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Bruce Molsky Is Not Fiddling Around

How a Bronx "street urchin" bailed on college, quit his day job, and took the Appalachian music scene by storm.

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 4:30 AM EDT
"There were no music freaks or aficionados in our immediate family. Only my mother singing around the house."

MJ: The Bronx seems like an unlikely provenance for a guy whom your friend Darol Anger calls the "Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddling." Tell me about your upbringing.

BM: I grew up in very much a middle-class family. My father was a building contractor, a mechanical engineer. He worked for a company that built air conditioning duct work for office buildings. My mother never graduated high school, and she was a housewife most of the time that she was raising my sister and me. I'm the younger of the two. My mother was a very family-oriented, very loving person who died way too young.

MJ: How old was she?

BM: She was 52 when she died. And she was the youngest of four sisters and they all went in opposite order. I'm Jewish, but not deeply religious. We were active in a very liberal synagogue, and I was conscripted to go to Hebrew school and do all that stuff when I was growing up and I got away from it as quick as I could when I was done. But it was all more a matter of, you know, I'm second-generation American, so a lot of those things are cultural things that stay. So culturally I was very much that. I grew up in a fairly diverse neighborhood and I went to city schools. I was just a street urchin like everybody.

MJ: Was there much music in your household?

BM: There were no music freaks or aficionados in our immediate family. Only my mother singing around the house. She loved Carole King. She sang Yiddish folk songs, because my parents spoke Yiddish. We had a lot of show music. My interest in music started really early, so I drove them crazy with AM radio, because that's all there was.

MJ: What inspired you to pick up an instrument?

BM: We had a program in the New York City schools called Jazzmobile, where they brought well-known jazz artists and educators into the public schools. And Dr. Billy Taylor, the guy that started it, he came to my school. I guess I must have been like 11, and it just hooked me. He played piano and talked about music in terms that the kids could understand and he handed out these cool 45 rpm records. One of the songs was "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," which was one of the things he played. And he described it as something he wrote to teach his niece how to play the piano. And I thought, "Man, I could do that." I went home and I asked my mom for guitar lessons. And that was it. I took lessons for like nine months from a guy around the corner.

MJ: You obviously kept it up.

"I decided that I ought to be an architect. I can't tell you why. And I tried, and I had no aptitude for it."

BM: Yeah, I was dug in so deep. He was just teaching kids to sing, "Black, Black, Black Was the Color of My True Love's Hair" and doing the first five pages of the Carcassi Classical Method, and here comes me, and he couldn't deal with me.

MJ: Did you learn after that by playing along with records?

BM: Yeah. I loved rock. I mean, it wasn't any one particular thing. My sister bought me Doc Watson's first LP when I was like 12 and I heard "Black Mountain Rag" and it just sent me over the moon. And I loved Jimi Hendrix. I still love Jimi Hendrix.

MJ: Did you play with other people?

BM: I was in a string of terrible rock bands. There were concerts in New York, too, that I kind of hooked into. I got to see Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, and Ralph Stanley, and Curly Ray Cline, and Tex Logan.

MJ: After high school you studied architecture and engineering at Cornell.

BM: For two years. I didn't finish. My grandfather and my dad's brothers and my dad all worked in construction. It's the whole cultural thing, you know, your parents want you to go to the next level of whatever, and I decided that I ought to be an architect. I can't tell you why. And I tried, and I had no aptitude for it.

MJ: But I gather those two years were sort of your musical awakening?

BM: They really were. And it was not an easy awakening because it was not the set path for somebody like me. I went to college, I failed at it a few times, and the last time I realized it just wasn't going to work. I kept insisting on studying engineering because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. A few years after Cornell, I got a job working in a carpet mill in Virginia.

"I'm a city kid, I know it now, but at the time I wanted to be somebody else."

MJ: What did you do in the interim?

BM: I kind of kicked around. I went to a couple of different schools. I worked at a couple of tobacco shops in New York. I sold pipes and cigarettes and blended people's personal tobacco blends and I just really wasn't sure what the hell I was doing. [Laughs.]

MJ: What about music?

BM: That actually was a very strong developing time for my music because that was when there were music sessions going on in Manhattan and I'd go every week. Before they restored the whole South Street Seaport neighborhood, it used to be just a bunch of piers and stuff, and they had a fiddlers' convention there every year. That's really when I started playing old-time music. I'd first heard it at Cornell because the Highwood String Band was really active at that time and they lived just outside of there and they were a force.

MJ: Did you get to know those guys?

BM: Yeah. [Highwood banjo player] Walt Koken gave me my first banjo lesson. I was just this punk kid, you know.

MJ: You moved to Virginia for the old-time music scene?

BM: Yeah. My mother passed away in '75 and I was really kind of at wits end. I really didn't know what to do. School wasn't going well and my dad was having a tough time.

"They called me the next day and said, 'Nobody in Rockbridge can read mechanical drawings. You're hired!'"

MJ: Was he freaking out about your prospects?

BM: Oh God, yeah. It was only out of love that he was trying to push me in what he thought was the right direction. It was his generation. He was a Depression kid, you know. 

MJ: So you got a job in a carpet mill. That doesn't sound pleasant.

BM: Well, I moved to Rockbridge County, Virginia, and I lived on some friends' couch for a while—all great old-time musicians. They all came from other places and they were renting this dilapidated house. I eventually got a little place to live and ran out of money. So I went to Burlington Mills, a huge carpet factory, just to fill out an application. At the bottom there was a little check box that said, "Check here if you can read mechanical drawings." I'd seen mechanical drawings all my life because my dad would always bring them home. They called me the next day and said, "Nobody in Rockbridge can read mechanical drawings. You're hired!" And so I got a factory job laying out carpet manufacturing machinery.

MJ: What were you seeking, music-wise?

BM: I just wanted to be where the action was and learn and play with people and be part of the community. In Lexington, at Washington and Lee University, there was a geology professor named Odell McGuire who was a really good banjo player. He was kind of like the Pied Piper for everybody in the old-time scene. He knew all the old guys that lived in the mountains all around West Virginia and Virginia and we'd take these caravan road trips to visit all these old players. You'll find a high percentage of people that played old-time music in Rockbridge County were geology majors!

MJ: You also met Tommy Jarrell. [See clip below.] Did he become a mentor to you?

BM: In my own mind, yes. In truth, I didn’t spend enough time with him to really consider myself a student of his. But he was my hero. I visited him a bunch of times.

MJ: What appeals to you about old-time culture?

BM: I'm a city kid. I know it now, but at the time I wanted to be somebody else. You had the back-to-the-landers, which I never was—I could kill an air fern; I never could grow anything. But I think just the attraction of something different and something that appears to be simpler. Even maybe a little bit the rigidity of the culture; it's not very open-minded, but there was something about it that was attractive. You know, I worked at a factory. I hooked up with all the old guys. I joined a Mason's Lodge—what was I thinking? And I married a girl from down there for a very short time.

MJ: You went all in!

BM: Yeah, that's how I do. [Laughs.]

MJ: But you could never fully assimilate?

BM: Uh, yeah. I never felt unwelcome, but I never felt like one of them. And I have tremendous respect for those older people who grew up before radio and TV made everything kind of the same for everybody. They had a really strong sense of their roots.

MJ: Why did you leave Virginia?

BM: [Pauses.] I guess I just decided I wanted to try and have a career again. I had another college try, and soon after that I met my current wife, Audrey. We've been together for 32 years. And she had a similar background—a New Yorker who moved south for the same sort of attraction. She danced with the Green Grass Cloggers, a real well-known group. But she'd been doing it for awhile and she was looking for something else, so we moved to Atlanta because I had a job down there and we ended up being professional people. She went to work for IBM.

MJ: But you were still pursuing your music pretty seriously?

BM: Oh God, yeah. Audrey is a great guitar player and we played music all the time. There was enough community of that down there to keep us happy. I was teaching at a lot of music camps and wherever the music was, we would go there. There was a road trip every weekend.

"I was saving for my retirement to play full-time music and I just had this wake-up call one day—what am I waiting for?"

MJ: Why did you wait until you were you were 40 and your dad had passed away before having a go as a professional?

BM: Because, honestly, it would have broken his heart. I just couldn't do that to him, as weird as that sounds. The last engineering job I held I was a foreman. I stayed there for 10 years and I was getting tired of it. I was playing more and more music and I guess I was saving for my retirement to play full-time music, and I just had this wake-up call one day—what am I waiting for? Audrey and I didn't have kids, we had no encumbrances. I went home and I asked her about it one day and she says, "I can't believe you didn't do this 10 years ago." So I left my job and I never went back.

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