Eager to explore the similarities between bluegrass and old-time music, fiddler Bruce Molsky and banjo player Tony Trischka formed Jawbone, the Alaska Folk Festival's guest artist, in the fall of 2004 with rhythm guitarist Paula Bradley. For Molsky, it's the latest step in a career in which he's studied Celtic melody, African polyrhythms, Norwegian waltzes and more. He's best known as an old-time fiddler, though he's also an expert guitarist, singer and banjo player. Molsky was born in the Bronx and became obsessed with old-time while enrolled at Cornell University. He went to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he studied under legendary musicians Tommy Jarrell and Albert Hash. His recordings are full of tributes to the old-time greats, Blind Ed Haley to Big Charlie Butler.
Besides Jawbone, Molsky tours with Grammy-nominated Fiddlers 4 and the international collaboration Mozaik, a hodge-podge of Balkan-Irish sensibilities, Eastern-European multi-instrumentalism and Dutch string playing. He took the time to answer a few questions by e-mail as he was touring Japan:
Q: Was (the idea of combining bluegrass and old-time) a concept you had been wanting to explore for a long time? What was it about Paula and Tony that made this seem like an appropriate group in which to do this?
For more about the folk festival
For profiles on Tony Trischka and Paula Bradley, check out the Empire's Alaska Folk Festival
section in Sunday's paper or visit juneauempire.com/folkfestival
A: When this all started, Tony and I actually just wanted to play some music together, and old-time/bluegrass just happens to be what we do. The style exploration is important, but in a way secondary. It took us very little time to ask Paula to join us - she's perfect for this grouping and wonderful to work with. The original idea was just to have some fun, but of course it's gotten more serious as we discover what the possibilities are.
Q: What has Jawbone allowed you to do that you haven't been able to do before?
A: Instrumentally, Tony's sheer musicianship makes me look differently at my playing and think harder and more objectively about what's going to come out the other side. Singing duets with Paula is inspiring. She's a walking encyclopedia of old-time songs and is always bringing cool stuff to the group. I've been wanting to make mostly American music that has a slightly different edge on dynamics and more melodic and harmonic clarity, and I think this is the group to do it.
Q: Is there still such a clear divide between old-time and bluegrass?
A: Depends who you talk to. It continues to be a very strong issue for a lot of people, and to others it's really unimportant. One music grew in part out of the other; but many of our heroes in both traditions didn't express stylistic territorialism about it. It was all just music to them. We hope that audiences who listen to us enjoy the experience the same way and don't think too hard about that stuff. My own musical growing-up was focused on nothing but old-time and blues for many years, but lately that's changed, and I'm enjoying crossing lines. If it's done with respect and sensitivity, then the experience can be uplifting. That's where I'm at these days, and I want listeners to go there too.
Q: Mozaik has problems playing in America due to visa restrictions. Is the band strictly playing abroad for the foreseeable future? How important are your explorations with Mozaik to your playing as a whole?
A: Mozaik is extremely important to me and takes a lot of my time these days. But bringing a band like this to the U.S. is functionally very difficult as long as our national policy insists on punishing legitimate visiting artists with overly restrictive visa requirements. I've been touring outside of the U.S. for many years now, and have never visited a single country in all my travels that has not welcomed me as a touring musician. This is simply not the case for musicians from other places touring in the U.S. and is evidenced by the big drop in the number of them who come here to perform. It would be a thrill to bring Mozaik back to the U.S., and I hope that can happen sooner rather than later.