By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
When Bruce Molsky first dug into old-time mountain music, he was a college dropout.
He’d gone off to Cornell to be an architect and instead he ended up washing dishes in the bar and grille that hosted old-time music sessions. Having started playing folk music in his native New York, he joined in.
“The old-time music really resonated with me,” Molsky said in a recent telephone interview. “It still does.”
Some 40 years later, the 62-year-old fiddler, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist has formed Molsky’s Mountain Drifters with two musicians half his age, but with the same devotion to that evocative mountain sound.
Alisson de Groot, who plays claw hammer banjo, and Stash Wyslouch, guitar, are college graduates. Both attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Molsky, describes himself as “primarily an ear player,” teaches in the Roots Music Department.
Now it’s Molsky’s turn to pass on all he learned from the old-timers he jammed with.
Molsky’s Mountain Drifters will play two sets at the Black Swamp Arts Festival, Sunday, Sept.10. They’ll perform on the Main Stage at 2 p.m. followed by a 4 p.m. show on the acoustic stage.
Molsky said he’s looking forward to coming to Bowling Green. “I like those kind of festivals that have the public walking around going from place to place and enjoying the town.”
The social aspect of the music is part of what attracted him. “As a folk musician you better be the kind of person who enjoys meeting new people,” he said.
Growing up in the Bronx, he listened to the radio since he was “in single digits.” When he was 12 his sister gave him a Doc Watson record and a book of Beatles music.
“The Doc Watson record just hit a nerve,” he said. While the music was “virtuosic and very complex,” there was also something “simple and accessible about it. I could do that.”
When he was in his teens, he got caught up in the social scene. “A lot of people were strumming guitars and singing songs.”
When he went Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, he discovered a circle of musicians who loved southern Appalachian music. They included some of his earliest mentors.
After a time back in New York where he participated in large scale jams with the Red Clay Ramblers from North Carolina.
Then Molsky moved to the Shenandoah Valley where he stayed for five years. He moved to Atlanta, and then in the Washington D.C. area, “shooting distance from all the mountain communities I was close to.”
Throughout those years he worked “grown up” jobs as a mechanical engineer.
That didn’t keep him from earning plaudits from others.
Mother Jones magazine wrote: “Molsky is easily one of the nation’s most talented fiddlers…he transports you … geographically, historically, and most of all emotionally”
Fiddler Mark O’Connor praised his “mystical awareness of how to bring out the new in something that is old.”
He now lives with his wife Audrey, in Beacon, NY, in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City.
The Mountain Drifters is the first band he’s led. Though he’s had decades of collaborating with others, “I’ve never fronted band myself where the musical focus is based on what I do. So that’s exciting for me.”
While he spent time imitating the music of his heroes there comes a time when “you wake up and realize you don’t sound like anyone one of them, you sound like a confluence of them.”
Molsky said: “I spent plenty of years being rigid recreationist. I’ve come time when I’m open to other things.”
His two young collaborators share that approach. “They both have a very deep respect and knowledge of where the music came from.”
Both de Groot and Wyslouch are “incredible musicians,” he said. Banjo player de Groot is not just a virtuoso, “she’s one of the most interactive musicians I’ve played with. She has my phrasing figured out. It’s magic playing with her.”
Wyslouch, who came up playing rock, is also a virtuoso.
Coming to old-time music, Molsky was impressed that every time they played, the guitarist would come back the next session clearly having studied the music.
“He has this kind of deep groove,” Molsky said.
All three musicians bring their own life and musical experiences to the fore. Molsky admits to playing on a very bad rock band when he was young, and he listens to a wide range of music from Jimi Hendrix to Thelonious Monk. He also has studied Eastern European and Norwegian fiddle styles. Wyslouch even adds a bit of early 20th century avant garde to the mix.
If musicians are following the lead of their heroes from the early 20th century that means being just as open as those masters were to all the sounds swirling around the country.
“Our music is primarily old-time music only with our own angle,” Molsky said. “It’s a very, very strong rhythmic sense and harmonies that are unique to us.”