Adding depth to Old-Time

Guest artists at this year's Alaska Folk Festival perform traditional instrumentals, driving dance tunes and rich harmonies

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

The members of "Tom, Brad, & Alice" might live on opposite coasts, but it hasn't hindered their ability to share the traditions of old-time music at festivals, camps and conventions throughout the country.

They bring their music and experience to the Alaska Folk Festival next week as this year's guest artists.

Brad Leftwich lives near Chapel Hill, N.C., about 15 minutes from Alice Gerrard, who lives in Durham. Tom Sauber lives near Los Angeles. Group members swap tapes and communicate by e-mail and phone.

"Things fall into place pretty quickly with us," Leftwich said. Each member of the trio plays a number of instruments. That versatility adds depth to the group's old-time sound, he said.

Leftwich plays the fiddle more than other instruments and Gerrard is known for her vocals. Sauber switches around a bit more, playing mostly banjo along with some fiddle and guitar, he said.

"It allows us to explore different kinds of sounds and textures," Sauber said. "We're able to do things which wouldn't be possible if everyone was sticking to one instrument."

Besides old-time country and bluegrass music, the group also plays some Hank Williams tunes and modern songs, Sauber said.

"We tend to like the older sounds. We love everything from the real raw, sparse, unaccompanied songs to lush gospel harmonies," Gerrard said. "The old stuff is the good stuff, as somebody once said."

The group has two albums - "Been There Still" and "Holly Ding" on the Copper Creek label. And they've just finished work on third, "Die in the Pigpen Fighting," which is due out this summer. Gerrard said the name is based on a rhyme in a newly reissued book called "Thomas Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes," originally published in the 1920s. The group modified the verse to fit a tune on which they were working.

"We have no idea what (the title) means. We think it probably had a subtext of slave revolt against master," Gerrard said.

After making an effort in previous albums to put vocals on equal footing with instrumentals, Leftwich said the newest album features more instrumental music.

The group found out about the Alaska Folk Festival at a fiddle camp near Anchorage last summer. Such gatherings help foster interest in traditional music, Leftwich said.

"It's tremendously important in generating interest in this form of music. You just don't hear it otherwise," he said. "It's wonderful music and I don't understand why you don't hear it on the radio or (see it) in music stores," he said.

The group members have a learned their craft from older, traditional musicians, Sauber said.

"The kinds of music we play is developed as a social music as opposed to professional stage, performing art music. It lends itself to people taking it up and practicing themselves," he said. "A lot of the audience who follows us and listens to us, chances are they also play themselves."

Group members have supported the music form in other ways. Gerrard founded a magazine called the "Old-Time Herald" and nonprofit organization called the Old-Time Music Group, which provide a forum about traditional music and dance.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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