their instruments for a demonstration of the shape-note singing that originated centuries ago in Eriksen's native New England. Sometimes referred to as "sacred harp" singing, it's rooted in a time when folks would gather along the perimeter of a town square, facing inward, each side providing one of the four-part harmonies.
"I got into it basically the same way I got into punk rock and most other things," says Eriksen. "I heard it and liked it and, over time, gravitated toward it. Shape-note singing is what I kind of do socially for fun with my friends, and it's also become part of my profession as a teacher and with various bands."
Eriksen's obsession with music actually goes back to the age of 4, when he first tried singing into a fan.
"I taught a workshop last week in Chicago and asked how many people had done that as kids, and 20 out of 25 people raised their hands," he says, as though that made him more normal. "I hear an interesting sound and my reaction is to sing along with it. I sing along with the microwave as well."
Come to think of it, microwaves do sound a bit like Tuvan throat singers. "Yeah, they do," says Eriksen. "And you know exactly how long the song is going to last, too."
That said, Eriksen is more likely to be found singing "O Death" on A Prairie Home Companion or collaborating with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. He also played Balkan music in Zabe i Babe, a group founded by his late wife, the Bosnian ethnomusicologist Mirjana Lausevic. Despite stylistic differences, Eriksen sees a musical connection between Bosnian music and the American traditions in which he's currently immersed.
"There's a vitality, an energy, in terms of sheer vocal production," says Eriksen. "A lot of the singing throughout the Balkans, like a lot of American traditional singing, is done in a very full-voiced way, people really letting it out. Singing loud is part of the beauty, part of the way people harmonize and really feel each other's presence."