“Everybody on the West Coast is calling old-time the new punk” says Crooked Jades singer-guitarist Jeff Kazor. He and his fast-rising quintet are part of an amazing new movement that is sweeping America and bringing old-style music to the MTV generation. It’s a movement that is spurning the lure of the low-slung electric guitar in favour of…the fiddle, the banjo, the mandolin and the stand-up bass. In 2007, acoustic music is cool.
Young bands from all over the States have turned on to their heritage and are taking the natural, organic qualities and old-time sensibility of folk, bluegrass and country and warping them into the 21st Century, via rock and punk. As Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers explains “You make comparisons with musicians of the past…people like Charlie Poole. He was living rough. Everybody knows that Hank Williams was as well and, while there wasn’t an aesthetic punk feel to their music, the sensibility was there in their music and in their attitude. Maybe it’s a more modern thing that the lifestyles of country and punk have found their way to each other but it makes sense to us that this is happening”.
What these apparently disparate musical styles share is a back-to-basics approach to performance and recording and a willingness to let lifestyle soak into the grooves. The latest Avett Brothers album ‘Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions’ exactly explains the dynamic.
The band locked themselves in a cabin in western North Carolina for eleven days and eleven nights, got wrecked, switched on the recording machine and put down 31 songs, straight from floor to tape. The result is a totally uninhibited album of wild, punk-fuelled bluegrass, described as ‘…a highly unusual and high energy meeting of hillbilly music, screamo and heavenly pop harmonies’.
Seth and Scott Avett began their careers in a rock band called Nemo.
“It was hard-core.” Scott told me. “That was what we did through our teenage years, fuelled by bands like Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Nirvana. But we grew up in the country, so there was another side. We tried to buck it, to ignore it…but it was really who we were and this sort-a organic side began to make itself known. It’s a real privilege to come from that rural background and heritage of North Carolina. I feel like now we’re among a group of guys that we know of in the States that are part of a movement that’s arriving like a surge”.
“Old-time is the new rock!” says Rayna Gellert from the all-woman five piece band Uncle Earl, who have just released their second album ‘Waterloo Tennessee’, produced by Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones. “It’s like the pendulum has swung again or something…and now being roots-music orientated is somehow (dare I say it) hip! It’s like a special sub-community of our friends. There are always phases where young, hip string bands re-discover folk and roots music. To me it’s just about finding music that’s as fun to play as it is to listen to”.
John Paul Jones first heard Uncle Earl play live at a huge old-time dance. “Chris Thile and I got up onstage with them…two extra mandolins…and thrashed our way through as best we could! It was absolutely amazing…this huge hall, full of people of all ages, just stomping up and down and clogging. It was fantastic”.
Crooked Still are another young band exploring these old-time sounds.
“One of the big challenges of recording traditional music” says the bands cellist Rushad Eggleston “is that you want to try and capture that rollicking, raucous energy that the music has when it’s really happening. We try to play things live and all together in the studio as much as possible to get the rough energy that happens when you’re playing this sort of music”. And, as much has old-time has power, so it has a gentleness and warmth that is hugely appealing.
I’ve been playing tracks on my programmes recently from ‘The Bootlegger’s Daughter’, the debut album from Oregon born musician Rachel Harrington, already known as ‘the soon-to-be No Depression cover girl’. Flavoured with bluegrass and alternative country, it’s an absolutely beautiful record, with Rachel’s aching vocals backed by acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, dobro and occasional bass and drums, with players from bands as diverse as those of Dwight Yoakham, BB King, Tim O’Brien and Robert Earl Keen. If an album can be said to be kind, then this one is.
Gillian Welch began this organic trend in the 90’s, Nickel Creek took it on, ‘O Brother’ turned it into gold. Now, the simplicity and integrity of the performing and recording of old-time music is resonating with a whole new generation of mainstream-weary music fans who just don’t want to buy into all that major label, fame driven, X-Factor karaoke stuff. And one of the best things about it all is the freedom. Old-time is defiantly anti-mainstream and individual…inspired by tradition but not inhibited by it. Like Jeff Kazor says…old-time is the new punk.
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