Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads, but Eli Winter saw Steve Gunn on NPR. In 2013, Winter, now 22, was an anxious, antisocial 10th-grader (year 11 in the UK) at a competitive high school in Houston. Playing guitar provided a respite from his intense workload. He had been copying Elliott Smith and Nick Drake songs, though he found it unsatisfying to play music that was written to be heard as part of a group. But through seeing Gunn’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert, he became instantly possessed by the rustic, instrumental guitar music known as American primitive.
One name haunted his new obsession – the Philadelphia-based guitarist Jack Rose, whose work acquired a mythic allure after his untimely death in 2009. On 1 January 2014, Winter made a ceremonial date to listen to his much-lauded album Kensington Blues. “Either it’ll click completely, or it won’t feel right and amen,” he recalls thinking, speaking the day before he flies home from Chicago for Christmas. “But, of course, it blew me away.”
It was the first time he had heard the guitar “carrying the weight of a piece all by itself”, he says. “I started to realise the extent to which not only was that possible, but it was also meaningful.” Now a creative writing student at the University of Chicago, Winter has made his contribution to that lineage with his startlingly accomplished debut, The Time to Come. He is an elegant and emotive player: Woodlawn Waltz is rambling and chipper; Knock It Out is brisk with virtuoso electric guitar moments that show off Winter’s knack for changing the mood with subtle variations in intensity. Released on his friend’s label Blue Hole Records, it’s as enveloping as anything on scene mainstays Paradise of Bachelors and Tompkins Square.
Winter is self-taught – the only way to build a distinctive foundation as a player, he says – and eschews the blues influence that underpins much music in this world (American primitive forefather John Fahey “never clicked” for him). “When I hear somebody playing an original composition that relies on whatever blues progression, the first thing I want to do is scream because it’s been done so much.” His first creative impulse is towards prettiness, he explains, with a hat-tip to British folkies such as Michael Chapman. These weren’t names being dropped at his Houston high school, where rap ruled. When it came to choosing colleges, Chicago appealed for its food and major-league baseball, but primarily its music. “I had the sense that there was this cross-pollination of musicians playing across musical approaches that wouldn’t quite happen elsewhere,” says Winter, citing the experimental labels Thrill Jockey, Drag City and Touch and Go.
The Time to Come is tethered between his two homes. The standout, 15-minute title track is rooted in the death of a Houston friend who also attended the University of Chicago. Although she had been sick, “her death took us all quite by surprise,” says Winter. A song by Virginia guitarist and mentor Daniel Bachman, Won’t You Cross Over to That Other Shore, helped him work out how to “grieve meaningfully” in his own music: a spacious, surprisingly bright song that is seemingly always reaching towards something. “I don’t like to play in minor keys,” he says. “It feels like a one-note emotional response. Major keys, as feelings go, I find that I’m able to evoke more in myself. That song is the closest thing I have to bringing her back.”
He didn’t come away with any profound lessons about grief. “I’m generally reassured by the thought of allowing things to be unexplained or chaotic, to resist the narrative impulse,” he says. But when Hurricane Harvey struck his hometown (albeit not his parents’ house) the resonance was unavoidable: here was a tangible form of loss, one that grounded the album. “How can you make sense not just of loss, but loss when you haven’t really been part of it, you’ve only been a bystander, and there’s only so much you can do to mitigate or rectify its after-effects in others?” Winter says. “How do you manage?”
After Winter graduates this summer, he will throw himself into music, touring as much as possible, without burning out. Performing, he says, has changed his life. “I’ve grown a lot because of it. Often, when I’m playing a show, I can more readily reach for some better version of myself onstage than off, somehow.” He’s already recorded his next album – three songs, including a 23-minute epic and a band piece – and has been talking to small labels. “I also, of course, am totally interested in swinging for the fences,” he says, recalling schoolboy fantasies of signing to Merge or Matador. “I’ve always done that, so I feel like I might as well continue to shoot for the moon.”
• Jack Rose was based in Philadelphia, not Chicago as previously stated. This has been corrected.