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Bruce Molsky: Tradition and Individuality in Old Time Music
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Bruce Molsky: Tradition and Individuality in Old Time Music
Mary Larsen

One of today's most gifted and most popular old time fiddlers, multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky has devoted much of his life to the traditional music of southern Appalachia. Bruce was born in New York City, but moved to Virginia in the late 1970s to be closer to the music he had grown to love. A mechanical engineer by trade until this past May, Bruce has recently embarked on a full-time career in music. He looks forward to being able to devote his days to teaching workshops, recording, writing, and performing. "I've been a part-time musician all my life," says Bruce, "and now I have the chance to give it my complete attention. I guess it took me a while to realize you don't have to do the same thing forever. You can change."

Over the years, Bruce has played in such venues as the Smithsonian Institution, Lincoln Center, and the Clearwater, Live Oak, and Wheatland music festivals, as well as at countless workshops and contests. He currently performs solo, with his wife Audrey, with the early music group Hesperus, and with Big Hoedown (formerly called the L7's). Be sure to treat yourself to a performance or a workshop by Bruce if he visits your area -- you're guaranteed to be inspired for a long time to come.

This interview took place in Santa Cruz, California, in February, 1997.

What was your first instrument?

Guitar. My parents thought it might be kind of a nice sideline if I learned a musical instrument. There was a folk guitar player who gave lessons around our neighborhood. Mom used to send me with my guitar around the corner once a week. I went for about a year, and was so eaten up with the guitar by the time I was through, all I wanted to do was play.

How have you learned since then?

Watching people, listening. I keep thinking I might get around to learning to read music one of these days. I'll get around to it, but I don't think it's necessary to read music in order to play music.

How did you get interested in old time music?

A series of coincidences. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a bluegrass guitar player. I played some bluegrass in New York when I was growing up. And the first time I went to college, in Ithaca, I tried to hook up with some people, and looked for a bluegrass fiddler to play with. I found a fiddler, but I didn't know he was an old time and not a bluegrass fiddler. One thing led to another. We played all these cool tunes, and the next thing I knew I wanted to learn to play the fiddle. That was 1972. And I started tagging along to all the fiddlers' conventions in the summertime. By 1976 I had just uprooted and moved to the South.

How did you hook up with Tommy Jarrell and Albert Hash?

I met Tommy Jarrell at his house. I was staying with a friend near Mt. Airy -- Tommy lived in Toast, right close by. My friend dropped me off at Tommy's house while he went to do some grocery shopping, and his car broke down, and of course, Tommy didn't have a phone. So there was no way for him to get in touch. I ended up spending the whole day there, just playing music. Tommy was a really engaging, nice guy. Just a nice man. He loved people. I'd been playing fiddle for about a year at that point, and he just said, "Well, let's play together," which scared me to death. Then he told me, "Stop doing that, do this." He wasn't what you might call a music teacher, but he heard everything I was doing and he was very happy to tell me what I wasn't doing right. That's where I learned to play the fiddle -- that one day, just hanging out with him. I had no idea how important that experience would be to me years later.

Did you go back again?

I used to go visit him whenever I could after that.

How about Albert Hash?

When I lived in southwest Virginia in 1976, there were a bunch of people there that I played music with and they knew him from festivals. Some of us used to make little trips up to his house, kind of en masse, in these old Volkswagen bugs and pickup trucks, going up the side of Whitetop Mountain to see Albert. And I got to play with him a few times. He was also a really nice guy. He'd been around. I got to play head to head with him, and just watch him.

All these old guys, they all played their own way, and here we come along one or two generations later and study each rendition like it's the definitive way the tune goes. But in truth it's not the "correct" version, just the way this individual player played it. I've always based my playing on old-fashioned renditions, but I also think there's always a danger of getting bogged down in reverence by saying that you should only play something a certain way because so-and-so did it that way. It's more important to understand what that person did, and how they did it. That way, you've got a baseline understanding of the tune when you choose to change or embellish it. You can see the differences much more clearly. I've listened to a lot of eastern Kentucky music, including most of the archival recordings that Lomax made in the '30s. Many of those players lived in pretty close proximity to each other, and I imagine many of them knew each other. Yet they all played tunes differently.

Listening to John Salyer was really eye-opening for me, because he played many of the same tunes as Bill Stepp and Luther Strong, but boy, he was not afraid to add beats and twist parts around and change them. I've got a little theory that I think these fiddlers did that on purpose. I think they took a tune and to kind of make a signature out of it, they might purposely change it. John Hartford and Bob Carlin have been working with all these old Ed Haley recordings, and Ed Haley recorded, for example, "Hell Among the Yearlings," a common tune a lot of people play. But he also recorded a phenomenal, beautiful variation of it, called "Wild Ox in the Mud," all changed around, so I guess that's kind of his creative embellishment. John Salyer did the same thing. He played "Lost Girl," a fairly common tune, and then he played "Lost Boy." "Lost Boy" is pretty much "Lost Girl," but with the first part being in 9-time instead of 8. Maybe these were contest pieces, I don't know.

Who are some of your favorite old time fiddlers, past and present, aside from the ones you've just mentioned?

I should have made a list. There are just so many. Like the Round Peak fiddlers -- the Virginia, North Carolina fiddlers -- there's Tommy [Jarrell], of course. Fred Cockerham, too. Fred was an unsung rock and roll hero, and his playing was so syncopated and powerful. And many others from around there, like Ernest East and Benton Flippen. I met Robert Sykes a few times. He had a very bluesy style. And I've always been a big fan of Norman Edmonds' playing. He was a great dance fiddler.

One of my favorite fiddlers in the context of a band is John Lusk of Tennessee. He played with Murph Gribble and Albert York. They were recorded for the AFS [Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress] in the 1940s. That band was the most interactive three musicians I've ever heard. That's something that I place a very high value on, is being interactive with other people while you're playing. The very best band music you can hear happens when the players are listening to each other instead of to themselves.

Could you mention some of your favorite current players?

That's a dangerous question. I've had the pleasure of knowing so many great players -- I'd feel terrible if I gave you a list and left anyone out. I can name you some of the ones I've enjoyed playing with over the years: Dirk [Powell] and Rafe [Stefanini] of course, but also Paul Brown, Benton Flippen, Mike Seeger, James Leva, Brad Leftwich, Jeff Goehring, and others. And of course the music I've played with Audrey [Molsky] has been some of the very sweetest. There are so many great players out there. Anyone who thinks old-time music is dead and gone has missed not only the boat, but the whole ocean!

[This interview is from the (out of print) Fall 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]