He didn’t start playing the fiddle until he was 18 and didn’t become a full-time musician until he was 41.
“Guys who are this good have usually started playing when they’re five,” says Molsky fan Jerry Douglas, who adds that Molsky’s talents are such that he could play any type of music he desired.
Molsky is a bit unusual in another way as well. While the tunes he plays often originated in the Appalachian Mountains and other rural hotspots, he hails from the Bronx.
He’s also about as nice a person as you’ll ever meet.
I had heard of Bruce Molsky from a gang of old time players I fell in with a few years ago. They hold him in high reverence but nonetheless I never saw him perform until the spring of 2011. As mentioned in the introduction I was walking through Richmond,Virginia with my friend Kim when we passed by the In Your Ear recording studio. Molsky was to perform there a few days later. The event was sold out but his publicist, Stephanie Fields, put Kim and I on the guest list. I wrote a piece for Bloomberg about Molsky; this is a significantly stretched version.
On the appointed night we headed down to the studio, where an expansive pot-luck supper was being pillaged by a crowd of 90 or so people (my estimate). I saw my old pal Carter Gravatt, multi-instrumentalist for the Americana band Carbon Leaf, who not only was buying some Molsky CDs but made his beer supply available, which will surely get him into heaven. Molsky, meantime, was having trouble making his internet-linked credit card swiper work.. While Darol Anger calls him “the Rembrandt of the Appalachian fiddle” Molsky is also very much a do-it-yourselfer, handling sales, warehousing, and, as he’d later point out, serving as his own driver and physical therapist.
Lesson one about old time music: Very few people make a living from it, and even those at the very top of the game are not going to give the Rockefellers, or their chauffeurs, a run for their money.
The first thing I noticed about Molsky was that he seemed very happy and enthusiastic. He also wore an earring and, as Kim noted in her sometimes snarky way, he had “all his teeth.” (She has all her own as well, and a blinding smile.) He was very friendly and after a short chat asked that I call him for a longer interview in a few days. He was in the midst of a driving tour of the Southeast and would have plenty of time to chat.
This night he played two sets. His guitar and banjo work was solid and his fiddling masterful, especially when he harmonized with his pleasant singing voice. I was somewhat surprised by how many songs he sang; my old time pals rarely play singing songs so I assumed they weren’t part of the old time repertoire.
He played some originals but the standards that got the best response, especially a highly spirited “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (some sources list it as “Cotton Eye Joe”). Yet it was “Peg ‘n’ Awl” that got to me. This tune is about a shoe factory worker who is replaced by a machine and it might melt the heart of the most committed industrialist. It’s just Molsky singing with his fiddle, stark and haunting:
They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine,
I peg one shoe, it pegs fifteen,
I’m gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.
I would soon discover that I’m not the only listener moved by “Peg’n’Awl.” When I later called Linda Ronstadt for her impressions of Molsky she said “I cried when I heard that song the first time — and I’m not a crybaby.” She had played it for her siblings and they cried too. Her praise didn’t stop there: his version of the song, she insisted, has “the same power as Mozart.”
(An aside: During our conversation I recounted to Ronstadt a concert I had seen in the early 1970s inRoanoke,Virginiain which she opened for Neil Young. Her hit “Long Long Time” had brought down the house. “I learned a lot from Neil Young on the tour,” she said. I also asked if she still sings. “Only in my pajamas.”)
I ended up interviewing Molsky by phone after he finished his 2400-mile swing. Speaking from his home in Washington, D.C. he said he was “exhausted but happy” and not only because the gigs had gone well. His Toyota Prius had gotten 46.5 miles per gallon: The gas bill for the entire trip, he says, was around $150 – which, it occurred to me, was about what a medium-level rock star might pay for a good bottle of bubbly.
The first thing I wanted to know was how a guy from the Bronxended up as “the Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddlers.”
It all started, Molsky said, when jazz legend Billy Taylor visited P.S. 81. Molsky was 11 at the time, but a very enthusiastic 11: “I heard him play and thought — man I want that!” He soon bought a guitar and took lessons for a year, eventually polishing his chops jamming at the Galway Bay Pub on Broadway. He also noted that he’s not the only roots/traditionalist musician fromNew York City, citing Bela Fleck, Jay Unger, Tony Trischka and Dave Bromberg as other big city boys who made good in the roots world. Bluegrass banjo master Pete Wernick, he added, lived “on the same street I did in the Bronx.”
He picked up the fiddle when he was 18, which would eventually be good news for music lovers but bad news for his college professors and the firm where he would work as a mechanical engineer. While attending Cornell University he became infatuated with old time. “When I discovered old time,” he said, “my college days were over.” He did, however, make a living as a mechanical engineer for many years before finally becoming a full time musician at age 41.
That fateful leap was inspired, in part, by a conversation in a UK pub with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. He urged Molsky to give it a go as a full-timer. “I made myself a promise,” he recalled. “I would always be true to the music I thought I should be playing.”
While he said the decision was the “best favor I ever did for myself “ he also said his income was more secure when he was “a professional person.” Early on he played for very small crowds and laughing recalled one gig with a single-digit audience. It happened ten years ago at a Scottish shopping mall. “Nobody knew who I was,” he said, and he played for “two waitresses, the sound guy and one actual audience member.”
Times have changed greatly since then. Vast touring has helped create a worldwide fan base. He was to depart forAustralia soon after this interview took place (Spring 2011), and after that there was yet another swing through northernEurope. He has been a 100,000-mile flier on United Airlines the past three years; last year he was on the road 225 days.
Like many traditionalist musicians Molsky does a lot of his own legwork, including some bookings, and his do-it-yourself ethic extends to treating the various maladies that come with constant performance and aging (Molsky was born in 1955), including repetitive stress problems.
“I had a pain in my wrist and decided to fix it myself,” he said. “I looked at it as an engineering problem and learned to hold the fiddle three different ways. I switch up and it’s worked well for me.”
Not the type to hire a consultant, he also came up with the name for his music company — Tree Frog Music. Where did that come from, I asked. “I was writing liner notes for an album I did for Rounder,” Molsky said, and he wanted a company moniker that was different than his own name so he wouldn’t sound like a one-man operation. “There was a Zap comic on the table. I opened it up and there was the Checkered Demon drinking his favorite drink: Tree-Frog beer.”
The Checkered Demon, now in his retirement yeras, was a decidedly non-traditional fellow, and Molsky insists that as a musician he should not be considered strictly an old timer.
“I was hard core old time for a while,” he said, but now “I don’t agree with that approach. “ He spoke enthusiastically of playing with Hungarian composer and multi-instrumentalist Nikola Parov, Celtic musician/producer Donal Lunny, Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and Swedish musician/composer Ale Moller. Most folk music, Molsky added, is “much the same everywhere. It’s just spoken with different accents.” He has a soft spot for Motown music as well.
Besides inspiring and influencing traditional/old time musicians and audiences, Molsky’s mark can be found other places. “Both my String Quartet No. 3 and my Concerto for Violin and Cello and Symphony Orchestra have inspiration from Bruce’s playing, his rhythmic drive and how spirited his music is,” composer Mark O’Connor wrote in an email.
As the interview neared its end, Molsky said there is a growing audience for roots and traditional music – there is a “definite uptick” he said, a belief echoed by Linda Ronstadt, who said younger musicians and audiences are sick of “pop music that is so empty.” Jerry Douglas agreed, saying younger audiences are rejecting “overproduced, slick stuff.”
Molsky also cited a communal spirit as contributing to the power and longevity of old time. “This is is the music of communities and of workers trying to escape their grinds,” he said.
I had heard other enthusiasts say that old time is as much a communal as a musical experience. It was suggested I attend some of the festivals held mostly in spring through early fall. Tara Nevins, who fronts the rock/jam band Donna The Buffalo and is a highly respected old time fiddler (and solo artist) said she especially enjoyed the festival held at Mt. Airy, North Carolina. “We don’t book any shows during that week,” she said.
And so at the start of June I found myself driving to the small town best known as the model for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, located just south of the Virginia border. The sun was high and very hot but the admisson price was very cool: forty bucks for three days of music and camping. I soon found a camping spot beside one of the best banjo players the world has never heard of.