George Cunningham Stumbles Into Originality

When listening to the 14-song collage of handcrafted tunes that make up Stumblingham: An American Album of Unfamiliar Music [Crooked Mile], one message comes through loud and clear: This is not your run-of-the-mill fingerstyle album, or folk, surf, Celtic, Gypsy jazz, comedy, or motivational spoken-word album. In actuality, Stumblingham, the “nearly all-instrumental” dream child of Cincinnati guitarist/mandolinist/zitherist (and sometime vocalist) George Cunningham, contains elements of all of those things and more.

“If it’s anything, it’s eclectic,” says Cunningham, who, with the assistance of cowriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Arduser, brought Stumblingham to life. “People have said that it’s all over the map, and yet it’s still one thing. At times, I was trying to be funny, and, at others, I was trying to be sad and serious. And, sometimes, at the risk of sounding like a blues guy, I was just playing what I felt. I usually just noodle around until I find something that I don’t expect to hear, and then I turn it into something by fleshing out the idea. And even though the songs vary greatly, I think my playing and my personality tie the whole thing together.”

Cunningham’s playing is characterized by a strong attack and a penetrating tone. And whether he’s strumming or picking, he employs the same right-hand technique he has used for 20 years.

“I play exclusively with my right-hand nails,” he explains. “I recently discovered this nail kit from Savarez with these sheets of cloth that you glue on your nails. It makes them much stronger and easier to maintain.”

Those nails create the intricate fingerpicking on “Art Carne,” the funky acoustic tour de force that opens the album. “Carne” is also one of the many tunes on Stumblingham with an elaborate signal chain.

“That’s my early-1950s Harmony Patrician archtop,” he says. “It has a Fishman pickup in it that we ran direct, and we also had a couple of mics up in the room. To add an interesting twist to the acoustic sound, we ran the Fishman signal into my early-’70s Fender Deluxe Reverb that’s loaded with an Electro-Voice EVM 12L. In the mix, we blend all the sources until we hear something we like. I don’t like records where everything is direct. I like a lot of different versions of the same voice.”

In addition to the Patrician, Cunningham employed his early ’90s Takamine Santa Fe cutaway dreadnought, and a Danelectro 12-string. For electric sounds, he relied on his Tokai TST-61 Strat knockoff that has been modified with EMG pickups, an EMG preamp, Schaller tuners, and Mickey Mantle’s autograph.

“As we made the record,” reflects Cunningham, “my best moments were realizing that nothing else sounds quite like this. Sure, one song might evoke Richard Thompson, and another might sound like John Fahey, but, overall, it sounds like its own deal. Sometimes, if you want to hear a certain music, you’ve got to play it yourself, because nobody else is going to.”