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Local musicians, fans embrace resurgence of old-time music
In an age when people compose music on computers, it seems that banjos and fiddles would have as much popular appeal as eight-track tapes.
But then along came 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' The 2000 Coen Brothers movie found a big audience, but the soundtrack was the real success story. Loaded with American folk tunes from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the album picked up six Grammy nominations and has sold more than 4 million copies to date.
These throwback tunes fall in the genre known as old-time music. This category, local musician Bill Martin says, encompasses fiddling, acoustic country music and rural gospel singing.
Old-time music predates bluegrass, an offspring of old-time that became a commercially viable form in the 1940 with musicians such as Bill Monroe. Unlike old-time music, bluegrass integrates instrumental solos and contemporary genres such as rock 'n' roll.
Why the current craze for old-time music? Martin speculates: 'We're moving toward a culture ruled by CDs and television, and people need relief. Old-time music has a conversational style. It's accessible. People can play it themselves.'
Lisa Marsicek, a fiddler for the Portland old-time band The Flat Mountain Girls, also maintains that the appeal of this music lies in its simplicity and lack of artifice.
'Pop music, with its hot stars, tells you these are people you can't be,' she says. 'Old-time music is accessible to everybody. It just takes three chords on the guitar and the will to sing it.'
As a testament to the popularity of old-time music in Portland, the 'Down From the Mountain' concert with 'O Brother' soundtrack alumni such as Alison Krauss played to a sold-out crowd at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last month.
Steve Waller, a veteran of the Oregon bluegrass scene, attended the show. The pleasure of experiencing this music live, he says, is 'seeing human fingers passing over wood and steel. It's honesty, right from the players to the audience.'
Old is new again
A star-studded show like 'Down From the Mountain' comes along once in a blue moon. But you can track down high-caliber old-time music nearly every night of the week at Portland venues such as The Snake and Weasel, The White Eagle, the Alberta Street Public House and The Moon and Sixpence pub.
'The old-time traditional music and bluegrass scene in Portland is bursting with energy right now,' says Martin, 55, a lifelong fan of the music. 'This has been building for three years but got a real shot in the arm from 'O Brother.' Bluegrass and old-time fiddle shows in Portland get sold out regularly now.'
P.T. Grover Jr., a Georgia native who plays banjo for the five-man instrumental group Foghorn Leghorn, adds: 'Portland has the highest-profile old-time scene of anywhere I've been.'
At 32, Grover already feels like a veteran in the Portland old-time scene. When he started playing in Georgia at age 18, 'I never met anyone close to my age playing old-time music. Out here in Portland, I'm one of the oldest people playing.'
From the Wednesday night old-time music jams at the Alberta Street Public House to square dances at the Northeast Russell Street venue Disjecta, the scene has gallons of young blood pumping through it.
'Most of the new fans are kids in their 20s Ñ or younger,' Martin says. 'Nobody can say why, exactly, but I have a theory that the revival of interest around here happened first among jaded rock musicians who got turned on by the more primitive sounds of old-time music.'
Stephen 'Sammy' Lind, 24, was a rock musician before becoming the fiddle player for Foghorn Leghorn. The melodies of fiddle tunes, he recalls, made a convert out of him. 'They're beautiful,' he says simply.
Brian Bagdonas, who is 29, played punk rock before gravitating toward the acoustic sounds of old-time music. 'I got interested in the music about six years ago,' he says, 'and I realized it was cool.' He now plays upright bass with two Portland old-time bands, Foghorn Leghorn and The Dickel Brothers.
Youth and old-time music don't go together in every city. Kerry Blech, an old-time musician and record collector based in Seattle, notes that the old-time crowd in Seattle is predominantly middle-aged.
Old-time musicians in Seattle, he says, do not usually perform in public: 'The scene is very informal. People play at parties, and there aren't as many public venues for it as Portland.'
A regular visitor to Portland, he says, 'People in their 20s are involved in the scene there. They see old-time music as a performance thing.'
Music is the message
With six gigs planned for March alone, The Flat Mountain Girls are one of the busiest bands on the Portland old-time circuit. Accompanying themselves on fiddle, banjo and guitar, this trio of women in their 20s and 30s brings their foot-stompin', endearing act to venues such as The Kennedy School and The White Eagle.
Dressed in vintage square- dance garb and cowgirl boots, Lisa Marsicek, Caroline Oakley and Rachel Gold yodel and harmonize their way through upbeat folk and gospel songs. The tempo slows down for the occasional ballad.
From their clothes to their forays into clog dancing, The Flat Mountain Girls pour on the charm for their audience, which Gold believes deserves a bit of showmanship with the music. 'We're here to entertain you,' she says.
In contrast to The Flat Mountain Girls, the five-man instrumental act Foghorn Leghorn takes a bare-bones approach to performing. Sporting nothing fancier than jeans and flannel shirts, they appear every Sunday night at The Moon and Sixpence pub.
'This is not a parlor act,' banjo player P.T. Grover Jr. says of the band's refusal to play dress-up.
Different though their approaches may be, The Flat Mountain Girls and Foghorn Leghorn have the same core interest at heart: preserving musical traditions that will become obsolete if young players don't keep them alive. For both acts, this is a long-term commitment, not some short-lived New Year's resolution.
'You don't grow out of this music,' says Oakley of The Flat Mountain Girls. 'You grow into it.'