Molsky’s Mountain Drifters: Three of a Perfect Pair!
“Old time music’ was a term that was invented in the early 1920s to characterize the music and recordings of artists such as Fiddlin’ John Carson, who is considered the father of country music. I guess someone at a record label came up with that term…and it probably had something to do with marketing to the people of a generation who came of age before the industrial revolution –kind of a nostalgia market back then. It is a term that has taken root and it means a lot of things to a lot of different people…” Bruce Molsky fiddler/composer/recording and performing artist / educator
Skimming through Bruce Molsky’s press clippings and (gasp) Wikipedia entry, I repeatedly came across the expression “old.”
To my ears, there’s nothing “old” about Bruce Molsky’s new roots music “super group” – Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. To my musician and journalist peers I have likened Bruce’s mighty trio to the celebrated three member collectives of rock gods Cream; the iconic Bill Evans Trios with Scott LaFaro, Chuck Israels, and Eddie Gomez; and the watershed Standards Trio of Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock – to cite a few.
Those ensembles also played “old time” music – that is, they appropriated the musical designs originated by artists who preceded them as they rendered the compositions of Rogers & Hart, Sammy Cahn, and Muddy Waters among others with a fresh approach. Old music? Hardly! In the process of waxing sides and performing live – those referenced artists expanded the language of their respective genres, and I’m hearing that with Bruce, and his new partners – banjo virtuoso Allison DeGroot, and bluegrass guitarist Stash Wyslouch who are playing and recording together as Molsky’s Mountain Drifters.
And my colleagues – writers, musicians – agreed with my assessment after I played them a few tracks from the Molsky Mountain Drifters self-titled debut collection. They didn’t hear this music as “old” either! With remarkable interplay, an exquisite collective resonance, a deft command of rhythm and space abetted with motifs that you’d absorb from Lady Gaga to Lady Day to Jon Luc-Ponty recordings, Molsky’s Mountain Drifters are a flexible, dexterous, and most adventurous musical force. Akin to those trios, the Drifters push each other to greater heights. So how did they come into existence?
“First of all, I’ve never fronted a band before” reveals Bruce. “And I’ve had some incredible collaborations with mostly contemporaries…people my own age, my own experience – people who’ve taken the same musical trip that I’ve been through. I feel like I’m at a point now where I wanted to be in charge of the sound, the expression, and the voice. I wasn’t actively seeking anything. However when I was teaching at Berklee, I met Allison, who was also my student for three years. And about half way through those three years – there was a whole lot less for me to teach her and a lot more playing for us to do!”
Molsky, who refers to himself as a Bronx” street kid,” came of age in the late 60s and 70s when musical excellence was the norm. He absorbed AM radio, and the usual suspects: Dylan, Hendrix, and the Beatles, among others. As a budding guitarist, he concentrated on finger style – which has served him well throughout his career. When his sister brought him the first Doc Watson album at the age of twelve, Bruce was hooked on traditional music. He was fortunate enough to witness the waning days of New York’s folk revival, attending performances by Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Curly Ray Cline, among others, at various Newport Folk Festivals. At seventeen he became a fiddler.
Bruce honed his craft at various New York, Northeast folk gatherings including the South Street Seaport Fiddler’s Convention. After two years at Cornell as an architect and engineering student, he found himself in yet another folk / roots hub and, in his own words “decided to follow the music.” He migrated to Virginia to work in a carpet mill wherein he was in proximity to the mountains of West Virginia to “learn from the old masters like Tommy Jarrell.”
Bruce vividly recalls his apprenticeship. “Going to the fiddlers’ conventions in the 70s and being around the culture as an outsider, transplants like myself looked up to the ‘old mountain people’ – they had this ‘mojo’ – they had this certain magic… perhaps it was more romantic, because they are just people like we are, but it was like the rockers revering the old blues masters . How did John Mayall feel when he met Howlin’ Wolf?”
At the age of 40, Molsky made the leap to full time professional fiddler. To refer to Bruce as a highly acclaimed, prolific recording and international touring artist is an understatement. With numerous releases under his own name and as a collaborator, the “Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddlers” as dubbed by Darol Anger, has garnered hosannas aplenty by fans and colleagues including Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Bill Frisell, and Jerry Douglas to name a few.
Which brings us to Bruce and Allison’s third piece of a perfect pair; guitarist Stash Wyslouch. Widely commended as a bluegrass “genre bender,” Stash found his way to roots music by way of punk and metal bands. Bruce and Stash’s paths had crossed previously on various gigs.
“Stash is virtuoso, and talk about someone who has their ‘own’ voice and unique way of expressing himself – he has been a big player on the Boston scene for a long time. And it was really Allison’s idea – she said to me ‘let’s play with Stash and see what happens!’ The chemistry between the three of us exposed itself very quickly.”
Produced by Bruce, Molsky’s Mountain Drifters exudes the dynamics of a live performance. Kudos to the gents behind the boards: engineer / mixer Dan Cardinal (Dimension Sound Studios in Jamaica Plain MA) and mastering engineer David Glasser (Airshow Mastering, Boulder, CO).
Bruce, like many of his generation, still adheres to the magic of the album format, especially given the fragmented world of music streaming and downloads. “This CD is one body of work – the whole thing tells you story and leads you down a path, especially when you listen to the songs in order.”
As per Bruce, the players all recorded in the same room – a rarity nowadays – and all the edits were “band edits” no separate tracking.
“Allison and Stash are ‘reactive’ players – there’s a lot of sparks flying between them. The three of us have this incredible musical conversation. When we hit something we like everybody looks up and we store it in our ‘CPU’ With this type of music, you can’t really ‘plan’ things out, not the way we play – it just has to happen. Allison is a very controlled, expressive and delicate player – and Stash is a very strong player and they have found this unique balance. I feel that I am riding this beautiful crest of a wave! They really bring their own personal voices to the music. I do feel that I’ve learned my lessons from people who are not around anymore – but their window into this whole ‘old time’ music universe is really different than mine. And I have been an educator for thirty something years – and playing with these young people, part of me wants to see where this music is going.”
The future of old music? That would be Molsky’s Mountain Drifters!
Molsky’s Mountain Drifters self-titled debut album is out now on Tree Frog Music and available at music retail including CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/molskysmountaindrifters
For more information on Bruce Molsky and Molksy’s Mountain Drifters, please visit http://brucemolsky.com/store
For more information on Allison DeGroot please visit: http://www.allisondegroot.com
For more information on Stash Wyslouch please visit: http://www.stashwyslouch.com
Photo Credits: Kate Orne (album cover, portrait), Jacob Bickenstaff live shot at Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash