Keeping it Weird at Oldtone 2021

The Oldtone Roots Music Festival is one of the few summer celebrations that’s fully devoted to old-time country music. “That’s like bluegrass?” people say to me. Not really. Old-time—bedrock weird Americana before Bill Monroe got his hands on it, is produced by musical collectives that exist to serve the song. Monroe, inspired by the jazz that was the basis for popular music in the 1930s and 1940s, introduced the soloist to country, sped it up, made it into a virtuoso display.

Paula Bradley and the new lineup of Moonshine Holler.

Old ballads, murder songs, tales of longing for Appalachian mountains—they lose something when translated into bluegrass. With a few exceptions (Monroe himself being one, Lester Flatt and Roy Acuff two more) they often sound like they’re rushing through the lyrics to get to the fast-fingered mandolin player. That doesn’t really do when the song is a tale of homicidal infamy like “Little Sadie” or “Omie Wise.”

The popularity of bluegrass could have killed off old-time, but it didn’t—just as TV didn’t kill off radio. In fact, we’re in something of a renaissance of the form, and Oldtone 2021—a one-day event instead of the usual weekend—celebrated it with performances mainly by younger practitioners. The organizers are to be commended—they got the pigeon-poop-covered stage up in record time. All was well at Cool Whisper Farm.

Moonshine Holler featured longtime member Paula Bradley with two younger players, Pete Killeen and Marco DePaolis. Bradley’s late husband and bandmate Bill Dillof is much missed, but it’s heartening to hear these young banjo and fiddle players enthusiastically embracing the music that was old in their grandparents’ day. Are some of the songs from the 18th century? Yes indeed, and sometimes translated with new lyrics when they made their way across the Atlantic.

Roger the Jester was a class act, and wowed the kids–all without speaking.

Bradley is an enthusiastic musicologist, as Dillof was, and that’s why instead of “Pretty Polly” we got songs sourced from old 78s like “Chase the Devil Down” and “Tie Hacker’s Number Two.” The latter apparently refers to workers who cut railroad ties by hand. This music is preserved from a very brief period in time, basically 1926 to 1930, when rural workers had money and the industry realized they’d pay for records. If the tunes were more slowly paced than you’re used to, well, that’s what bluegrass did to the music. This ain’t Hee Haw.

Dumpster Debbie is a New England old-time collective featuring Sophie Wellington, Zack Meyer, Andrew Stearns, Dan Bui, Will Seeders Mosheim and Mike Harmon. They play the music with drive, spirit and enthusiasm. Wellington may not be named Debbie, but she’s an ingratiating and outgoing frontperson. Also a keen fiddle player. There’s fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass but no real singer, though Wellington hollered a bit on “Cumberland Gap.” There’s was but one of many versions of the song.

Dumpster Debbie prove that there’s life in the old form.

Dumpster Debbie was actually formed at Oldtone in 2019. Where else are you going to find simpatico roots musicians? They have an album out, which they sell at gigs for $20.

The Downhill Strugglers: The New York side of old-time country.

The Downhill Strugglers have played Oldtone a number of times, in recent years with John Cohen—a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers. Thus did they connect their New York City-based take on old-time with similar impulses from the Ramblers back in the 1060s. “We played with John at every Brooklyn Folk Festival since the beginning, as well as at every Washington Square Park Folk Festival, many shows here at the Jalopy Theatre and many more all across the country, including at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Newport Folk Festival and more,” the Strugglers say.Y

Now a trio, the Strugglers are Jackson Lynch on fiddle and vocals, Eli Smith (who also runs the aforementioned Brooklyn Folk Festival, on in November) on banjo and Walker Shepard on a variety of instruments. They’re all musicologists, too, and Lynch unearths some real gems. “I know “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” but “Big Ball’s in Memphis”? He has a penchant for long and mordant ballads, such as (if I got the title right) “The Ballad of Utah Carroll.” There are variants on this story—a cowboy is killed saving a little kid from a raging bull/stampede. In this case she’s the boss’ little daughter.

One song the Strugglers did, “Ain’t Gonna Lay My Armor Down,” is one of just two recorded by the team of McVay and Johnson back in the 20s. Hey, you can look it up. It’s on Columbia, with unknown musicians aplenty, and recorded October 17, 1928 in Johnson City, Tennessee. Finding these old 78s is what the Ramblers did, searching dusty general stores rather than the Internet.

Another song they did, “Wimbush Rag,” by Theo and Gus Clark, was also one of the only two the performers recorded. Here it is:

Cole Quest and the City Pickers are also New York-based. Cole is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and is definitely carrying on that tradition. Their set was a mix of old-time songs and some new compositions. Quest is aided by a very talented group: on guitar (Christian Apuzzo), banjo (Mike Mulhollan), harmonica (Matheus Verardino), and bass (Larry Cook).

Cole Quest (second from left) with the City Pickers.

Many of the bands played several times, which was all right with me. I was particularly keen to hear from Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings on three separate occasions. This is a band that, in many ways, prefigures not only bluegrass but also recorded old-time music. The focus is on songs from the very beginning of recorded music, make that 1910 to 1925. Is anyone else reviving Rudy Valee these days? Their only recording is on Edison wax cylinders!

Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings turn the clock waaay back.

This is accurate: The group turns a “recorded repertoire of antique novelty tunes into a fantastic stage show that puts a capital ‘S’ in showmanship. When you see the Ragtime Shepherd Kings you’ll witness: fancy fiddling, dueling Hawaiian guitars, ukelele wizardry, flashy lap-steel guitar, a menagerie of toy instruments, vocal harmonies that sound as if they were polished by hand, a musical pig ‘porkestra,’ scandalous dancing—and that’s just the intermission!”

The fez-wearing group—Timmy Findlen on ukulele, Lindsay McCaw on fiddle, vocals and the scandalous dancing, Matt Bell and Joel Jackson on guitars and Joy Patterson (little instruments)—is simply unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The show makes me very sad about never having seen vaudeville. It’s a show. No flannel shirts and grim expressions.

The Lucky Five adding a swing jazz element.

And finally there was the Lucky Five. It was getting cold, but I was so glad I stayed. The group features Oldtone organizer Kip Beacco on guitar and smooth vocals, and it’s old-time swing jazz with some French flair. The roots aren’t quite in Django/Grappelli, though—it seemed from a more romantic era.

The musicians are Beacco on guitar/vocals, Jonathan Talbot on violin/vocals, Carolyn Dufraine on vocals/trombone, Matt Downing on bass/vocals, and Tom Parker on drums. Collectively, they’ve been part of the Hunger Mountain Boys, Lauren Ambrose and the Leisure Class, and in performing/recording/trio settings with Neko Case, Iris Dement, Bobby Previte, Del McCoury and Jim Lauderdale.

But what comes out sounds nothing like any of them. Dufraine sings only in French, and the band sounds like what you’d hear in Paris in 1923. Maybe with an expatriate American in the band. Isn’t that what James Reese Europe was all about? They were really swinging, believe me.

The Return of a (Vaccinated) Rhythm & Roots

I didn’t initially realize that the Rosie Newton who played fiddle on old-time songs and originals with Richie Stearns was the same woman who played accordion and sang Cajun songs and played accordion with Rose and the Bros over on the dance stage. But that’s the way it went at the Rhythm & Roots festival 2021 at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island September 3-5—lots of mix and match. Roots musicians are very versatile. The festival this year admitted only fully vaccinated patrons and staff, a very smart choice.

Richie and Rosie.

I missed Friday, and Saturday started with a laid-back accordion workshop on the Roots Stage (my favorite), featuring ace Louisianans Steve Riley, Wilson Savoy, Jeffrey Broussard and Blake Miller. They talked about their challenged state, growing up in musical families, old-time musicians who influenced them (check out the great vocalist Ira “Iry” LeJeune), and varying styles. Riley (a genial host for the proceedings, on his first gig for 18 months) brought his 12 year old son, Burke, who already has a lot of the old man’s chops. And of course, they played, tunes like “Mulberry Waltz,” “Seychelle” and “Back of Town Two-Step.” You can find these musicians in the Pine Leaf Boys, the Revelers, and in Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

From left, Amelia and Dirk Powell, Tara Nevins, Richie Stearns.

A sublime panel brought together Dirk Powell—one of the greatest living exponents of old-time country—together with Richie Stearns, Powell’s daughter Amelia, and the two principals of Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins and Jeb Pruyear. It’s not well known that the latter two were heavily involved in old-time before Donna was formed in the Finger Lakes in 1989. Actually, both Stearns and Powell were in an early lineup, so it was a reunion of sorts. I’d never heard guitarist Puryear play fiddle before, and he sounded just fine.

“Breaking Up Christmas,” an old tune from North Carolina, was a standout, but so was “Sally Ann” and Stearns’ own “Chilly Winds.”

Stearns is an excellent songwriter, and his set with Newton as Richie and Rosie included a bunch of his compositions, including the lovely “Honeybee” and “I Will Be With You Always.” They mixed in nicely with traditional fare like “Waterbound,” “Say Darling Say,” “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “Been All Around This World.” Newton is a first-rate vocalist and fiddler, and Stearns forceful on his main instrument, banjo.

Steve Riley: First time out in 18 months.

There’s always good zydeco and cajun at Rhythm & Roots, especially in the Dance Tent. I would put the Revelers and Rose and the Bros on the same basic platform—great bands to dance to, superb at the local VFW hall. You can listen also. The Revelers’ top number was “If You Ain’t Got Love”—that should be their single. Hitbound, but only in an era with charts not dominated by hip hop and R&B. Rose surprised me by singing John Martyn “Don’t Want to Know About Evil.” Odd that’s the only song of his anyone else sings—he’s got lots of other good ones.

The Revelers say you’re nothin’ without love.

Newton has many facets. At one point there was a lovely piece by three unaccompanied fiddles, and then the band joined in to create an indelible rave-up.

Rose and the Bros.

I’m sorry to have missed Veronica Lewis, a blues shouter and rockin’ pianist who’s all of 17. I’m listening to her album You Ain’t Unlucky right now, and it’s great jump blues stuff—from long before she was born. Fats Domino would approve.

Christine Ohlman, Rebel Montez, and the Sin Sisters.

Christine Ohlman, a beehived chanteuse from the New Haven, Connecticut area who got lost on the way to the B52s audition, mines some of the same territory. But on the Roots Stage, with Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters singing backup, she was all about gospel—with swampy Tony Joe White/Creedence backup. This was a big old revue, with eight pieces on stage. Ohlman has a lot of voice and a large personality suited for “Wade in the Water,” “People Get Ready” and “The Devil Don’t Bother Me.”

I heard a little bit of Ward Hayden and the Outliers, a four-piece classic country band with a leader who looked like he’d just stepped off a FedEx truck. “I Just Can’t Live Like That Anymore” was fine country swing. One song was dedicated to the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, in which Hayden was immersed during the lockdown.

Richard Thompson: not audibly the worse for wear.

I’ve written extensively about Richard Thompson so no need to go on here, but he was fine with just his guitar and a backup singer. A bunch of new songs that haven’t sunk in yet. No one plays guitar like Thompson, Celtic influenced by every other style in the world. I still swear that “Beeswing” is about the great lost light Anne Briggs, but Thompson claims he met her only twice and both times she was passed-out drunk. Neither Thompson, in his early 70s, nor his guitar playing show much wear.

Rhiannon Giddens, national treasure.

And then, just before the rain, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. I heard Giddens earlier in the day during another workshop with Dirk Powell et al, and she was in amiable form. But with Turrisi it was on another level. She’s been locked down in Ireland for 18 months, and is busting out of the gates.  

Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, who just barely made it into America with the right visa.

Most of the material that night will be familiar to owners of their album together, There Is No Other. But it was all that much better live. Turrisi barely made it into America, but Rhythm & Roots was profoundly glad he did. And Giddens is one of our true American treasures, fully deserving of every accolade she’s gotten.

The Green River Festival, New Site, Same Good Time

The Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts was first held in 1986, back when the focus was on hot-air ballooning. When I started going, long ago, the balloons were still there but the music came from at least three stages. The festival kept growing at Greenfield Community College until last year, when COVID shut it down. But in 2021 Green River was back, now at the Franklin County Fairgrounds.

Bella White and band, Canadian driftwood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The three stages were scattered in and around the very nostalgic fair buildings, which made a nice change. There wasn’t as much shade as at the college, but quite a bit of atmosphere. Attendees were “strongly encouraged” to come vaccinated, but it wasn’t required.

Appalachian Still, local boys making good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I made it to Saturday and Sunday. Here’s what I saw, in order. Bella White is a fine Canadian singer-songwriter, signed to Rounder. White’s guitar was accompanied by fiddle and upright bass, a neat trio format. She’s very comfortable on stage, and has material that I wrote in my notes “is very good but looking for that spark of genius.” A standout was “Do You Think of Me at All?” She said the Stanley Brothers were her models for it, and that’s a recipe for classic country. George Jones was another influence, manifest in a real tear-jerker, and weren’t those Guy Clark and Louvin Brothers songs she did?

Kris Delmhorst with Jeffrey Foucault (left). (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved Appalachian Still, who are local to the Northampton area. They had a guitar/banjo/fiddle front line and favored a breakneck form of bluegrass/old-time. They performed a lot of classics with gusto, including “The Race is On,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Salty Dog,” “Get Up, Jake” (an obscure Band song), and more. Maybe you saw them open for Del McCoury.

The overlap of the sets meant some acts I saw only briefly. I caught a bit of Kris Delmhorst, who was in fine form. A song she did called “I Fly Away” was absolutely killer—it should be a single. Delmhorst is a prolific album artist, check out her latest, Long Day in the Milky Way. A singer named Peter Moore, from Texas, well, I heard only the last few notes of his last song. Sorry, Pete!

Underground System, in a subdued moment. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ghost of Paul Revere were very loud, not very melodic, and also swore a lot—which seemed inappropriate given all the children present. Other groups that didn’t ring my bell all that much included Whiskey Treaty Road Show, Ani DiFranco, Cimafunk and the Beau Sasser Trio.

Much, much better was New York-based Underground System, stars in the making. Frontwoman Dominica Fossatti is unbelievably dynamic, a powerful dancer, singer, flute player and songwriter. The music is afrobeat meets Talking Heads, in the best possible way. The horn section was killer.

Zara Bode and her Little Big Band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Zara Bode of the Sweetback Sisters is a big-voiced, standard-loving jazz singer fronting a band that featured venerable sax and trumpet players, plus the great Anna Patton as musical arranger and clarinet artiste. And that was her husband, Sam Amidon’s brother Stefan, on drums. He was in the Sisters, too.

JD McPherson did a solid rockabilly set, backed by standup bass, saxophone and drums. If the form is a bit limiting, well, it’s got three chords and the truth. The Rebirth Brass Band, a group I first saw at least 20 years ago, remain in rude good health. I still love the tuba, and not one but two trombone players.

Valerie June. Sorry the picture is fuzzy–might have been her cosmic vibes interfering with the camera. (Jim Motavalli photo)

With just her banjo and guitars (electric and National steel) Valerie June was transcendent. This was one of the best performances I’ve seen by her. She’s intense, funny and cosmic at the same time. And deeply humanistic, wanting us to see the glory of sharing the planet at this unique moment in time. She celebrates “the sun going up and down and the beauty of it all.” As to that unique voice, it’s the product of 18 years in church. “The World’s Not My Home” is from page 356 of the hymnal.

Rachel Baiman (center) and that’s the great Miss Tess on bass. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Little Roots are from Florence, Massachusetts and specialize in teaching folk music to kids. But they’re entertaining as a duo, too. If you’re in Florence, don’t miss the circa-1941 Miss Florence diner.

Fiddle player/guitarist/banjo picker/singer/songwriter Rachel Baiman is a national treasure, solo and with 10 String Symphony. I saw her on the main stage performing her own songs with Miss Tess (a transcendent front woman in other contexts) on bass. Her songs are pretty good, but she really excelled on Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road.” More on her later.

Speaking of national treasures, this is Bonny Light Horseman. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bonny Light Horseman feature, of course, the playwright Anais Mitchell of Broadway phenomenon Hadestown fame, and her presence is perhaps why the people were packed in by the stage. But the music bore no relation to Broadway, Hamilton or anything like that—it was mostly excellent revivalist folk from the U.S. and Britain. “The Roving,” now that’s a fine song. “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” I think I first heard it by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Bonny Light Horseman” is itself a honey of a song that dates to the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1807–1814). The hymn “Children, Go Where I Send You” never gets old. “Blackwaterside” is via Anne Briggs, and influenced Bert Jansch (and Jimmy Page, too).

What was Mandolin Orange is now Watchhouse, still featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. They’re both strong singers and songwriters, and Marlin is a mandolin wizard. Their set went down easily, and long codas were typical. “Beautiful Flowers,” sung by Frantz, was a standout.

Also Marlin’s “The Wolves.” I’d like to see the two singers sing in unison or duet a bit more. We sat behind the cello player’s mother.

Watchhouse, in fine form, celebrating John Hartford. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As I noted after seeing her at the Red Wing Festival, Sierra Ferrell is headed for great things. At Green River her fine guitar work was combined with a fiddle and mandolin—the poor bass player got left behind. Ferrell has a powerful voice with its own country twists, and is a prolific songwriter and interpreter.

Ranky Tanky, happy to be there. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In all the moving around I caught just a bit of Ranky Tanky, from the Georgia Sea Islands. Quiana Parler is riveting as the lead vocalist, and Charlton Singleton is both a singer and spirited trumpet player. They looked very happy to be there. This is the kind of group that used to be featured at the Newport Folk Festival in the 50s and 60s.

And then the finale, a tribute to John Hartford, curated by Baiman. What a delight! Artifact Cider was my favorite stage at Green River, though they all had great music on them. Roots! John Hartford was overdue for a salute, and he got a great one here, featuring many of the acts from the show—Baiman’s band, Appalachian Still, Twisted Pine, Ali McGuirk, Watchhouse, Sierra Ferrell.

More Bella White. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The versions were all loving, and pointed up the durability of Hartford’s compositions. “Gum Tree Canoe,” “Long Hot Summer Day,” “Tall Buildings,” “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Back in the Goodle Days,” great to hear them all. The next day I had to do a John Hartford marathon through my headphones. That Bonny Light Horseman set sent me back to the originals, too.

Thank you Rachel Baiman, and thank you Jim Olsen for doing this festival for 35 years.