Bruce Molsky, Spencer and Rains, and The Old Time Tiki Parlour
There is something special about kicking back in the comfort, peace, privacy and safety of your own home, flipping in a DVD and taking in music-video and audio. I do love live music and we pilgrim here and there to hear it and to play it. We go to festivals, house concerts, small venues and take it all in. The festival air is great, it’s tribal, but it’s also distracting. You know, to cherish a visit with someone you may only see once a year outside of the miracle of social media, to listen to a baby cry or laugh as it acclimates itself to the world around it and vocalizes it’s opinion, innocently, without regard of its surroundings. Then there’s always the folks who need to make the event about them, sometimes unassumingly by barging in late, or if you’re like me, sort of tall with a tall chair, plopping down up front, inadvertently blocking someone’s view. Then there’s the sound, usually really good but “when it ain’t, it ain’t”. Still the live feel is a whole nother thang, whether you’re observing, as I do when I encounter a seven or more jammer jam, or whether I’m lucky enough to sit in with a six or less jam and get to hear everyone closely. It’s a whole nuther thang.
To put it in perspective, that is to say, today is today in print world, okay? So last night, we attended a concert in the park followed by a semi-private jam with the artists at the event host’s house. The jam consisted of a legendary fiddler, a young, bound for legendary, swing rhythm guitarist, a husband and wife old time folk duo- great old time fiddle, guitar and singing, a wonderful traveling songbird of a songwriter, and hillbilly me, a legend in my own mind, but mostly a rumor in my own time. This was a great time, a wonderful gathering of truly kindred, patient and proficient music folks. Felt great. Doesn’t always happen like this. But again, perspective.
Today, Sunday morning, my wife is sleeping in. I’ve had a little breakfast, I’m sipping coffee and I’ve flipped a DVD into the player and I’m being thoroughly entertained, enlightened and truly wowed, viewing two fascinating productions by The Old Time Tiki Parlour. David Bragger and Rick Hocutt’s production of Old Time musicians, Bruce Molsky’s “Can’t Stay Here This A-way”, and the latest project, “Spotted Pony” with Spencer and Rains.
I delve in Old Time Music. It’s in my roots with my late Grandpa Harp being an Oklahoma sod busting sharecropping fiddler, and my Dad’s line, the Hill folks from the heart of the Appalachians, being traced right back to the infamous feuding McCoy family on my Grandma Daisy’s side. I love and write several genres- Americana, they call it, but my passion is Old Time Fiddle and nothing moves me more than Old Time Fiddle and Clawhammer Banjo, one on one. I could easily spend hours each day listening, learning and attempting to play Old Time Fiddle.
I first discovered David Bragger on the old MySpace while searching fiddle. I was totally blown away. David is a true bow master and player and an excellent teacher. I urge you to discover his music and lessons on YouTube.
It was through friends, Howard Rains and Tricia Spencer, that I became acquainted through cyber-space with David Bragger and his friend, co-producer, Rick Hocutt. These two musician/film producers decided to archive the Old Time Music greats while they were still alive, bringing such greats as Rafe and Clelia Stefanini, Dan Gellert, Eric and Suzy Thompson, Joe Fontenot, and many more, out to David’s house in the hills of North Los Angeles, David’s home studio, The Old Time Tiki Parlour. Again, refer to the link to learn about the unusual name of David’s studio and all about these projects.
So here I sit, in the southern foothills of the Arkansaw Ozarks, on a Sunday morning, sitting about seven feet from Bruce Molsky and Spencer and Rains, switching back and forth. You see, I got these two collections pretty close to the same time. I really can’t get enough.
At times, I’m right in their faces, nose up to their fingers on the fretboards of the fiddles, banjos and guitars. At other times, I’m seeing the wrinkles in their knuckles as they bow, pick and hammer down with these incredible right hands. Howard Rains, whom I consider primarily a fiddler, finger picks the fire out of the Bascam Lamar Lunsford credited “Sundown”, while presenting these powerful sibling like harmonies with wife and soulmate fiddle wizardess, Tricia. And, friends, I get to witness face to face, the music, the nuances of personality, the interchange between the musicians, and I’m not fifty rows back, dodging big hats and big hair. I’m not slowly roasting in the hot sun or stomping around in mud while dodging beach balls and frisbees. I’m sitting in my living room in Old Time Paradise. I can watch and learn, watch and listen. Pause and grab a snack or whatever. I can close my eyes and be in Appalachia with no sounds but that of the music that the Old Time Tiki Parlour has brought me. David Bragger is a film maker and he knows this craft. Here’s a glimpse of what David does in his own words:
“I don't log the hours, however I spend months working through the editing. I always begin with an initial pass to get things feeling natural. Then I go back and tighten things up and get the necessary close-ups. It's important to create a rhythm to the editing that doesn't distract from the music. At first it took great restraint to not let my artistic impulses get in the way. My entire vision is to capture the music of these great musicians in the natural environment that I live in, surrounded by the elements that I love: instruments, American art, curios from different places and times, and a mid-century aesthetic rich with vinyl, formica and tikis. Aside from that, I want the filmmaker to be invisible. This way the viewer feels like they are in the room with the musicians. There is so much hipster filmmaking these days, especially with "Americana," you often don't get a sense of the music. There is purposeful and ironic use of choppy editing, out-of-focus shots, distracting and irrelevant close-ups, etc. I wanted to stir very clear of that approach. These are musical documents captured in a home environment without a crew. Just me and the artists. The editing must reflect that. What is more old-time than that?
The microphone placement is based on this premise: Keep things as simple as possible. Adjustments have to be made based on the artists, their changing configurations and the voice level to instrument level ratio. Also, I tend to keep the microphones out of shot primarily which makes things quite challenging at times. I always start with a stereo pair and then adapt if I need to.
Lighting takes a couple hours. I have a template that I designed and work from now. I then make adjustments based on the number of performers, their orientation and the visual characteristics of their instruments.”
Now hold your breath for a minute while I tell you that the Old Time Tiki Parlour productions are not for profit. Sure one has to recoup expense but this is not a sustainable attempt to make a living. This amazes me. I can go to a music bin at some chain and buy a CD or a DVD, rip off the plastic, grab a magnifying glass and read on if there is anything to read. When I get an Old Time Tiki Parlour product in the mail, I get fantastic art. Whether it’s the original one of a kind hand painted art by Angelina Elise, or in Spencer and Rains case, the wonderful whimsical folk paintings by Howard Rains, (this jacket and booklet are full of Rains unique art!) to the hand written track lists and the way cool disc labels, I get art to enjoy over and over and over. (photo from left to right-Brendan Doyle, Howard Rains, David Bragger, Tricia Spencer and John Schwab.)
This concept is really a bonus worthy of purchase even without the audio and video, dare I even go there! David and Rick do not solicit artists to come record and pay a whopper of a fee to stay in business. David and Rick know who they want and they make it possible for these artists to come on out to the West, throw a show and make a film/record. This is not just great entertainment, this is art. This is very important art.
While I am a player, albeit a novice forever, I do know how to listen and I’ve learned what to listen for in Old Time Music. I could review the music and pick apart each song for you, but that would just be my opinion and that’s not what I do. I can’t and won’t say these are the “best” musicians in the world or the “best ever”. I mean, you can say that and be spot on. You see, there’s a phenomenal thing happening right now. Kids are coming up with this music in their soul and folks like David and Rick are making sure they can access it. Just as soon as I would say that Bruce Molsky’s version of Ed Haley’s “Old Sledge” is the best ever, I’m going to hear a new young fiddler, inspired by Bruce or Howard and Tricia, that has heard this music from the cradle and embraced it, and learned it, and is adding her/his own vibe to tune in a way that is “just as good”. That’s why I do not go track by track and analyze. For a really great track by track analysis, I say get this DVD/CD by Bruce Molsky and read the booklet with a blurb and the tuning for each of the sixteen tracks by Bruce, followed by a short but thorough comment by Christopher Berry, great musician in his own right, and who also does most of the graphic layout for these projects. One of my now favorite quotes is by Christopher Berry and follows track 15, “We’ll Have A Way Hoeing Corn”.... “The trick to preserving the integrity of a tune like this is knowing what not to play.” Both project’s booklets are loaded with tuning and source information that is enlightening as well and entertaining to read.
Bruce Molsky is a favorite amongst the music lovers for many reasons other than being “good”, as are Tricia and Howard. Bruce’s unique history is well documented in the booklet notes as are Spencer and Rains and all of the artists produced by Old Time Tiki Parlour recordings. This is nailing the art of preservation. I feel pretty lucky to be alive at a time when this music can be accessed by point and click, straight to your mailbox. I encourage you to purchase these folk art projects for two reasons. The first, to enrich your musical life with the art of these rare performers, and second to replenish the source and ensure these projects will continue to be produced and be made available for the duration of our time on this space ball, to enjoy and to learn from. http://oldtimetikiparlour.com/
Please realize these words are not contrived to sell these DVD/CD collections at all. I do not get paid to write these articles. I write because I want to share what I’m viewing and hearing. It’s my hope that you will explore these projects and feel the real. That’s what this is about. Feel the real.