The American multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky is a highly regarded old time fiddler and talented banjo player, guitarist and singer. He tours frequently in the USA and Europe as a solo performer, in addition to his regular musical collaborations, which include Transatlantic Sessions and his trio project with Aly Bain and Ale Möller. He’ll be back in the UK in November for a two-week tour of intimate venues – full dates can be found here.
I had a wonderful week studying old-time fiddle with Bruce when he taught at this year’s Sore Fingers Week bluegrass camp. As well as being a superb musician, he’s an excellent teacher, keen tune collector and all-round nice guy who was a big hit with everyone on campus. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce for the summer edition of British Bluegrass News. An abridged version of the article appears below.
MW: How did you first get into playing music, and into old time music specifically?
BM: It really was an unexpected series of things that connected. I grew up in New York City and there was a lot of different kinds of music all around us. We only had AM radio back then; it was all we had when I was really small. There were only a couple of popular music stations, so they played everything from The Beatles to Motown and R&B, and all the folky groups too.
The moment that I realised I wanted to take up an instrument was at an assembly at my school. There was a great jazz educator named Billy Taylor, an amazing person who created a programme called Jazzmobile that went to all the schools. They’d bring really well known jazz players to engage the kids. He came to our school when I was about 10, and gave this little talk, and it just turned on a switch in me. This was in 1965 and I still remember going home that night and asking my mom for guitar lessons. She sent me to a local guy who was a folk guitarist. I guess that was my first real exposure to this type of music, because he had me playing Pete Seeger songs.
When did the fiddle and banjo come into it?
When I was about 17, I went to college and by that time I’d been playing guitar for a while. I fell in with a group of guys that played old time music. I went to my first fiddlers’ convention in 1974 at Galax, Virginia, and met a lot of people who kind of became my heroes, people like Tommy Jarrell and his contemporaries.
You seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of old tunes and songs and enjoy going to the source to access them – did you visit particular states down in the South in order to learn more about traditional music?
I was never nearly as much of an archivist in that way as some other people I knew…I was too shy to bang on people’s doors! But I did get to meet a lot of people at festivals and through friends. Most of my repertoire comes from old recordings. I hooked up with a network of people who were really into that and traded cassettes. I remember that in 1976 I had just moved to Virginia from New York and I was living in a little cabin. A friend gave me a Library of Congress cassette of some great Kentucky fiddlers from the Thirties, including William Hamilton Stepp, Luther Strong, Boyd Asher and some others. That made me realise I needed to start looking at the oldest stuff I could find.
Do you find it’s become easier to draw from different sources and influences in the digital age?
Oh yes, it’s so much easier to tap into that now. We used to really have to work hard to find these sources. I have four big boxes of cassettes that I am going through and digitising at the moment. A lot of them are things I traded with people years ago – there are some African things, and I found some World Music Survey recordings that Mike Seeger put together and gave me years ago. It used to be like somebody giving you gold when you got a cassette like that! Now we just really take it for granted. Somebody asked me at the end of class today where they could find that recording of Candy Girl that I played (Bunt Stephens’ 1926 version). I found it on YouTube the other day! You almost don’t appreciate it in a way as it’s so easy to find things now.
Can I ask you about musical collaborations? I’ve seen you play with a number of different musicians in different settings, including many of the talented new generation of bluegrass and old time players. And then of course there’s Transatlantic Sessions, which will be of particular interest to many in the UK [Bruce has featured in both the TV series and live concert tours].
Aly Bain was the one that first asked me to come to Transatlantic Sessions. We had some mutual friends in the music and Aly did a lot of work in the US with his TV show years ago (“Down Home” back in the 1980s). Aly had done a TV show which Tommy Jarrell played on – Tommy was my hero and mentor when I first started to play. You know Aly loves American old time music; he’s worked with a lot of American trad musicians.
Anyway, by the time I joined Transatlantic Sessions they were already doing the live shows – I did that first at Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections festival. An outfit like that, it’s like living in a bubble for a while. It’s so intense and so busy, and there’s so much to do. We have a couple of really intense days of rehearsal. Then we go on stage – the first night is trial by fire. A lot of times it’s one of the most exciting nights. You can see the steam coming out of everyone’s ears as they try and keep the arrangements together. It’s really fun!
Your name comes up a lot as a mentor and collaborator for many talented young fiddle players including Brittany Haas, Tristan and Tashina Claridge, Tatiana Hargreaves, to name just a few.
I met Brittany Haas through Alasdair Fraser, the Scottish fiddler, at his Valley of the Moon fiddle camp, years and years ago. This was back when she’d just discovered old time music. I don’t know whether I should take some credit for that! She had been studying with a guy named Jack Tuttle, a great bluegrass teacher who is very involved with the California bluegrass scene. Brittany and I met each other when she was ten – her music is stellar now! She does so much great stuff.
Could you tell us a little about the music teaching you do at Berklee?
I’ve become a Visiting Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, just the last couple of years. A lot of talent has come through there and the NEC [New England Conservatory] also. The younger people see and hear the beauty of the old music, but they don’t have that direct experience with the old players – people who grew up in really isolated cultures. That all ended around World War Two, really. People with those kind of roots, I feel really lucky to have met some of them. People of Brittany’s generation and younger, they think it’s cool, they see it and they want a window into it.
How does the teaching fit in with your touring and other commitments?
Administratively, Berklee makes it very easy for me to schedule my work there around my touring. A lot of the people teaching there are touring musicians – and Berklee wants those people there, the ones with the real life experience, so they’re great about that. I teach mostly fiddle, some banjo, occasionally guitar. I also teach an old time music ensemble course. It’s a group of about 12 people; we get together for a couple of hours every week. We work on what it takes to play together; we work on repertoire and old time context, we listen to old recordings. Not unlike what we’re doing in our class here! I’m very much at home doing these kinds of things.
How have you found your week here at Sore Fingers? I know that they’ve been hoping to bring you in as a tutor for some time. Has it met your expectations?
Oh I love it, it’s great! I can’t say that I knew exactly what it was going to be like, as each one of these events is slightly different, but it’s certainly what I was hoping for. That instant sense of community and common purpose….these things are like being in paradise for a week, you get to forget everything in the rest of the world and just have total immersion in the thing that you want to do. I’ve met so many nice people this week, and I only knew one or two people in class before I got here.
You mentioned in class that your normal routine usually features a lot of solo touring – do you ever get to jam or play with other musicians on the road?
Sometimes, every once in a while. When I’m doing a proper tour and driving from place to place every day there isn’t really time for that, but I try to do it whenever I can. I didn’t always play music professionally and when I decided it was going to be my profession, I decided that I also had to stay true to the music. For me it’s all about playing, and meeting people, and just celebrating this great thing that we have.
Fortunately for us, we get to see you play live in the UK quite regularly – will you be touring over here again soon?
Yes, I seem to be in the UK a couple of times a year these days. I’ll be here in November 2014 for a two-week tour and then I’ll be back in May next year and hopefully for Transatlantic Sessions in between. Looking ahead a little further, I’ll also be touring in fall 2015 as part of the trio I play in with Aly Bain and Ale Möller and we’ve just recently released a new CD, “Meeting Point”.
Thank you very much, Bruce. I look forward to seeing you on tour in November and hopefully we will see you teaching at Sore Fingers again in the future.