HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—Every music festival has its discoveries, and at Oldtone Lite in Hillsdale, New York—an elegiac end-of-season gathering—it was one JP Harris. He’s not a new artist, and I’d already heard his first old-time album—but live he was a revelation.
Harris was billed as offering a honky-tonk set as the closer on Friday night. Before that I’d seen him and four banjos in a delightful duo with Sophie Wellington (fiddle and dancing). The repertoire was much of Harris’ Don’t You Marry No Railway Man album, which is mostly another duo with Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show).
Although Harris is relatively new to old-time, he’s already a master performer in the genre. He gets the blood and guts at the core of it. Old-time, at its best, is about as far from the cleaned-up college folk of the Kingston Trio and Burl Ives as you can get—it’s murder ballads, songs of tragedy, misfortune and hard times.
Wellington and Harris were magic together. Here’s proof:
Not convinced? Here’s more proof:
And even more:
I didn’t get any photos or video of Harris’ honky-tonk set, mainly because I was freezing. But also mesmerized. With an all-star band of fiddle, pedal steel, piano, guitar and bass, Harris, an Alabama native, ripped through a bunch of hard country music (the kind Merle Haggard, George Jones and Porter Waggoner used to play), most of it about drinking and lost love—and often the combination of the two. Harris, who will tour Europe next March, has made three fine albums in this vein. Especially check out I’ll Keep Calling.
Ferd, a beard-and-baseball-cap New Orleans band out the Hackensaw Boys featuring fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Ferd Moyse, played a rousing set, then came back and played on the between-set “Tweener Stage.” It’s a brilliant idea, because it means the music never lets up. But bathroom breaks are hard. “It’s All on Account of You” and “I Found My Own Today” were highlights of the Ferd set; at their best, they are reminiscent of the Holy Modal Rounders.
The also New Orleans-based Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were simply wonderful, featuring Matt Bell and Joy Patterson of Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings—a perennial Oldtone favorite and at the earlier 2022 Oldtone show. Like Roochie Toochie, the emphasis is on early jazz—really early, like 1915 to 1920 early. This band isn’t quite as theatrical—no fezzes—but Patterson, also a fine singer, made great sounds on her little instruments. Highlights were “Nobody but My Baby” and a Jimmie Rodgers song, “Any Old Time.” How far back does “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” go? Apparently at least to a recording by Guy Lombardo in 1936.
Here are the Bad Pennies on video:
Also from New Orleans, and featuring some of the same musicians, was Tuba Skinny.
Like the Pennies, the repertoire is trad jazz, Clarence Williams to King Oliver, but also jug band music, spirituals, country blues, string band music, ragtime, and New Orleans R&B. They are exemplars of the styles, and kudos to them for making the old 78s come alive. Here they are on video:
Moonshine Holler was heard in old-time duo and trio formats, playing ancient stuff like “Hop High the Ladies” and “Coming Across Texas.”
Leader Paula Bradley was an MVP at Oldtone, also playing piano in JP Harris’ country band. Like him, she’s a scholar of the old music, and will tell you just which 78 was scoured for the song she’s going to do. But like Harris she also plays the honky tonks. Accompanist Pete Killeen is a very versatile musician.
Like the festival, it was Downhill Strugglers Lite, with banjo player Eli Smith missing—he was probably off organizing the upcoming Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is October 20 to 23 this year. Never mind, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch were fine as a duo, offering oldies like “Big Ball in Memphis,” “Short Life of Trouble,” “Old Aunt Betsy,” “Utah Carol.” The latter, which Marty Robbins also recorded, is a fine tale about a cowboy saving a ranch owner’s daughter from a cattle stampede. “It’s sad and action-packed,” Lynch said.
The Lucky Five are another regular old-time jazz act at Oldtone, with the sound of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli as the base. Guitarist Kip Beacco is to be thanked as a main organizer of this peerless event. The Five were the Four at Oldtone, and not even on the bill, but they managed to get in a few numbers at the Tweener stage. Including this version of “Cuckoo,” captured on video:
Jesse Legé—another Oldtone regular—brought more of New Orleans to the Hillsdale stage, with the event’s only cajun music.
And then there was the uncharacterizable Dumpster Debbie, featuring fiddling savant Wellington.
Dumpster Debbie! (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Debbies don’t sing much: the fare is mostly fiddle-based instrumental material, but it moved out.
After the show my wife and I returned to Connecticut, where an exuberant Lincoln Parkapalooza was in progress, featuring music on my neighbors’ porches and an evening performance by the Tom Petty Project. It’s all music, isn’t it?