Rayna Gellert is an American fiddler and singer, specializing in old-time music. Having trained in classical violin, Rayna followed in her father’s footsteps and took up old time fiddle. She enrolled on (and completed) a degree course at the famous Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. A former member of the Freight Hoppers and Uncle Earl, Rayna’s life as a traveller and performer has led to collaborations with a wide range of musicians including Sarah Watkins, Loudon Wainwright III and Abigail Washburn. At the Tron Theatre on Saturday night, Rayna appeared, as part of Celtic Connections 2016, to open the bill for Cam Penner & Jon Wood (review here).
Rayna’s skill on the fiddle made an immediate impact with the opening Kentucky tune – Glory In The Meeting House. Not flashy or fast, but steady, precise and a joy to listen to. Following the introduction she was joined by her husband Jeff Keith on acoustic guitar and together they played Lovin’ Babe, a song that was recorded, but never released by Grand Ole Opry stalwart, Dave Makin. Their immensely enjoyable set consisted of an even balance of songs and tunes. Rayna’s voice is just as accomplished as her fiddle playing; whether it’s a Dave Makin classic, a ‘sassy little number about a very bad man’ (Rayna’s description) or one of Rayna’s own beautifully crafted songs. She is not, however, adverse to a little added depth, and the audience were treated to a guest slot on harmonies from Siobhan Miller.
Siobhan joined the duo for Leave It There, a gospel song by Washington Phillips, delivered with an outstanding three part harmony. Despite the irresistible attraction of Gospel, though, the collaboration was put to even better use in singing one of Rayna’s own songs. In The Ocean is a beautiful and haunting song of loss and sorrow, from Rayna’s 2012 album Old Light, and is an excellent example of her poetic song writing…
“he’s a scuff there on the floorboard,
he’s picture in a frame
and I toast him at parties
just to get to say his name”
Rayna’s also a composer of very fine fiddle tunes, of course, and her Swannanoa Waltz would have had the audience dancing serenely if there had been room. Most of the instrumental tracks come from the American traditions, though, and classics such as Black Eyed Suzie (learned from her father, Dan Gellert) and Half Past Four performed with a level of skill and enthusiasm never fails to charm an audience.
It’s hard to decide what the most enjoyable aspect of Rayna Gellert’s set was. Her fiddle playing is peerless; her voice soft, warm and soothing; and her rapport with the audience as easy and sincere as if she was chatting with a neighbour. The full house at the Tron on Saturday clearly enjoyed her set and would welcome Rayna back to Celtic Connections again and again.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Photo Credit: John Estes