"They're a lot more interested in melancholy," says Nashville musician Ed Pettersen about the Norwegian novelists and musicians whose work informs his new book, I Curse the River of Time: A Norwegian-American Tale. An essay on identity, the book details Pettersen's search for his Norwegian great-grandfather, Anton Pettersen, who came from a remote part of northern Norway called the Black Country. As the tale unfolds, it transpires that there were two Anton Pettersens in the same area, so the mystery remains. I Curse the River of Time also tells the story of a cross-cultural musical transformation: The book began as liner notes for Ed Pettersen's record of the same name, a collection of ruminative, melancholy tunes he wrote while visiting Norway.
"The book was an accident, in some respects," Pettersen tells the Scene from his Nashville home. "I had already recorded the music and started putting the credits together. I was in Norway at the time, and I literally sat down at the kitchen table and wrote it over a few days."
A song written with Norwegian tunesmith Henning Kvitnes, who makes Warren Zevon-style rock, "I Curse the River of Time" is Americana of a more dour cast than what Nashville is famous for. As interpreted by a band that includes multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien and Norwegian guitarist Freddy Holm, "I Curse" anchors an immaculately recorded song collection.
Pettersen's essay lays out his personal journey, while his songs carry a sense of dislocation. "I am told that there's a pot of gold/But I stood empty-handed at the rainbow's end," Pettersen sings in "She's a Navigator," which he wrote with Nashville songwriter Thad Cockrell. The musical version of I Curse the River of Time ends with the desolate "The Harbor Road," a collaboration with Freedy Johnston.
The essay comes to a close with the long-lost son of Norway feeling ambivalent about the prospect of finding his great-grandfather's identity. "It's not something a DNA test can tell us. It is something we feel," Pettersen writes. Still, Pettersen has made a career in Norway that stands in contrast to his achievements in Nashville, where he's been an unpredictable (if slightly Americana-identified) producer, songwriter and avant-garde musician.
Pettersen released the 2007 solo full-length The New Punk Blues of Ed Pettersen and produced that year's Song of America, a project that paired rock, soul and country artists with songs representing specific years in American history. More recently, he's written tunes for soul singers Bettye LaVette and Candi Staton, and garners a songwriting credit on Staton's forthcoming full-length Life Happens.
"Originally, it was called '(Go) No Tear in My Eye,' but she changed the title, because she changed some of the lyrics," says Pettersen of the song now titled "Go Baby Go." Written with drummer Pete Abbott, the composition is classically constructed, and would have sounded at home on a 1969 Muscle Shoals production.
As if to undercut the brooding Norwegian side of his personality, Pettersen has recently produced Nashville Electric, an ambient-music ensemble that includes violinist Tracy Silverman along with keyboardists Thollem McDonas, Ryan Norris and Dylan Simon. He's also recorded a Crazy Horse-style full-length with a band called The High Line Riders. But his Norwegian career seems to be advancing. He spends part of each year performing and writing there, and he says there are times when — melancholy as it may sound — he's even recognized in the street.
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