March 2019 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Off the Record: The Evil City String Band

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love.

Howdy friends, Brad Kolodner of the Old Time Jam here to share with you one of my all-time favorite recordings, one that played a pivotal role in my early days as a budding old-time music fanatic.

When asked to write this blog and pick a recording, I knew exactly which record I wanted to write about. While I’ve had many influential records from contemporary legends of old-time music – for instance, Foghorn Stringband, The Freight Hoppers, Bruce Molsky, and Brittany Haas to name a few – the Evil City String Band record is what truly got me hooked on playing and singing old-time music. It’s not a record you’ll find in every old-time music aficionado’s collection. Heck, I don’t even know if there are any hard copies available anymore. In any case, it had an immediate and lasting impact on me personally and musically.

Cover art for The Evil City String Band album -- a yellow/brown background with black and white drawings of the various musicians playing together.
The Evil City String Band album, released in 2008 via CD Baby.

The story begins in the fall of 2008, my freshman year at Ithaca College. I had recently picked up my first open-back banjo and was practicing night and day, driving my roommate crazy. As a relative late-comer to playing old-time (I didn’t play until the age of 17), I was trying to soak in as much as I could as fast as possible. I grew up around traditional music – my father Ken is a renowned hammered dulcimer player and fiddle. However, it wasn’t until I went off to school that my own personal discovery of old-time music began, thus carving out a new life passion. My first banjo lesson occurred in the summer of 2007 just prior to college when I took an intro to clawhammer banjo course at a music camp in Maine from Richie Stearns, an Ithaca-based clawhammer genius famous for his work with Natalie Merchant and The Horseflies among others. His soulful and inventive approach to the instrument really inspired me. It was pure chance I ended up at Ithaca College a year later studying Television-Radio.

I connected with Richie on a handful of occasions for some lessons. In my first couple years at school, I was practicing away in my dorm room, mostly remaining on campus. In my junior year, I started venturing off-campus a bit more, discovering the rich, vibrant and storied old-time music community in Ithaca. My college girlfriend and I went out to dinner one night at a little New Orleans-inspired restaurant in downtown Ithaca called Maxie’s Supper Club for their “Chicken-Fried Tuesday.” Off in the distance, I could hear what sounded like fiddle and banjo music. To be fair, there seems to be fiddle music playing in my head whether or not a fiddler is nearby. Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I went into the next room and BAM! There was Richie playing banjo with a rockin’ old-time band called the Evil City String Band. I had stumbled into their monthly gig spot where they played old-time music for four hours in exchange for the best fried chicken dinner in town and tips. My girlfriend and I relocated to the bar area where the music was happening and stayed for the next two hours enthralled by their hypnotizing groove. We made it our monthly tradition to head on down to Maxie’s, eat our fried chicken dinners, and listen to the Evil City String Band groove out for hours on end.

Red advertisement bearing a drawing of a chicken with text about "Chicken-Fried Tuesdays" overlaying the image.
Advertisement for Maxie’s “Chicken-Fried Tuesdays” from the Maxie’s Supper Club website.

It was my first up-close-and-personal experience hearing an old-time stringband complete with twin fiddles, banjo, guitar, and bass. The tunes, the songs, the smiles, the energy – all of it infected me. The lineup consisted of Richie Stearns on banjo, Steve Selin on fiddle, Paddy Burke on guitar, and Ben Gould on bass. My Ithaca College classmate Rosie Newton frequently joined in, adding that magical twin-fiddle sparkle. I even brought my banjo along to jam with them one time – more on that later… One day, I noticed they were selling a CD. I immediately grabbed a copy and began listening to it on repeat for months on end – I’m not kidding – I probably listened to the entire album well over 100 times. (Funny story: The album was released as a companion to a cookbook written by an Ithaca-based chef.)

This was all around the same time when I started co-hosting The Hobo’s Lullaby on the Ithaca College radio station WICB. The show’s longtime host Gene Endres was planning to retire after 30 years hosting the weekly two-hour folk program when he decided to pass the torch on to me. I began to play the Evil City String Band’s recording on my show each week. As I dug deeper into the album, I soon recognized it’s not your average old-time album. What pops out the most is Richie’s banjo playing. Regarded as one of the most driving and improvisatory clawhammer players on the scene, Richie’s banjo is cranked up in the mix so as to not bury his clever solos, funky rhythms, bluesy notes and groovy bass runs. Steve Selin’s fiddling is like a freight train, driving and solid, with an energy that keeps my head bobbing the whole time. The album is raw and real. It’s got a layer of grit mixed in with brilliant musicianship. It’s authentic because they aren’t trying to sound authentic. The recording captures their live sound flawlessly and brings me back to those dimly-lit, fried chicken-scented, mythical nights inside Maxie’s Supper Club.

As I began to perform regularly with my father, we started to work into our set Evil City’s version of “Down on My Knees.” In fact, it was the first old-time song I learned all of the words to (and let me add, apologies to my senior-year college housemates for me practicing that song for hours and hours in my bedroom…). My father and I recorded the song on our second studio album, Skipping Rocks. In the spring of my final semester, I headed down to Maxie’s one night to hear Evil City String Band with my banjo in tow. I asked Richie if I could sit in with them for a tune or two. I requested “Down on My Knees,” naturally. They obliged and I kicked off the tune with Richie, trying my best to keep up. I’ll never forget that night, sharing the stage (albeit a tiny stage in a noisy bar) with one of my musical heroes.

After college, I signed on with Bluegrass Country Radio in 2013 as host of a weekly bluegrass, old-time, and Americana program. The very first song I played on my very first broadcast was…you guessed it, Evil City String Band’s “Down on My Knees.” I’ve since crossed paths with Richie and Steve on a number of occasions. Indeed, Richie recently played a house concert in my living room with Rosie Newton. Steve and I have shared tunes a number of times at Clifftop. While it’s been nearly 10 years since those “Chicken-Fried Tuesdays” at Maxie’s, the influence of Evil City String Band and their album is present every time I pick up my banjo or open my mic on the Old Time Jam!

Past Music Heritage, Present-Day Learning and Fun, Future Musicians: Pick Along Summer Camp with the Birthplace of Country Music

As a group of campers were finishing up lunch one day, I was preparing to take everyone to the park for some recreation time and a bit of a mental break from their hard work. As I was about to ask who wanted to carry the sidewalk chalk, a few students approached me with a request.

“Miss Erin, instead of playing games, can we bring our instruments to the park so we can practice?”

The first time I heard this question, I was surprised and impressed by the desire of our Pick Along students to continue playing instruments rather than a game of kickball. But as the days and weeks continued, I begin to receive this request over and over again. In hindsight, I realize that it is not surprising at all that a child would want to play their instrument over other activities. Learning a musical instrument is engaging. It is a connection to others. It’s actually…A LOT of fun.

Campers enjoy the fresh air – and playing their instruments – during a break at Cumberland Square Park. © Erin Dalton

Each summer for the past four years, the Birthplace of Country Music has welcomed aspiring young musicians with an eagerness to learn more about traditional folk instruments and regional music history to our annual Pick Along Summer Camps. This is my third year working as director for these camps, and I am thrilled to share a bit about what we do here in June and July.

Pick Along Summer Camps offer an option of beginner or intermediate instruction on the camper’s instrument of choice: acoustic guitar, banjo, or fiddle. Campers are given a wonderfully engaging introduction to the old-time music that is so closely bound to the history of this region. They play and sing songs that are not only ballads and folk songs passed down through generations, but also many that were a part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

Throughout the camp week, campers get familiar with their instruments and playing techniques, learn to play a variety of songs, and work together as a “band.” © Erin Dalton

We start our beginner weeks by having an “instrument zoo,” where campers are given a brief introduction to each instrument offered for study. They are then assigned to their groups for the week and spend the mornings learning skills in technique, chords, melodies, and group collaboration. In the afternoons, they work with staff from the museum’s radio station, Radio Bristol, in creating their own radio program, which is recorded and played at their final group performance, which is open to their families, BCM staff, and museum visitors.

The week wraps up with performance opportunities, including the most popular one – “busking” at Blackbird Bakery. They perform tunes for all of the visitors grabbing baked goods and doughnuts. We have a great time playing and singing, and we always have requests to play more regularly! And, of course, they get a sweet treat for themselves!

Last summer, in a twist of good fate, Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time program lined up with the same week as our intermediate camp. The campers created their own Farm and Fun Time Junior program and were asked to perform it during the live broadcast that Thursday evening. You can watch their stellar performance here.

One Friday, during a rare moment of downtime, several of the beginner students asked if they could share songs they had written that week. One of our special guest instructors had asked the students to try their hand at telling a story through song, which proved to be inspiring! To perform this song publicly was optional, so I was impressed with the handful that chose to stand in front of their fellow campers and not only play, but also sing their own words and music.

Campers also get the chance to play live on-air for the
weekly On the Sunny Side show. © Erin Dalton

Many of these students take their excitement and love of music outside of our Pick Along camps with continued private instrument lessons, playing local open mic nights, volunteering for BCM’s Family Fun Days, and attending community jams, including the one held monthly at the museum. Some of our campers have also been invited to play with Tyler Hughes at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace (formerly Heartwood) in Abingdon, Virginia (now Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace). A handful of return campers have also worked with us as Junior Counselors, assisting instructors and working with beginner camp attendees.

Each week of camp creates its own stories and memories. There are quiet, subtle breakthroughs, and there are the exciting, flashing lights-type of moments. In the process of learning music, one is just as important as the other. I’m very grateful to be a part of this arts education program that sets the stage for big and small victories – and for a lifetime of loving to learn and play music.

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It was the last day of our Pick Along Camps, and our final program had just finished. I was walking out of the museum when I spotted one of the campers walking with her family.

“Well, we’re headed to the guitar store now,” the mother called out. “We told her we would look at getting a guitar if she enjoyed playing it at camp. She couldn’t wait, so we are on our way now!”

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If you are interested in signing your budding musician up for Pick Along Summer Camps, click here for more information and the application.

Spring Forward with Farm and Fun Time!

March’s Farm and Fun Time brought fresh roots music to our audience, heralding the impending coming of spring! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or tuned in to WBCM-LP, but to viewers far and wide via Facebook Live. Be sure to like WBCM – Radio Bristol on Facebook to tune in every month!

Host band Bill and the Belles kicked off the show with their signature harmonies, including their new single “That’ll Be Just Fine.” This month’s “Heirloom Recipe” segment featured Mohsin and Kaitlin Kazmi, owners and operators of the Pakalachian Food Truck. The Pakalachian blends the foodways of the hills and hollers of Appalachia with traditional Pakistani culinary practices. Crossing the line in both cultures is a controversial fruit (yes, fruit): okra. Called “Bindhi” by the Kazmis, this polarizing food item is a staple in both Appalachian and Pakistani kitchens. Though geography may separate cultures, common ground can often be found, especially around the dinner table. To commemorate this much loved and sometimes hated food, Bill and the Belles crooned a tune called “Not Everybody Like Okra.”

Left pic: Bill on guitar and the two Belles, on fiddle and banjo, gather round the mic with the bass player in the background; center pic: a detail of the audience with delighted faces; right pic: the Pakalachian owners stand at the mic as they talk about their food truck.
Bill and the Belles and the tasty stories from the Pakalachian owners brought a smile – and probably a hunger pang – to the Farm and Fun Time audience. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guest of the evening was Smithsonian Folkways artist and Canadian songwriter Kai Kater. Drawing heavily from her family’s folk music traditions and experience learning old-time banjo in West Virginia, Kater delivers poignant pieces that blur the lines between traditional and modern, and that explore the issues confronting our world today. With topics ranging from sense of place to migration, Kater performed several songs off Grenades, her recent Folkways release, including the title cut.

Left pic: Close up on Kai, eyes closed and singing at the mic with her banjo; top right pic: Kai flanked by her two band members; bottom right pic: Kai and the bass player lean together as they sing.
Kai Kater and her band brought sweet music to the Farm and Fun Time stage. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

This month’s “ASD Farm Report” showcased Clover Creek Farms. Located in Jonesborough, Tennessee, much of the work at Clover Creek Farm is conducted by four-legged farmhands. Here’s a link to the video from our visit:

Our last musical guest of the evening was old-time luminary Bruce Molsky and the Mountain Drifters. Bruce Molsky is one of the most renowned old-time fiddlers this side of the golden era of 78rpm records, and for March’s Farm and Fun Time, he brought an all-star band with him, including genre-bending guitar ace Stash Wyslouch and clawhammer banjo maestro Allison Degroot. Gathering around one mic, The Mountain Drifters serenaded the audience with timeless old-time music that was all their own. From the Georgia string band classic “All Gone Now” to The Carter Family’s “Picture on the Wall,” the Mountain Drifters gave command performances of the diverse styles that make old-time music so wonderful.

Left pic: A close-up of the fiddler; center pic: The three band members gather together at the mic; right pic: a close up of the banjo player.
Performing a variety of old-time tunes and demonstrating virtuoso playing, Bruce Molsky and the Mountain Drifters made the end of March’s show one to remember. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and shared in this wonderful evening of music! Tickets are on sale for April’s jam packed Farm and Fun Time when the Becky Buller Band, The Matchsellers, and The Chatham Rabbits will be joining us – we hope you will too!

Radio Bristol Book Club: Sounder

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Inspired by the museum’s current special exhibit – Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature – readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book featured in the exhibit. We invite you to read along and then listen in on Radio Bristol (via 100.1 FM, the website, or the app) on the 4th Thursday of each month at 11—11:30am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Our first book is Sounder by William H. Armstrong, which we will be discussing on-air on Thursday, March 28.

Sounder is the award-winning book that tells the tale of a sharecropper family and their beloved coonhound Sounder in the late 19th-century South. Life as a sharecropper is hard, and the father and Sounder must hunt for food for the family every night. When food is scarce, the father resorts to stealing to provide for his starving family. Not long after, the sheriff and his deputies come to arrest the man, and Sounder is shot in the process. What follows is a story that is at times gut-wrenching and yet hopeful as we learn lessons in the loyalty, love, and courage one needs in the face of overwhelming adversity.

William H. Armstrong’s Sounder was the recipient of several awards, most notably the 1970 Newbery Medal; this award honors the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” and is celebrated annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. In this installment of Radio Bristol Book Club, we will discuss the place that Sounder holds in literature, especially Appalachian literature. We will also discuss the way the author chose to tell this story and how effective this method was, both then and now.

Selfie of Amy Kimani peeking over the top of her copy of Sounder
You’ll find me always with a good book, and here I am reading Sounder! Photograph courtesy of Amy Kimani

We are so excited to bring Radio Bristol Book Club to you and cannot wait to discuss our first book! We hope you will join us and read Sounder for yourself. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local bookstore or stop by the Bristol Public Library and check out a copy of Sounder today! The librarians at the library will be happy to help you find a copy of the book in the format that suits you best, from book to audiobook to e-book.

Make plans to join us at 11:00am on Thursday, March 28 for Radio Bristol Book Club! And be sure to visit the Reading Appalachia exhibit, on display at the museum now through June 30, 2019!