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Jody Stecher: Tapping In
Kevin Carr
2015-02-25
I first became aware of Jody Stecher in the mid-’70s when I listened to his recording Snake Baked a Hoecake and became one of the legion of young musicians who were introduced by him to the depth and power of traditional music. That music of this beauty and strength and rootedness was being played by someone of my own generation was a life-changing inspiration and source of encouragement.
 
Jody’s musical career has combined deep musical explorations, stunning collaborations, many, many accolades, national and international tours solo and in duos and bands, and numerous award-winning CDs. When he was nineteen he did field recordings in the Bahamas and Mexico, which led to the LPs The Real Mexico and The Real Bahamas, songs from which were covered by the Grateful Dead, Incredible String Band, Ry Cooder and others, AND he won the World Champion Cup in guitar picking at Union Grove, North Carolina. He spent years studying first sarod with Ali Akbar Khan, then sursringar with ZM Dagar. He has toured and recorded extensively with his wife Kate Brislin, winning ecstatic reviews, adoring audience response, and two Grammy nominations. He has toured with Scottish fiddle master Alasdair Fraser, with whom he recorded the brilliant CD The Driven Bow. He has played old time music in China, toured with bluegrass bands The Greenbriar Boys, Perfect Strangers, and The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. The esteem in which he is held, especially by other musicians, couldn’t be higher. A more complete listing of the highlights of his career would take this whole article, so I’ll just add a bit about his fiddling.
 
Jody plays fiddle in several styles, and in each plays in a way that is true to the tradition and is deeply informed by his vast knowledge base and his incredible ability to hear both the spirit and the details which make up the music. At the same time he plays like himself – with an unmistakable creativity and sense of playfulness that makes his fiddling unique and, though profoundly rooted, vibrantly alive and immensely enjoyable.
 
What drew you to the fiddle?
 
My grandfather played. He died before I was born and my dad inherited the fiddle. It was in an old mysterious-looking indented case, with purple lining. And the fiddle itself – a Maggini copy – had a kind of purple hue as well. I’d climb up on two chairs and get the thing down from a storage closet up near the ceiling of my parents’ bedroom and take it down and look at it. I started playing my mother’s guitar at eleven. When I was twelve a great-aunt gave me her fancy mandolin and I also started playing fretless five-string banjo. I made fast progress on these plucked instruments and wasn’t thinking much about The Thing In The Closet. But a few years later I started listening to bluegrass and country music on the radio and in those days, the ’50s, this music had a lot of fiddle. So I’d get down The Thing and try to get the sounds I had heard on the airwaves. If had known about rosin I would have made better progress.
 
I especially liked song fiddling. I was less interested in playing reels and dance music in the beginning. I was drawn to the fiddle’s vocal-like sustain that the plucked instruments lacked. From the start I was singing through the fiddle.
 
Who were some of the influential players you met along your path to becoming the fiddler you are today?
 
The first ones were just people I happened to meet. I was fascinated by how they used the bow. I remember at about age sixteen being hypnotized by Kenny Baker’s speed. Slow I mean. He’d draw the bow slowly and change direction so smoothly. I got to see Tater Tate, Sonny Miller, and Jimmy Buchanan when I was still a teenager. A few years later Eric Thompson told me I was trying to play Jimmy Buchanan ideas with Lost John Ray technique. He had a point. I didn’t really get much technique until later. In the ’60s I’d go with friends down to Union Grove, North Carolina, to the fiddler’s convention on Easter weekend. I heard and watched lots of good fiddlers there. Tommy Malbeouf played beautiful double stops and he had a similar bow drag to Kenny Baker but he pulled the bow even slower. He made the fiddle sound like a living creature. Another was Buddy Pendleton. He played so clear, and got a chirping sound from his fiddle that I never could replicate. It can’t be heard on his recordings. 
 
I played guitar for literally hundreds of hours with Hank Bradley, Alasdair Fraser, and Buddy MacMaster. They all had an impact. A lot of fiddlers, especially the real old-timers, get to feeling uncomfortable when another fiddler is studying them too closely. But a fiddler will let an accompanist get up close, in their force field, so to speak. By being an accompanist I was able to catch sounds, techniques, and musical ideas by contagion. From Buddy I caught a way of pushing the up-bow that gave his jigs That Sound he had. I remember vividly the moment I caught on to that. In the early ’90s I was teaching mandolin at Alasdair Fraser’s Scottish fiddle camp and Buddy was teaching fiddle. It was past midnight and I was fiddling a medley of jigs in the dining room and the feel of the music changed with that accented and accelerated up-bow. It just kind of appeared in my arm. Buddy heard it from wherever he was and he came into the room to investigate who it could be who had cracked the code. Now Buddy MacMaster was a man of few words. I remember trading “Buddy said” stories with Jerry Holland, that was so much fun. Buddy came over and said, “That’s good!” You know, one “good” from Buddy MacMaster is worth ten “fantastically fabulously awesomes” from anyone else. Also something of Buddy’s aesthetic rubbed off on me. Everything was in balance in his playing and his tune versions often have one small phrase that’s just a bit different and better than standard versions. And he played so gracefully that his speed seemed slower than it was. I never did get to play as graceful as that. He made it sound so easy. From Alasdair I got insights into how to handle the bow, and some left hand things to do with finger pressure and how that changes the tone. I don’t sound anything like Alasdair. For one thing he plays with the finger tips and I use the pads. All the same I caught a lot from him. Playing guitar and mandolin with him on so many concerts here and in Scotland made me a better fiddler. From Hank Bradley I got inspired to compose. My original tunes and songs often have a phrase or two that I never would have thought of had it not been for Hank. I also got an attitude from him. You know he played for a summer as the fiddler for The Mountain Ramblers and he had been influenced by their long-time fiddler Otis Burris. Otis told him “if you’re going to be a fiddler, play the fiddle.” He meant to get in there and Do It. Give it everything. I had that tendency already but Hank’s fiddling reinforced it. Hank’s big on old time intonation. He really gets that old microtonal pitch which makes fiddling sound like fiddling instead of conservatory violin-ing. So that was reinforced as well.
 
What appeals to you in the styles of music that you play on the fiddle?
 
Well, as the old-timers used to say, “it’s the same, only different.” For each type of music I play, the same things appeal to me: the sound, the energy, the repertoire, the feelings. But then there are differences. In bluegrass fiddling the most appealing thing is interacting with the singer and with the band. A continuous weaving line binds the band and the music. Filling of the holes between the vocal phrases or producing a haunting tone quality are also part of it. And then there is double and triple fiddling. It’s so much fun to align my bowing with another fiddler. I recorded “Evening Shade Falling” with Perfect Strangers. I played mandolin on the basic track and Chris Brashear did the melody fiddling. Chris kinda forgot I was going to add a harmony fiddle part and he included a number of double stops and a few shifts of position. When it came time to record my part it seemed I’d have to do some bizarre string crossings to match Chris’ bowing. I solved the problem by playing most of the part in third position. Sometimes I’d scoot down to first position to harmonize when Chris had shifted high. It’s easy for a harmony fiddler to surround a melody with double stops. But when the melody notes are part of a double stop with the harmony note sometimes above and sometimes below the melody note, the second fiddler has to really be alert. I had fun working that out, and it came out sounding so good. It usually will when the bowing is aligned.
 
I like Irish music because it sounds Irish. Does that sound stupid? No, but it’s true. The music is part of the landscape and the feel of the place, though different in different parts.The music is so beautiful and so tied to the language. Well-played Irish music puts me in the best of moods. All’s right in the world, even if it isn’t when the music stops. Really, it’s an extraordinary thing, a miracle. 
 
Cape Breton Scottish music makes me crazy. In a good way. The first time I heard the playing of Donald Angus Beaton was on a cassette of him playing at dances and for friends. Dave MacIsaac gave me the tape, a long time ago. This was before I was married. I was living alone up in the woods and it was late at night. I was washing dishes and Donald Angus laid into some A minor jigs. I had to restrain myself from throwing plates and and smashing tea cups. I had never understood why Greeks broke glasses when listening to bouzouki. Now I did. The Cape Breton players build up a head of steam in their medleys and it feels like something is going to explode. In the strathspey and reel medleys release comes with the first reel. Then comes flight. And there have been some great tune composers in Cape Breton. 
 

 
[For the rest of this interview, as well as Jody’s tune “Meehan’s Mighty Mallet” and Jody’s version of “Wagoner,” purchase the Spring 2015 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
 
For more information: www.jodyandkate.com/
 
Jody will be teaching at Centrum's Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, this summer, June 28-July 5. For more information, visit centrum.org or call (360) 385-3102, ext. 109.

[Kevin Carr is a fiddler/piper/storyteller living in southern Oregon. He loves, listens to, and plays a variety of music, from Irish to Québécois, Galician to Grateful Dead.]

Photo: Kate Brislin