During the 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in the traditional music of rural America that has come to be known generically as "old-time" music, particularly in the driving, rhythmic string band sound of the southern Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. Like many people who discovered this music during their high school and college years, New York City native Bruce Molsky was drawn to it as much by the social and communal side of it as by the power and drive of the music itself.
Born of an age when isolated communities gathered to play and dance for their own entertainment, old-time music invites and encourages participation by musicians of all levels, with jam sessions often featuring professional musicians playing alongside those whose music-making is on little more than a casual basis. Along with bluegrass, old-time music may have less of a performer/audience division than any other form of music. Unlike the more socially-oriented players, though, Molsky's analytical mind -- he was a mechanical engineer by training -- was able to comprehend the many subtleties and complexities that allowed some of these rural musicians to stand out as indisputable geniuses. He also entered the music at a time when many of these "source" musicians were still living, performing, and happy to share their knowledge with the younger crowd. By the time the 1990s rolled around, Molsky had established himself at the top of most every old-time music fan's list of fiddlers and banjo players.
Born in the Bronx in 1955, Molsky began his musical life as a guitarist after his parents suggested that playing an instrument might be a good hobby. After a year or so of lessons, he was hooked and dreaming of a career as a bluegrass guitarist. While in college at Cornell he began meeting a number of old-time musicians, including members of the Ithaca-based Highwoods Stringband, who were spearheading the revival of old-time music taking place at the time. In particular, he became friends with Walt Koken, one of the Highwoods' two fiddlers, who was also a champion banjo player. Molsky started on both fiddle and banjo, began making the rounds of the fiddlers' conventions and old-time festivals, and by 1976 had moved to the South to satisfy his need to be closer to the music.
The watershed event in Molsky's development as a fiddler came one day while visiting a friend in the North Carolina Blue Ridge town of Mt. Airy. Living nearby was the legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell, and Molsky asked the friend to drop him off for a short visit. When the friend's car broke down, Molsky ended up spending the day with Jarrell, playing music and being tutored in technique by the man who may have been the single most influential fiddler of the genre. In a later interview in Fiddler magazine, Molsky said, "That's where I learned to play the fiddle -- that one day, just hanging out with him." Since the 1970s, Molsky has performed and recorded solo, with his wife Audrey as Hesperus, and with a number of bands. Following his tenure during the 1970s with the Correctone String Band and during the 1980s with the Hellbenders, he formed the L-7's in the early 1990s with fellow multi-instrumentalists Dirk Powell and Rafe Stefanini. After Powell married Cajun musician Christine Balfa and moved to Louisiana, Beverly Smith joined the band as guitarist and singer, and the band's name was changed to Big Hoedown. Though he had been part of several recordings over the years, Molsky debuted as a solo artist on the Rounder label in 1996 with Lost Boy, followed a year later by Bruce Molsky and Big Hoedown with Stefanini and Smith. Around this same time he made the decision to commit himself to music as a full-time career, and even though he continued to be regarded among the very finest old-time musicians, he remained committed to the same view of the music that had attracted him as a teenager -- a way to make friends and share life's experiences through music. Even in a branch of music known for having "stars" who were accessible and down to earth, Molsky never stopped being one of the nicest guys around. ~ John Lupton
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