Bruce Molsky stands today as the premier old-time fiddler in the world, the defining virtuoso of Appalachia’s timeless folk music traditions. That must feel odd for a former engineer from the Bronx, who didn’t begin a music career until he was forty. But folded into those strange facts is the secret to his unique genius.
In addition to a prolific solo career, performing on fiddle, guitar, and banjo, Molsky frequently joins genre-busting supergroups, like the Grammy-nominated Fiddlers Four, and Mozaik, with Hungarian Nikola Parov, and Celtic giant Donal Lunny. He was on Nickel Creek’s farewell tour, and performs in a trio with Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and Sweden’s great Ale Moller.
When did you start playing music?
I first started playing when I was 11, but I was already glued to pop music radio years before that. I could sing along with everything on the radio from probably six or seven years old. Can’t remember not being obsessed with music. When I was in the 5th grade, the great jazz educator, Dr. Billy Taylor came to my public school in the Bronx and played and spoke to the students as part of his amazing Jazzmobile program. It moved me so deeply that I went home and asked my parents for music lessons. It was one of the most important days in my life and I can still remember it clearly. Having an instrument in my hand made me even more hungry for music.
What led you toward traditional music?
In my nine months of guitar lessons, half of them were spent on all the folk favorites of that time. Freight Train, Little Boxes, Spike Driver Blues. All out of some books my guitar teacher had me working from. We’d play through a verse and a chorus and rush on to the next thing. Those sessions hardly qualified as lessons, but they made me aware of people like Libba Cotton, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe, and of course Pete Seeger. I delivered newspapers (my route consisted of one big 22-story apartment building up the street) and started buying LPs, many of them from Folkways. I still have all of them. When I was 17 I started on banjo thanks to the folk scene in Ithaca, New York where I was going to school. Two LPs changed my life: “Uncle Wade” (Wade Ward and Glen Smith of Carroll County, Virginia) and County Records’ “Clawhammer Banjo, Volume 1.” After a summer of self-inflicted penance working on a dairy farm in 1974, I went with a group of friends to the fiddlers convention in Galax, Virginia and discovered the old time music scene in all its glory. I was hooked.
What is your proudest accomplishment as an artist?
Just having the chance to make people happy with music makes me happier than anything. I was lucky enough to learn from old timers whose time is over now, and it’s an honor to have a chance to pass their music and those experiences on to my students. Being asked to join Berklee College of Music as a Visiting Professor has been amazing, and I’m proud of that. I’m continuing collaborations with some really fantastic musicians from several countries, and those are really exciting.
Tell us about your last album.
If It Ain’t Here When I Get Back is a very personal and very real document. Every tune and song has strong reference to a place or a time or a person I’ve met along the way; it’s somewhat of a loose autobiography like that. Tunes and songs mostly from American traditions, but also from Australia, The Bahamas and other places. The music is all unaccompanied, and we engineered it to sound natural and close to the listener. The artwork and graphics are very much at one with the music. I’m thrilled with how it all turned out.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
A new trio CD and UK touring with Aly Bain and Ale Möller later this year. More musical exploits with Jumpsteady Boys (Joe Newberry, Mike Compton, Rafe Stefanini), and with Mikael Marin (of Väsen) and Ånon Egeland. And on the more immediate horizon, solo touring in Michigan and California, a show in Washington, DC with Jacqueline Schwab and old friends at the DC Revels followed by a month of solo touring in Scotland and England, with a short trip to the great Fiddle Fair Festival in West Cork, Ireland in the middle. And continuing with Berklee’s new American Roots Music Program, a great new addition an already vibrant scene. Maybe a time management course or two. There’s too much I want to do, and I’m going to try to do it all!
What should younger generations should take from Americana music and why is it important that the tradition of music continues?
The broad palette we call Americana represents the best of music that’s accessible in so many ways. In Bob Dylan’s early days he inspired millions creating such huge, important musical and social statements using just a guitar, his voice and unique brilliance. He was just doing the same thing done generations before by The Carter Family, Roscoe Holcomb and countless other rural musicians. Younger generations should celebrate being links in that long and wonderful chain of music by just participating in it. Play, listen, dance, create. There’s absolutely nothing like it
Bruce will be performing at Boulevard Music in Culver City on Saturday April 20 at 7:30p. Tickets are available here: http://boulevardmusic.com/livemusic/421.html