Robbie Basho’s life essentially began and ended with freak accidents. Born in Baltimore, he was orphaned by a car crash at an early age. After that, his childhood was nothing if not conventional. He was educated in various Baltimore Catholic Schools. He went to state college and played lacrosse. At some indefinable point, perhaps connected with his discovery of the guitar, he took his life in a radical new direction. He studied art and classical Indian music and Japanese poetry. He took his surname from, and believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Japanese poet Basho. Along with his friend and contemporary John Fahey he pioneered the melding of India Classical music with American Folk which he described as “Zen Buddhist Cowboy Songs” but which came to be known as American Primitivism. He would die from a stroke at the age of 45, caused by a weakened artery ruptured in a chiropractors office. He was a lifelong spiritual seeker, to some touched by the divine, to others just another beatnik infatuated with eastern mysticism, with all the self-righteousness, self-seriousness and self-absorption that implied. Whatever kind of man Robbie Basho was, he was indisputably a musical innovator and a pioneer, a singer whose lifelong goal was to paint an aural portrait of the human soul. On Visions of the Country Robbie crystalized his sound into a hauntingly rich portrait of the American West.
Sonorous and operatic, Basho’s vocals sometimes veer towards being bombastic to the point of self-parody, although when time is given to adjust to his unique vocal stylings, and the disconcerting sincerity behind them, they provide a powerful companion to his guitar playing. It is in his guitar playing that his true brilliance shines however, fingerpicked drones giving weight to arpeggiated chords tumbling from his guitar like a waterfall. Not always with classical precision, but with effortless sounding dexterity and a natural ear for the power of dynamics and melody. In an album suffused with emotion, it is in the guitar work that the greatest depth of feeling is found, through the fingerpicked American folk-cum-Indian raga which is the soul, flesh and bone of Basho’s musical output. For the most part Basho plays unaccompanied except for his voice, although a violin makes an appearance on Rocky Mountain Raga. The piano gets a chance to shine as well on Orphan’s Lament and the achingly gorgeous Leaf in the Wind, which is accompanied only by Basho’s reverb drenched whistling.
His lyrics are written in such transcendent terms, and with such seriousness, that it seems too easy at times to dismiss them as hippie self-indulgence and admittedly, lines like “Deer with silver antlers/ Come and dance with me/ With me my love” do seem a bit much. But with music on a scale this grand, the bombast of the lyrics could only have strived to match the deeply spiritual essence that Basho was trying to capture. Visions of the Country is filled with a sense of space and grandeur, with the bare elements of Basho’s voice and guitar conjuring up an idealized, transcendent American nirvana, untouched and unseen by any human except maybe Basho himself. The album cover, a photo of the Rocky Mountains dwarfing a comparatively miniscule ranch sum up the album’s statement perfectly: that we are ultimately insignificant in a vast and beautiful universe and we’d be better off just sitting back and letting that beauty wash over us.
It’s both ironic and somehow fitting that the manner of his death should have been at once so unusual and so shockingly banal but it’s an irony Robbie Basho might have appreciated. Perhaps without the mundanity of the incidents of Basho’s early life he never would have devoted himself to seeking out the sacred. Perhaps his obsession with eastern religions caused him to be a bit up his own ass. He did seem to have a sense of humor about his music’s overt spiritual influence, once stating, “If you do it with reverence, it´s not as much of an insult to the Hindu gods". Ultimately though, it’s the overt spiritual saturation of his music and the complete sincerity of his delivery that gives Visions of the Country its unique richness and clarity of vision. Without those qualities, which might seem facile and pretentious in a less skilled musician, Visions of the Country wouldn’t be the ecstatic, awesome (in the traditional sense of the word) endeavor that it is.