For those of us immersed in American roots music, Bruce Molsky is a towering figure of musical brilliance and an inspirational teacher, celebrated for his mastery of the fiddle but also as a versatile banjo player, guitarist, and singer. He’s likely to be a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in folk music, having made frequent appearances on the Transatlantic Sessions TV series and regularly playing with well-known performers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Shetland fiddle maestro Aly Bain (with whom he tours regularly as part of the Bain, Molsky and Möller trio). Bruce is a great collaborator and has performed and recorded with numerous talented musicians from various genres, including Brittany Haas, Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Darol Anger and too many more to name-check. Originally from The Bronx in New York, he discovered traditional music in his teens and moved to Virginia as a young man. He worked as an engineer for many years, making music in his spare time, before finally leaping into the life of a professional musician when he turned 40.
Molsky’s Mountain Drifters also features two talented young musicians from the American roots scene. Stash Wyslouch (guitar/vocals) was originally a rock musician but is known for his work with The Deadly Gentlemen, a sadly now-defunct but highly entertaining band that married bluegrass with rap and rock elements, all delivered with the highest levels of musicianship by a virtuosic quintet that also included banjoist Greg Liszt, fiddler Mike Barnett and mandolin prodigy Dominick Leslie. Wyslouch (an alumnus of Berklee College of Music in Boston) was the primary frontman and has since been developing his own genre-bending solo venture. Nevertheless, he fits in perfectly here on a more traditional rendering of American folk music, anchoring the album with solid and tasteful guitar back-up (which can be a rather unsung job in old time music, compared to the more flashy roles of the fiddle and banjo!). He also contributes some spot-on harmony singing and the occasional lovely flatpicked solo. Less familiar to me is banjoist Alison de Groot, who met Molsky when she was also studying at the fabled Berklee (where Molsky is a Visiting Professor) and who has previously toured with the Goodbye Girls and Oh My Darling. She certainly earns her stripes here with fine clawhammer banjo, matching Molsky’s superlative fiddling across tunes of all kinds and some interesting song choices. I really enjoyed her banjo playing, so pretty and understated in places, more driving and percussive in others. De Groot also sings harmony on a couple of tracks, and the three voices blend together beautifully.
The album kicks off with Across the Plains of Illinois, a lilting variant on the “girl I left behind me” theme, with some fine harmonies in the final verse. Molsky and De Groot trade delightful fiddle and banjo licks on the old Scottish tune The Flowers of Edinburgh, with solid guitar backup from Wyslouch. Next up an instrumental version of the old time standard Barlow Knife, stripped down to fiery fiddle and bouncing banjo. Then there’s an unexpected change of pace with a plaintive version of Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars – oh so relevant in these troubled times – which starts off with the three voices singing a capella, before the delicate fiddle, banjo and guitar accompaniment comes in. There’s more great harmony singing by Bruce and Stash on the unaccompanied rendition of The Dreary Black Hills, a very old Gold Rush song that Bruce picked up from his friend and fellow banjo player, the UK’s own Pete Coe.
One of the pleasures of listening to (and looking at) recordings in this genre is the tradition of extensive liner notes detailing the song or tune origins, and this album is no exception. In fact, Bruce Molsky is also a real enthusiast and tune collector (although mostly not of the Alan Lomax/personal field trip kind). He loves to pay tribute to his forebears in the tradition, lovingly detailing the old time fiddlers and other musicians that he’s learned from in person and via recordings. I was privileged to be in Bruce’s fiddle class at a teaching camp several years ago, and in an interview afterward he told me:
“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.”
This love for the old tunes and the old singers and players suffuses the album, with Molsky, de Groot and Wyslouch putting their own charming spin both on old standards – including session favourite The Old Jawbone – and more obscure material, including the jaunty Pateroller Tune which closes the album, and which Bruce sourced from a mystery cassette he received decades ago. The Métis Set pays tribute to the Métis style of fiddle playing with a set of tunes from Western Canada and the Pacific North West. The Drifters do a fine job on Old Kimball (from the singing of Texas Gladden and also recently recorded by Anna & Elizabeth) driven along by a rolling banjo.
Molsky’s Mountain Drifters is an altogether delightful collection that will appeal to hardcore old-timey traditionalists as well as more casual listeners. There’s plenty of catchy toe-tapping stuff that makes you want to get up and dance, and the trio has a light touch with the material both old and older (!) which makes the music feel fresh and timeless. Despite being a highly accomplished solo performer, in my opinion, Molsky always sounds even better when complemented by other great musicians, and this band is a worthy match for him. Let’s hope Molsky’s Mountain Drifters make a little trip over the Pond soon!
Molsky’s Mountain Drifters is Out Now via Tree Frog Music