Thursday, October 28, 2010

O Brother, Blame David Bass!

My oldest friend now lives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. A few years back, while on a business trip, I took a little extra time to visit with him. We took a long drive across the state to Asheville and the surrounding area, where my maternal grandparents lived until my grandfather's death in 2005.

I was deeply entrenched in my "anything with banjo" music phase. We stumbled into Jack of the Wood (a great beer joint, by the way), and a band was just setting up. They were the Forge Mountain Diggers, a now-defunct "festival band" with Allison Williams on banjo, Thomas Bailey on guitar, and David Bass on fiddle.

My face was already numb from the Green Man Ales I'd been drinking, but when David Bass sawed into those fiddle strings with his hypnotically fast bow strokes, all the feeling returned as the music possessed my tapping foot and produced a whole-body grin.

At the time, I had no idea who these people were, but it was one of the best live music events I'd ever attended. The sound was raw and passionate, with a driving rhythm I hadn't heard since high school, when I was at local punk rock shows every week.

An amusing side note: The venue for most of those shows I went to in high school is now where I gather with a bunch of geezers to play my banjo every month.

I didn't know it at the time, but my "anything with banjo" phase was over. That night the Diggers would spark a journey to discover the heart of this music I'd just heard. Precisely a year later, I would buy my Recording King five-stringer in hopes of capturing that same frolicking sound. The only name I had for it was Bluegrass, but that name was wrong.

After the Diggers finished their set, I approached the banjo player to buy a CD and ask if they'd ever stop in Northeast Ohio. Allison Williams told me that one of the band members had some trouble in my state and couldn't go back.

That CD is now almost worn out, and I've learned a lot more about the Diggers' style of music. This was not Bluegrass, but its predecessor Old Time, a music so old that it was called Old Time back in the 1920s and '30s, when this style of music was the popular music of the day.

The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts the Depression era when Old Time was in vogue and also helped spark a renewed interest in Old Time today -- my own included. The soundtrack to the movie, released in 2000, served as my gateway drug to country styles of music. I wore out that CD too.

Slowly, my taste for twang grew. First it was classic country (e.g., Johnny Cash, Hank Williams), then alt-country (e.g., Gram Parsons, Whiskeytown), and then the "anything with banjo" period. But David Bass's rocket-fueled fiddling accelerated what has become a terminal case of Old Time infatuation. It's Old Time all the time, and the Enthusiast would appreciate your condolences.

Before the Forge Mountain Diggers, David Bass was a member of The Freight Hoppers, an Old Time stringband that achieved some acclaim in the 1990s for their hard, driving music. Bass is one of the best fiddlers of his generation. Sometime in the early 2000s, he had a heart transplant, which put the Freight Hoppers on hiatus, but the group is back with a new CD this year, called "Mile Marker." This year I also learned Bass is a former Clevelander.

Cleveland has a surprising number of connections to Old Time music, but I'll save that for next time.


Jess said...

Sorry, but the only thing I associate the bajo with is the creepy tune from "Deliverance."

Jess said...

Oh crap. I meant "banjo." The "bajo" is yet to be invented.

Funnyrunner said...

Nicely written post! I had a class in grad school called "Roots of American Music" all about that style and its origins. You would have loved it. It was an elective for my master's in English degree, if you can believe that!

Robin said...

I liked this post. I grew up in southern Ohio where bluegrass was very well done and the banjo was more popular than the guitar. Keep up these kinds of posts!

barefootjosh said...

Have you heard Split Lip Rayfield? Forgive me if we've discussed them before.

I miss pretending I could play an instrument.

Xenia said...

I liked O Brother Where Art Thou. Music was good too though I'm still surprised it was able to take Album of the Year at the Grammys. I didn't think the people who voted for that stuff were that open-minded.

You need to average 28.3 miles per week now. Keep riding that Fail Train.

Sun Runner said...

I cannot think of another post of yours where your passion for the subject has been so obvious. I lvoe it.

I blame a 1995 New Yorker profile of Maria Callas for sparking my interest in opera, which has become the other great passion of my life.

We need something to balance the sometimes tedious grind of running, and for me, that's singing. It can be a full-body exercise almost as taxing as running if I really get into it. And the real world just seems to slip away...

Al's CL Reviews said...

I liked Jack of the Wood.

Matty B. said...

I love that your banjo biography has little/nothing to do with running.

I've had similar back-country fantastic musical experiences with zydeco.

Check it out if you haven't already; heavy banjo!