It’s hard to say exactly when a new writing project actually got under way – theoretically, you can trace these things back to the dawn of time, which set the stage for all that followed – the formation of the universe, the launch of life and human experience, and eventually the birth of the author, who might not have gotten around to typing the first word until much later in life. As it happens, these words are being typed the day before my 56th birthday. But enough theory. As a practical matter this book started with a walk I took a few months ago with my friend Kim.
Kim is a terrific woman I’ve known for almost two years – very smart, sometimes supernaturally funny and, by some estimates, way too young and good-looking to be hanging out with me. This isn’t a complaint. She’s good company and if I keel over she can call the meat wagon.
She’s also a yogini, a Spanish professor (doctorate from the University of Chicago), and a fairly new student of the clawhammer banjo. I met her at the Sunday Old Time jam at the Cary Street Café (in Richmond, Virginia) and eventually she began joining me on some of the long walks (usually 15 miles) I started taking when my youngest son, a scout in the U.S. Cavalry, deployed to the Middle East.
On this particular day we began at the Arthur Ashe Jr. statue on Monument Ave. (Richmond) and ambled to St. John’s Church on Church Hill (about 4.5 miles), where Patrick Henry gave his “Liberty or Death” speech and where we sometimes sit in the shade of a magnolia tree near the grave of Edgar Allen Poe’s second mother (the first one died in Boston). I don’t know if we visited the graveyard this time out but we did walk past the In Your Ear recording studio at the bottom of Church Hill where Bruce Molsky was booked for a concert a few days later.
I mentioned the Molsky gig and Kim said she’d like to attend and suggested I would benefit by going as well. After all, Molsky is, as Darol Anger puts it, “the Rembrandt of the Appalachian fiddle” and Kim knew my interest in Old Time was growing after a somewhat rocky start (details later – it has to do with a story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal that got me crossways with a few of the Old Time faithful). When I got home I called the studio only to learn the show was sold out.
One hates to disappoint a walking pal, or at least some walking pals, so in my capacity as a critic for Bloomberg News I called Bruce Molsky’s publicist, Stephanie Fields (whose company is called Make It Bigger Mama Publicity), who put me on the guest list and said I could bring a friend. In return for this kindness I would write a short piece (600 words or so) for Bloomberg’s Muse section. An extended version of that piece serves as the opening profile in this book.
Bruce Molsky, who as Kim later pointed out had “all his teeth,” greeted us warmly and we spoke for a few minutes while he simultaneously sold CDs, talked with admirers, and tried to get his internet-linked charge card swiper to work. Rembrandt or not he was also in charge of sales, warehousing and served as his own driver. During his show he played very well; I was especially moved by his rendition of “Peg’N’Awl” – a song about a man losing his shoemaking job to a machine. When I later called Linda Rondstadt for a quote she told me that when she first heard a recording of Bruce singing that song she cried. “And I’m not a crybaby,” she added.
I also called Jerry Douglas, the dobro deity, who told me that Bruce could have played any type of music he wanted, so great is his musical talent. I had come to the same conclusion myself, which contradicted a longstanding belief that Old Time music, for all its traditionalist and historic appeal, is the province of people who can manage only three chords and who would be lost without a capo. But now an inner voice insisted “There’s more to this music than you know, fool!”
When I later called Bruce for an interview he told me he had just finished a 1000-plus mile driving tour of the Southeast and though exhausted was profoundly happy. Not only had he been playing the music he loved. His Toyota Prius had used only around $150 worth of fuel. Your basic mid-level rock star, of course, might spend that much on a bottle of champagne and would surely throw a fit if anyone suggested he had to drive himself to gigs, especially gigs that attract less than 100 people. Yet for Rembrandt it was all in a day’s work, which underscored another thing Jerry Douglas said about Bruce: “He’s no diva.”
By the end of our conversation, which was supposed to last 20 minutes or so but went on for around 90, I had something of a better understanding not only of this music but of the deep sense of community that binds players and listeners. After snooping around I found many other gifted musicians who had been captivated by Old Time. I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of these players, many of whom had dedicated themselves to a type of music few people know anything about, save that they believe it sounds like bluegrass, which they don’t like either. Old Time fans are equally devoted: many travel long distances to attend summer festivals where the sun and bugs can be pitiless — and the portolets horrendous — to hear these ancient tunes. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about them as well.
This is very much a work in progress, and already it’s turning into a winding road. After talking with Bruce I began meeting lots of people who either play, promote or make up the relatively small but passionate fan base for not only Old Time but also what is generally known as roots and Americana music. At Merlefest, the giant roots festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., I interviewed Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, the Kruger Brothers, Rory Block, and other roots greats, whose views on subjects as diverse as Bill Monroe, aboriginal music and how to cure Attention Deficit Disorder without medication will be presented soon. I also met a publicist named Erin Scholze, whose eyes are full of sunshine and who holds a deep love for what she calls “festival music.” Erin would later introduce me to others who share her passion, including a mischievous independent record company chief named Steve Metcalf. She also introduced me to Tara Nevins, a widely respected Old Time fiddler who fronts the rock/jam band Donna the Buffalo (and who is one of Erin’s clients). Tara suggested I go to the Mt. Airy Old Time and Bluegrass Festival, where I spent time with a magical banjo player from Cleveland named Mark Olitsky and Joe “Joebass” DeJarnette (guess what he plays), whose tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson cured him of any further desire for life as a touring musician but who eagerly explained the various fiddle “dialects” you hear (if you know what to listen for) in Old Time. By the end of Mt. Airy I had a long and growing list of potential interview subjects.
And so the book unfolds, though not in a traditional way. Traditionally, a writer lines up an agent who pitches the idea to a publisher. Agents and publishers like to know exactly what’s going to be in a book, for a good reason: they’re in the business of moving product and need to determine how many potential readers there might be. This book poses two problems: the subject matter has a relatively small fan (reader) base. Plus, I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. For all I know the final chapter might consist of an interview with Liberace’s ghost.
I have ditched several book ideas due to a lack of agent/publisher interest, which is a somewhat bitter point: What might have turned out to be wonderful books were not written simply because these gatekeepers had not, in effect, given their permission.
Fortunately, we live in the Kindle era, where an electronic book can be published by anyone and sold for very little (or given away, though as I mention in the “About” section of this blog I plan to recast these profiles and find a traditional book publisher). This mirrors a similar development in the music world: Until fairly recently making a record was far too expensive for most musicians, and those who got a “deal” were at the mercy of people who were often buck-groping weasels, to deploy music publisher Eric Beall’s wonderful expression. The weasels are still around though now almost anyone can, at the very least, make a high-quality recording (in technical terms). The weasel hordes, whether musical or literary, like to point out that these technologies have unleashed a flood of amateurish dreck, which is partly true. Then again, these same weasels have been flooding the world with highly professional dreck for eons. What’s their excuse?
So, this book is very much alive without permission, as are its subjects – who have chosen what is often a hard and financially shaky path but who are also free to play the songs they love, make their listeners happy, and with any luck die with a smile on their face. Life could be much worse.
As mentioned, the first profile will be of Bruce Molsky and should be along in a day or two. Finally, a few words of thanks to my friends and benefactors at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Bloomberg, especially Manuela Hoelterhoff, the incredible and formidable Pulitzer prize-winning opera critic who has given me work even as journalism (as we have known it) seems to be in a death spiral. At the top of the angel list is my long-suffering wife Susan (aka The Peach) without whom there is no music, or anything.
June 7, 2011