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.
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.
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 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 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).
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!
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.
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.