If you haven't heard of Bruce Molsky, one of America's premier fiddling talents (as well as an accomplished guitarist and banjo player), it's probably because old-time musicians, like do-it-yourself punk rockers, are not given to self-promotion. "I was one of those people who should have had the bumper sticker that says, 'Real Musicians Have Day Jobs,'" Molsky recalls.
Indeed, the Bronx-raised fiddler didn't quit his day job until he was 40, married, and settled into a comfortable career as a mechanical engineer. Nowadays, when he's not running fiddle workshops or teaching classes at Boston's Berklee College of Music, he tours the world performing Appalachian gems mined from scratchy archival recordings, which he revives with his distinctive bowing and clear, droning voice. Some of the tunes are joyful, others hauntingly sorrowful—but all evoke stories of simpler times.
In addition to his solo work—he performs on all three instruments—Molsky always seems to have a few bands on the burners. His more than a dozen albums to date include genre-bending collaborations from the multinational Mozaik to the Grammy-nominated Fiddlers 4. This summer, he'll unveil the debut CD from a new trio with the Swedish mandola virtuoso Ale Möller and fellow fiddler Aly Bain. I caught up with Molsky in advance of his recent solo effort, If It Ain't Here When I Get Back, to talk old-time and old times. But first, check out this rousing rendition of the traditional tune "Chinquapin Hunting" at last year's Pickathon in Portland.
Mother Jones: Is it true you didn't even pick up a fiddle until you were 17?
Bruce Molsky: Well, I played guitar already, and I picked up the banjo about six months before I picked up the fiddle, and all the banjo did was to make me realize that what I wanted to play was the fiddle.
MJ: What are the biggest differences between playing classical violin and fiddle?
BM: The way you hold the bow, the way that violinists are trained to produce a note, is really different. I'm not an expert in classical music. I don't want to say something that ends up in print and somebody comes running after me with a shovel, but they're taught for each note to stand alone in a very deliberate kind of way, which is really different than how notes are strung together in old-time music to create rhythm.
"I woke up one morning and realized I didn't sound like any of my heroes; I sounded like me."
MJ: You never had any classical training?
BM: No, I'm self-taught.
MJ: How long does it take to develop a unique style?
BM: I'm sure I played for 10 years at least before I started to realize I didn't sound like any of my heroes. I tried to be Tommy Jarrell for a while, and I tried to be William Hamilton Stepp for a while. I tried to be a whole bunch of different people. And I woke up one morning a whole lot later and realized I didn't sound like any of them; I sounded like me.
MJ: In what way would you say your playing is distinctive?
BM: I've kind of codified certain things for myself, rhythmic patterns and mechanical ways of using the bow to create layers of rhythm. What I'm trying to do is to create a complete piece of music on one instrument.
MJ: You're one of relatively few fiddlers who sing while they play. What's your secret?
BM: There are things about how a note sounds on a violin that are really analogous to the human voice—you have a frequency and the air, and then you have a timbre which really is overtones—and making those things work together is one thing. The other thing is mechanical: If you can use your hands and arms to create sound on a fiddle, then learning to sing with it is like adding a third body part. And it's all training. I wanted to sing with the fiddle ever since I started to play, and when I first started to do it, I had very set ways of moving the bow—the arrangements to the songs were really specific because I was trying to make everything operate all at once. Over a period of time you get stuff more into your muscle memory and it enables you to think ahead. If you can think a few bars ahead then you can see the light of the path in front of you—you can see your choices. [In the clip below, Molsky plays and sings "Lazy John," followed by "Rebels Raid," a tune William Hamilton Stepp recorded with Alan Lomax in 1937.]
MJ: I would describe your voice as unadorned. It's actually kind of like a fiddle. There's a drone aspect.
BM: [Laughs.] I like to think that the fiddle has taught me to sing, in some way.
MJ: You're also a bit of an ethnomusicologist. What do you look for in these old recordings of guys like John Salyer? [Below, Molsky performs the Salyer tune "Jeff Sturgeon" to accompany clogger Nic Gareiss at a music camp performance.]
BM: I'm really just looking to be moved by music. All my kind of hero fiddlers, their playing is beautiful to me for different reasons. I spend way more time listening than I do playing. I always have. And sometimes I'm listening for right-brain kinds of things, sometimes I'm listening for left-brain kinds of things. The great Kentucky fiddlers like Salyer and Bill Stepp and Luther Strong and those guys, to me what they do on the instrument is just the language. It's the story they tell—how they speak. You can always tell when somebody is more fixated on their virtuosity than on using it to tell a story. Me, I'm way happier with something simple, played with great expression.
MJ: Which can sometimes be more challenging to play.
BM: In a way it is. Sometimes when I teach a student something that I think is really simple, I realize I'm teaching them something they can do 90 percent of really easily and the last 10 percent is going to take them 10 years.