Jueves 23 de Noviembre de 2006, Ip nº 180

A New Wave of Musicians Updates That Old-Time Sound
Por Geoffrey Himes

WHEN the Mammals took the stage at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in September, it was easy to mistake them for a bluegrass band. After all, the young quintet played fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar and upright bass, and the set began with “Hangman’s Reel.” It did have a drum set, but even so.

The Mammals didn’t sound like a bluegrass outfit, however; they didn’t emphasize hot solos, clean arrangements or three-part high, lonesome singing. Instead all five musicians attacked the old fiddle tune at once, hooting and hollering, pushing the beat and improvising simultaneously. They sounded like an inspired garage-rock band using hillbilly instruments.

Which might be a shorthand definition for old-time, string-band music, whether you’re talking about the original explosion in the 1920s or today’s aftershock. In this decade more and more musicians under the age of 30 have picked up banjos and fiddles and hit a burgeoning circuit of festivals, small-town theaters and big-city nightclubs. They don’t want to play their parents’ music, but they do long for a tradition older than themselves, one with memorable melodies, deep stories and a boisterous beat.

Over the past five years this new wave of old-time string bands has moved from tiny record companies to major folk labels like Signature Sounds (the Mammals and Crooked Still) and Red House (the Bills and the Wailin Jennys); major bluegrass labels like Rounder (Uncle Earl) and Sugar Hill (the Duhks); and even the pop label Nettwerk (Old Crow Medicine Show, the Be Good Tanyas and the Foghorn Stringband).

The role models for these new groups are bands that flourished in the rural South in the decades before Pearl Harbor. Acts like Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers became stars in the southern Appalachian Mountains in the ’20s and ’30s with their rough-and-ready, wild-and-wooly 78s. When the Skillet Lickers sang “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia,” they played as if it really had.

“Old-time and rock ’n’ roll are not that different,” said the Mammals guitarist, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. “They’re separated by time, not by character. When you play these old instruments with a hell-bent-for-leather attitude, its like a driving punk band.”

Ketch Secor, the fiddler for the Old Crow Medicine Show, said, “Listen to Earl Johnson and the Clod Hoppers back in the 1920s. They’re crazy, wily and fierce, closer to punk rock than anything. It’s two minutes until the red light comes on in the furniture warehouse where they’re recording and until then everyone’s playing at once as hard as they can. That’s how we try to play.”

When Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys at the Ryman Auditorium in 1945, he completed Monroe’s transformation of old-time into bluegrass. The music picked up speed, more focus and higher standards, both vocally and instrumentally, and some true virtuosos emerged. But something was lost too: the reckless let’s-all-go-for-it-at-once abandon that made those early records so exciting.

The young bands aren’t making much noise on the Billboard charts, but they are a growing presence at folk festivals, jam-band festivals, even bluegrass festivals, all over North America. Some big names from an older generation have flocked to their cause, producing their albums and inviting them on tours.

“A lot of venues that would never book a string band five years ago are open to us now,” said Ruth Ungar, the fiddler for the Mammals. “That’s because old-time and rock ’n’ roll are approaching each other. There are old-time bands that play rock tunes, and there are rock bands that use a banjo or a fiddle. The difference between Sufjan Stevens and the Old Crow Medicine Show isn’t all that great. Now you can play a banjo in front of teenagers and not have them make fun of you like this.” She slaps her knee in a sarcastic, exaggerated manner. “Now they’re more likely to ask you for banjo lessons.”

The curving wooden pews at the Ryman were filled with under-30 fans in September. They had come to see the headliner, the new-grass band Nickel Creek, but were captivated by the Mammals, who are based in Woodstock, N.Y. The Mammals introduced “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” originally recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1926, with hymnlike a cappella harmonies, declaring that they “won’t get drunk no more.”

But then the shaggy, bearded Chris Merenda, brother of the banjoist Mike Merenda, crashed his cymbals and the song leapt eight decades forward. Ms. Ungar, wearing a ruffled blue-denim skirt with straight brown hair halfway down her back, dug her bow deep into her strings, and Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger, wearing a black cowboy shirt and, with his long legs, towering over his bandmates, took a scissor-leg leap across the stage as he banged out a ringing chord on his acoustic 12-string.

With that surge of energy, the youthful listeners edged forward in their pews. When Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger sang lustily about “watching the pretty girls as they go riding by,” he made a visceral connection between the youngsters and a time outside their own, a time when teenagers rode on horses rather than inside SUVs.

The Mammals, who perform at Mother’s Wine Emporium in Troy next Saturday, released their fourth full-length album, “Departure,” in the spring. Though the string-band instrumentation and the old-time approach are intact, all but one of the songs were written in the past 20 years. The band’s three lead singers — Ms. Ungar, Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger and Mike Merenda — came from folk circles, where creating new material within the tradition was expected. Not only have the three written most of the album, they’ve also given songs from Nirvana and Morphine, two rock bands of their youth, an old-time feel.

“We’ve been called a band that takes old music and makes it sound new,” Mike Merenda said. “On this album we take new music and make it sound old. We play these instruments because they’re the instruments we know how to play, but what’s exciting is to take them out of the realm of expectation.”

Mr. Merenda does that by making a banjo sound like a rock guitar. Rushad Eggleston does it by making a cello sound like an old-time fiddle. When Mr. Eggleston, a classically trained cellist, fell in love with string-band music, he created a place in it for his instrument where none had existed. Playing the short, percussive phrases of a fiddle rather than the long, legato lines of the violin, he made the cello a cornerstone of the Boston-based string band Crooked Still, which performs at Joe’s Pub on Monday.

The quartet’s latest album is “Shaken by a Low Sound,” and the combination of Mr. Eggleston’s cello and Corey DiMario’s double bass skews the sound to the low end. Occupying the middle range is Greg Liszt’s banjo, and flying overhead is the soprano vocals of Aoife (pronounced EE-fa) O’Donovan. Except for two tracks there are no chording instruments like guitars on the disc, forcing Crooked Still and guest fiddler Casey Driessen to build harmonies from single-note lines like a chamber group. Songs like “Little Sadie,” “Railroad Bill” and “Wind and Rain” have been in the old-time repertoire for decades, but they’ve never sounded like this.

“Rushad locked himself up in a practice room to develop a new way of playing the instrument,” Ms. ODonovan said, explaining that he can make the cello sound like a rhythm instrument: a snare drum, a rhythm guitar or a bass. “Rushad’s a wild man, and that comes through in his playing. That didn’t fit easily with bluegrass, but it fit perfectly with old-time music.”

The Duhks, who come to Joe’s Pub on Tuesday, also add a wild card to their instrumentation. When they performed at a Baltimore street festival in August, the lineup was fairly traditional: a banjoist, Leonard Podolak; a fiddler, Tania Elizabeth; and an acoustic guitarist, Jordan McConnell. But out front was a lead singer without an instrument, Jessee Havey, with a dyed-platinum crew cut, a loud green-and-purple dress over black bicycle pants, and a left arm covered in tattoos. To stage left was Scott Senior, a bald man with heavy-framed glasses and a whistle around his neck, sitting atop a hollow wooden box called the Peruvian cajon, which he slapped to create a rippling beat.

“You can be more melodic with hand percussion than with a drum kit,” Mr. Senior argued. “Because the sounds are very dry and because they decay very quickly, they work with acoustic string instruments much better than a trap drum kit where the cymbals ring forever.”

Ms. Elizabeth said the band draws from fiddle traditions in its native Canada. “But we like to emphasize African-American music too,” she added. “Early bluegrass and early rock ’n’ roll took a lot from black music without giving credit, so we want to be sure to acknowledge that source and celebrate it. No music in North America is free of that black influence.”

In Baltimore, Mr. Senior played the cajon on the traditional Quebecois story song “Du Temps que J’étais Jeune” as well as the African-American hymn “Death Came a Knockin’.” His pulse reinforced the old-time rhythm of the fiddle and banjo and pulled the younger listeners off the curbs and into the middle of the closed-off intersection before the stage where they wriggled to songs written long before they were born. Those two tunes come from the 2005 disc “The Duhks,” and the band’s new album, “Migrations,” contains several more songs from Canada, two more hymns from the black church and an old-time arrangement of a Tracy Chapman song.

“There have always been the preservationists and the experimentalists in old-time music,” Ms. Ungar said. “The only difference now is that the experimentalists are more dominant. Most musicians in our generation aren’t such sticklers for tradition. They aren’t saying: ‘If you change the music, you ruined it. You’ve shown a lack of respect.’ When you feel less compulsion to duplicate an old recording, you can be freer and have more fun.

On the other hand, counters Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger, her bandmate, “I thank God every day for people like my Uncle Mike and places like the Library of Congress. Without them, we’d be toast. If they hadn’t preserved our cultural past, those of us who like to steal old things and make something new of them wouldn’t have anything to steal from.”

Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger is referring to his Great-Uncle Mike Seeger, a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers.

Sitting in the sunlit lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, beneath a giant piano-keyboard sculpture, the great-nephew tells a story about the time the Mammals shared a workshop stage with the Ramblers at the Vancouver Folk Festival. “Uncle Mike said, ‘Can you ask your drummer to not play so loud?’ ” Mr. Rodriguez-Seeger recalled, “and I said sure, but what could I do? I couldn’t ask Chris to not play the way he plays. So during ‘Cluck Old Hen,’ Mike put down his mandolin and started to walk away. I thought, ‘Oh, no, he can’t hear, and now he’s mad.’ But instead of walking offstage, he came over to me and started doing this monkey dance. Instead of fighting our way of doing things, he got into it. It was such a great moment, it almost made me cry.” Ms. Unger added: “That’s the cool thing about old-time music. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re singing about a chicken.”


  05/11/2006. The New York Times.