Running late on this mild spring evening, I angle into the nearest parking spot and run up the steps of an old, gutted, church, transformed into community center. Before even opening the door, I hear a well rosined bow gripping the strings of a fiddle. Chagrinned to have missed the first notes of his opening tune, I push on the wooden door to see Bruce Molsky sitting twenty feet away, on the stage. Molsky’s warm, smiling eyes meet mine and with a friendly nod of his head, he welcomes me into the hall. Everyone, I think, should be so lucky as to receive a personal greeting from this magnificent fiddling genius. I scan the room filled with roughly 60 people and slip into a folding chair next to the sound controls. Besides the two lamps shining on stage, the audio-system’s green desk light provides the only other lamp in the room. I’m at the back of the hall which was once the church’s sanctuary, yet Walking In The Parlor pierces the darkness and rings true in my ears. Molsky couples this tune with Rebel’s Raid. Though not a common technique among old time musicians, Molsky likes to build energy and add interest by pairing tunes together. One number ends and the next begins without any break or interruption.
Continuing with his fiddle, Molsky sings Peg and Awl. His voice grips the air, sounding as rosined as his bow strings. I’m suddenly aware of the many similarities between Molsky’s voice and his fiddle. They resonate amazingly at the same pitch. If his fiddle had lips, it would sing in a voice exactly like Bruce Molsky’s. I close my eyes and let the sonorous duet wash over me.
Molsky then strums his guitar and shakes his head. “It was in tune when I put it on the plane” he jokes. He fingerpicks Knoxville Blues. A tiny baby squirms and babbles among the show attendees, making it easy for me to complete the picture in my mind that I’m not really in the year 2003, in a building on the campus of the University of Madison, Wisconsin. But rather, I’m back in 1902, sitting on a tuft of grass in a Tennessee farm yard with the rest of my family, listening to Uncle Bruce entertain us. It’s not all that far fetched an idea. Old time music has it’s roots in the Appalachian mountains, dating back much father than the early 1900s.
Molsky pulls me back to the present with some banter before playing the tune, Fare The Well. “I’m not from the South. I did grow up in the South Bronx though…you gotta problem with that?” he rasps, smiling broadly. “No, Sir!” calls out a voice from the audience. We all chuckle. I’m not overly impressed with the acoustics tonight. Molsky sounds fine on his instruments and singing, but a touch too soft when talking. I determine to move up to the front during intermission.
The guitar is swapped for the banjo and we are treated to Rove Riley Rove, paired up with Uncle Norm’s. After another banjo number, we learn some finer points about Canada. Before playing a couple of fiddle tunes from John Arcan, The Grey Owl and Victor’s #39, Molsky tells us about a marvelous fiddle festival, Fiddles of the World, held up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was there, four years ago, that Molsky heard about First Nations people. This is the term that Canadians use to refer to the people who lived on that land before the Europeans crossed over the Atlantic. During these two tunes we see Molsky’s animated face. His expressions are so varied, it’s as if he’s deep in conversation with his fiddle.
Lady Hamilton is played and then we are enjoined to sing along with Sail Away Ladies. “If I’m singing and you feel like singing, please join in” he says. While I love to sing, and I do sing along when thusly asked, in general, I’d rather listen. Molsky’s voice takes on such a personal tone, it feels like he is singing just for me. And I’d think everyone in the audience could say the same thing. Again the rich sound of both voice box and fiddle box fill our ears and every crevice of the room. I drink in the sound of the soprano fiddle and the baritone singer, their voices full and luxurious, made for one another. We hear Jeff Sturgeon and Sally’s Little Favorite. Molsky looks out at the audience and smiles an impish grin. As he fiddles these last few songs, his fingers are moving so fast, they fly like a typist on the keyboard typing eighty words per minute.
Cotton Eyed Joe holds several agreeable fiddle tricks. The tune is a lively one and includes Molsky sliding his finger down the peg board as he draws his bow across the string. We also discover that even fiddlers can rap. Old time fiddle master, Tommy Jarrell, taught Molsky the technique of rapping the wooden part of the bow against the fiddle. This tune moves so much, I notice the heel of Molsky’s foot banging from side to side rather than a more sedate toe tapping as he keeps the beat.
After a short intermission, during which we are brought up to-date about local folk music activities by the show’s presenters, Madfolk, we settle back down for Mike in the Wilderness which includes lots of colorful left handed plucking and Black Jack Grove where the bow whips around on the strings so much I am reminded of a flag being pummeled by the wind. I note that Molsky holds his bow with the first three fingers of his right hand. “You could cut off these two (ring finger and pinkie) and it wouldn’t make any difference” he says.
Of Molsky’s many varied musical talents, one of them is not as a choir director. He attempts to get us to sing along in this call and response song, Let’s Go to Hunting. The audience does not respond as hoped. Imagine Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer, handing out paint brushes to his patrons and entreating them to “add another pearl.” It’s just not going to happen. Likewise, Bruce, most of us want to hear you sing, not the off-key fellow sitting next to us. Conversely, the next song, Poor Cowboy, works tonight as a sing-a-long. Maybe because Molsky teaches us how to sing it and it’s a simpler song to sing for those of us who are musically challenged.
Molsky calls himself an African music freak. The next number was influenced by the Zimbabwe National Choir. Molsky heard a recording from the 1967 LP Africa in Revolutionary Music (LSM Records) and wrote this song. It’s still untitled, but Molsky is compelled to share it with us. I’m glad he does. It’s unlike most of his other music and resultantly adds another dimension to his repertoire. “Music evokes a different response every time you play it” he states as an excuse for not being able to find the right name for the song. Indeed, if the song’s emotional message keeps changing with every rendition, naming it would, in a sense, nail it down. That might not be a good thing.
During Roustabout, played on the banjo, Molsky, true to his word, spends time tuning the instrument while simultaneously playing the song. “Banjo players spend half their time tuning their banjo and the other half playing out of tune” he says.
We hear Give The Fiddler A Dram and Three Forks of Cheat, both fiddle tunes. When Molsky sings I Truly Understand and Field Holler, I find I need to look carefully at his feet. His voice sounds so rooted and plangent that I wouldn’t be surprised to see that his feet have become cemented to the floor, he is that solid sounding. His pitch is remarkable. He then warns us that he has only one more song before the evening is over.
Pickin’ The Devil’s Eye is one of my absolute favorites. The way that Bruce plays this makes me think there is more than one fiddler on stage. After this tune and leaving no doubt as to his virtuosity, Molsky exits. We respond in kind with a rousing round of clapping, not stopping until Molsky re-appears. The encore is of the same caliber. We all go home with joy in our hearts.