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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 5:30 AM EDT

MJ: So was it scary for you to make that leap to pro musician?

BM: I was nervous about, you know, my security blanket, and I learned some pretty big lessons from that: Strength doesn't come from what you do, strength is from who you are. The day that I went in and gave my notice, I felt great. I felt like I had given myself the gift of being able to do anything I wanted to do. And being the way I am, I had booked quite a few months of gigs in advance. I wasn't just throwing myself into an open hole or anything. I always took it seriously from that end.

MJ: You tour extensively in the UK. How is that different in terms of your reception and the crowd demographic?

"I think people in the States also want to hear something new. But in Britain, I'm the something new."

BM: The demographic, like here, is getting older. But there's also a young group that's kind of coming in underneath. When I play music here in the US people are generally culturally close in some way to where it comes from. They have some notion that the music is from the South and what Southern people are like and this and that. When you play it in another country, people don't have that sense. I really get the feeling they hear the music more for what it is, just as an expression, and that's led me to a lot of collaborative things, going-outside-the-box kind of things. I think people in the States also want to hear something new. But in Britain, I'm the something new, if that makes any sense.

MJ: Do you sell a lot of records?

BM: I don't know what "a lot" is. I'm not Alison Krauss. I certainly sell enough to where it's worthwhile.

MJ: Your albums are distributed by Rounder and Compass, but you also have your own little Tree Frog label. What's that about?

BM: Tree Frog Music has been the name of my little company since my very first solo recording, Warring Cats. Rounder or Compass distribute the CDs that I made under their license and sell me CDs wholesale that I sell at my shows. The new recording is a self-produced thing because I just wanted to go through that process again. I'm a hardcore do-it-yourselfer, and this recording is all unaccompanied stuff.

"The regional flavor went away a long time ago. If you want to pursue that as a point of interest, it's out there."

MJ: What would you say makes old-time music distinctive from other folk and country genres?

BM: I think just the kind of rhythmic sense. There's so many regional styles. I don't want to generalize, but a lot of the stuff I like, the melodies are very rhythm-based, and so you don't have long strings of eighth notes. Midwestern American fiddling is a lot more melody based, but the Southern mountain stuff, like the stuff that Tommy Jarrell played, and all the way down to North Carolina and Georgia and Alabama, that stuff, the rhythm in the bow is totally locked in with what's happening on the melody. Neither of them is anything without the other. I think that's why I like Scandinavian music so much—because it kind of does the same thing.

MJ: The internet has made old-time culture and music far more accessible. Is that a good thing, or does it sort of spell the end of regional flavor in American folk music?

BM: The regional flavor went away a long time ago. If you want to pursue that, you know, as a point of interest, it's out there, and the internet really helps with that. It's just different now. When we were first getting into the music, the community was tight-knit in a different way. When somebody would discover something, you would make a cassette copy of a cassette and send it to your friends, and so we had this kind of postal mail network of sending tunes around and talking on the telephone about them. The internet brings more people together, but not in a more personal way. But I think it's really great that you can Google Luther Strong and find out everything that he ever did. And in a way it doesn't matter whether I think it's good or not: It's inevitable. [Below, Molsky plays "Last of Callahan," a tune Luther Strong recorded with Alan Lomax in 1937.]

MJ: Do you feel like the old-time scene is too hung up on the notion of authenticity?

BM: That's nothing new. There are people that appreciate the music for its musical value and there are people that will always think that it should be reserved as an expression for people who grew up with it.

MJ: Or that it has to be played in this very specific way.

BM: Yeah. And some people ascribe a right and a wrong to it. I don't. I think if you're respectful of it, and know how it goes and really study it, then I have no problem with you using it as your own free expression.

MJ: The old-time scene seems pretty old, by and large. When I go to a jam, I don't see many people under 40. As someone who tours around a lot, do you feel like enough young people are gravitating to this music to keep the tradition alive?

BM: I think it goes through cycles and kind of waves of interest. I think it was just kind of getting older with the older generation for the last few years, but I think that's changing now. If you came to Clifftop [Appalachian String Band Festival] in West Virginia in August you'd see there's a whole lot of young people—flats of beer and fiddles playing all night, and kind of going back to the old masters and all that stuff. It's happening again, it's totally happening again! I don't think it can go away for too long, it's too good!

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