Old Tones in the Mountains

NORTH HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—It’s taken me a month to have enough of a work breather to write about the wonderful time I had at the Oldtone Roots Music Festival in North Hillsdale, New York. This is where three states—New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts—all come together, and it’s a festival hotspot, with the region home to Falcon Ridge and Grey Fox.


Bruce Molsky (center) with his Mountain Drifters. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oldtone is the newcomer, and thanks to the energies and enthusiasm of Kip Beacco and his many volunteers, it grew to a full multi-day festival this year. But expect it to become a perennial. Though the genre is decidedly healthy—with loads of devoted young bands—there aren’t many festivals devoted to old-time music (not bluegrass).

If your idea of an old-time festival is a bunch of septuagenarians in suspenders playing their fiddles between spits of tobacco juice, think again. Most of these performers—many of them new to me—are under 30. But they’re as devoted to the form (based on collective playing, not flashy solos) as anyone could be.

I was thrilled to see Molsky’s Mountain Drifters for the first time. Here they are on video:

Bruce Molsky is, to my way of thinking, the finest living old-time musician—adept as a vocalist, a virtuoso on banjo, fiddle, guitar and anything else with strings, and an historian par excellence.

In the Mountain Drifters he’s ably supported by Stash Wyslouch of the Deadly Gentlemen on guitar and Allison de Groot. It’s a fine band, with a new CD out, too, and the only drawback is that, of necessity, Molsky stuck to his fiddle. For the full experience, see him solo.


Tony Trischka (left) and Michael Daves show just how much music a duo can make. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Foghorn String Band have eight albums out, and play widely, but somehow I’ve never seen them until now. I was clearly missing something; they’re a tight unit, in service to the songs.

Run Mountain

Run Mountain is the trio version of Moonshine Holler. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Moonshine Holler and Run Mountain are variations of the same band, centered on husband-and-wife team Bill Dillof and Paula Bradley. Add Vermont fiddler Jim Burns and Moonshine Holler becomes Run Mountain. Either way, they celebrate front-porch old-time, and mine the rich seam of country music that emerged on record in the late 1920s. Bradley, by the way, plays in a dizzying assortment of bands; I last saw the Uncle Earl veteran in an all-girl country swing outfit called Girl Howdy, and don’t forget Miss Paula and the Twangbusters.

Here’s Run Mountain with “Goodbye Boll Weevil”:

The Two-Man Gentleman Band doesn’t get together all that often these days, and that’s a shame. They’re an absolute hoot, the Smothers Brothers of old-time. Andy Bean, who sings his own (mostly comic) songs and plays banjo in a style that dates to the 19th century, is joined by his straight man,  the Councilman, on bass.

This stuff would be deadly if Bean couldn’t sing, or his songs were weak, but neither is the case. Plus he’s a killer banjo player, inhabiting a genre very few others are keeping alive. He’s apparently making music for a new cartoon series now, while the Councilman plays base with the Legendary Shack Shakers. On hopes the reception they got at Old Tone will keep the Two-Man dream alive.

I enjoyed sets by Hillary Hawke, Michael Daves and Tony Trischka, Bear Minimum (great singer), Bradford Lee Folk and the Farwells. Jesse Lege and Bayou Brew were ripping it up in the dance tent. I’m sorry I missed artists who played on other days, including Brooklyn’s Downhill Strugglers, mainstays of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. And the Hayrollers and the Easy Ridin’ Papas sure sounded interesting.

The venue is just fine, the working Cool Whisper Farm. We were warned not to approach the bull, and after getting a look at him I didn’t need to be told twice. There was plenty of good food available, and it was affordable, too. The crowd wasn’t huge, but this was the first year. I expect great things from this festival next year and forever after. Next year I’ll stay longer.