Bruce Molsky, American Roots Musician

 

5.7.16 Beacon, NY

“Electrifying” seems to be an insufficient word for describing the music of Bruce Molsky. His sound, resulting from his precise yet playful fingers moving across his instruments, conveys a profoundly deep and lasting connection to the past and the present.

 

Interview by David A. Ross   Photos by Kate Orne

Location: Widow Jane Mine, Rosendale, NY

Molsky’s Mountain Drifters to be released midsummer.

DR: How do you define folk music?

BM: I tend to put a lot of things in the category of folk music. This is my own meatball definition: It's music that has to have its roots in some kind of cultural expression; It can be music of working people; It's music that appeals very directly to people's emotions and that is powered by influences from popular music. I think a lot of popular music is folk music. One of the reasons I love R&B is because the style and the setting of that kind of music is based on something much, much older.

DR: So you would put some R&B within the category of folk?

BM: To me it is, maybe in a more general sense. But in the same sense, gospel music is folk music. Cowboy music is folk music. It's all music that talks about people's lives and experience. It's almost easier to say what folk music is not. It's not a flash in the pan.

DR: What drew you to this world of old time, traditional American music?

BM: I was listening to the radio since I was little kid. In fact, my sister said that I knew all the words to all the top 10 songs on WABC by the time I was 5. It was the very beginnings of FM radio at that time; you had 2 pop radio stations in New York, ABC and MCA. I listened to all the Motown music, which I love, and which is really deep for me, and all kinds of modern folk music like the New Seekers and Peter, Paul & Mary and so on.

Molsky soaking up the late afternoon sun at the banks of the Hudson river.

DR: So, in a way, radio contained everything for you. Were you in a rock & roll band?

BM: Yeah, I had a couple of bad rock & roll bands. (Laughs) One was The Second Phase Blues Band with two guys from my neighborhood in the Bronx. We'd just kind of wang away on our guitars, drums and bass. But at the same time I also discovered Doc Watson and I tried to learn everything on his first LP — my sister gave it to me for my birthday when I was, like, 12.

DR: So then you owe a little debt to your sister for pushing you in the right direction.

BM: Owe a big debt, yeah, sure.

DR: I'm sure your parents didn't encourage you to become a musician.

BM: No, they… they liked the fact that I did it but I don’t think they saw it as something that would displace everything else that they had planned for me. (Laughs) And I tried my hardest to be… to follow the given path. I went to architecture school and then engineering school… spent a short time at Cornell, and then I went to four other colleges. And I never, ever, finished my degree. But I ended up as an engineering designer working under the wing of somebody who had a specialty. And so I learned by work experience and that's how I became an engineer.

DR: But you wanted to play music full time.

"I received this beautiful guitar by my great uncle." (1924 Martin 0-28K).

 Hardanger fiddle (Salve Haakedal, Norway 2007).

BM:  I was tired of all the expectations placed on me, I was unhappy. I needed something else. I just wanted to play the fiddle. My mother had just passed away, my father and I were not getting along, and I just had to get the hell out of the Bronx.

When I left Cornell, as penance, I got a job on a dairy farm. At that point I had been playing the banjo a little bit. The end of that first summer I went to my first fiddlers’ convention with a whole bunch of friends from central New York. We all drove to Virginia together and that was kind of the beginning of the end.

DR: So you fell in love with that scene?

BM: I fell in love with the scene. I met all the old musicians that I'd only heard on records. And I just — I felt like I found my peeps.

DR: So the boy from the Bronx finds happiness in rural Virginia where old timers were actually revered and listened to?

Fiddle (Ewan Thomson, Shetland UK 2015).

 Banjo (Kyle Creed, Virginia 1978)

BM: Everybody didn’t revere them but they were by all of us.

DR: So the locals took them for granted?

BM: They actually looked down on them, not everybody looks on their past with such love. A lot of people see that kind of hillbilly-people-scraping-to-make-a-living, depression-era thing as a black spot on history. There are African Americans I've met who don't like the blues 'cause it points to something ugly in their pasts.

I have a friend, a really nice guy from rural Alabama –– a very successful doctor –– he came to one of my concerts. And he sat there and read a book the whole time, and I thought it was so strange. And at the end of the show, he came up to me and said, "I just want to apologize. I always read books at concerts." But I knew something was up so I asked my other friend about it. He says, "He really respects you, and he thinks a lot of you, but he grew up penniless and barefoot in Alabama. And the music you play reminds him of that and that's an ugly memory for him."

DR: Wow.

BM: So, it's a real difficult thing.

DR: Culturally, it must be complicated to absorb music that represents struggle, hard times and lives lived in poverty.

Music flowing deep into the former mine of widow Jane in Rosendale, NY.

BM: Well, a lot of this stuff I’ve never experienced myself. So, maybe in that sense, it’s academic because I'm singing about somebody else's experience but I've internalized a lot of it for myself. And this also speaks to a lot of us who fell in love with rural music, and music of a different culture, and wrapped ourselves around it.

We really had a very romantic notion of what it must have been like to be those fiddlers, living in those rural communities, those beautiful places in the mountains, tending to their pretty gardens — but they had hard lives. But to me it was this really beautiful thing in its simplicity and all those people seemed ‘really happy’.

DR: Well, it was also pure right?

BM: It got pretty well commercialized. I'm really careful about the word purity because that speaks to a lot of other things.

DR: How about the word authenticity?

BM: It's the same thing. It's the same thing.

DR: What is your problem with the word authenticity?

BM: Authenticity and purity imply that there's a right and a wrong at a lot of levels. It also justifies, to a lot of people — not me, racism, classism and elitism, which are the opposites of what this music is about. I really strive to have some balance between what I think are the most important things: the aspects of the old music, and my own creative process, my own person.

DR: Are you reinventing it in your way?

BM: Yeah, because, without a modern voice, old music dies and without context my music is worthless. It has to be both.

DR: So tell me about some of the things that you're doing now.

BM: I've got a brand new trio, Molsky's Mountain Drifters. It's me, a banjo player named Allison de Groot, she's amazing, and our guitar player, Stash Wyslouch. He came from the punk rock / metal world but fell in love with acoustic music.

DR: So the point of this band is...?

©UpstateDiary_KateOrne_BruceMolsky.jpg

BM: I'm not sure what the point of this band is yet, except that I really wanted to play with musicians who had a more youthful approach and a little bit broader palate of chops and whom also love and respect, and have enough background in, old-time music to know what it sounds like. And I'm not purposely looking to stretch anything; I'm just looking for a modern context for old stuff.

DR: So what is it about living here in the Hudson Valley that seems right for you?                          

BM: My wife Audrey and I ended up here because of her work. But we fell in love with the place. When we came here in ‘00 there was a long-standing tradition of folk singing, and of course Pete [Seeger] lived here. I didn't dig that deeply into it at the time because I was into Southern music and traveling all the time. Right now, for the first time since ‘97, I have 3 weeks off of work and one of the things that make this so incredibly wonderful is being right here.

DR: How many days of the year are you on the road?

BM: More than half.

DR: And that's going to remain?

BM: That's what you've got to do. This is not an occupation for people that don't want to work. (Laughs)

DR: Or that want to get rich quick…

BM: I wouldn't say I'm rich, that's for sure. But, yeah, now that we have some good music venues, we're pushing for the opening of a folk music center here, partially in Pete's memory and partially because Beacon is one of the epicenters of folk music in this part of the country.

For me, it's always been about being creative and being part of something bigger.

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