Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys.
For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with renowned old-time mover-and-shaker Brad Kolodner. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Brad is an accomplished banjo player, broadcaster (Folk Alley, Bluegrass Country, and Radio Bristol), and event coordinator (Baltimore Old Time Music Festival) who has made a name for himself within the roots music community by taking home ribbons at prestigious fiddler’s conventions like Clifftop and touring with bands Charm City Junction and Ken and Brad Koldner. His recent project Chimney Swifts marks a new chapter for Brad – it’s his first solo album to date and has released to widespread critical acclaim. Brad spoke to us about his love for the nuances of crooked fiddle tunes, pointing to the great Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport as being a major inspiration.
Old-time musicians from the past have a tendency to take on somewhat of a mythical quality in our shared reverence of their contributions to the genre. Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport is one of those mythical figures in my mind whose influence spreads far and wide across the old-time music landscape. The tune “Five Miles from Town” is one of the most well-known tunes sourced to his fiddling. In fact, it was the very first “crooked” tune I tried to learn (more on what “crooked” means in a sec). I recall hearing the tune on a 2010 recording by The Pearly Snaps, an Ithaca, New York-based old-time duo featuring Rosie Newton and Stephanie Jenkins. I was just getting into playing clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle when I heard that tune, and I remember thinking “What is that?! I have to learn it.” It was like no other tune I’d heard before.
I distinctly remember sitting in my dorm room at Ithaca College in the winter of 2011 trying to work my way through the seemingly endless looping phrases. I couldn’t quite tell where the tune started and where it stopped. It sounded different every time I listened. Fiddle tunes that have eight measures in the A part and eight measures in the B part are considered “square” because they are good for dancing a square dance to as everything within the tune fits nice and evenly. However, many fiddle tunes have an irregular number of beats in one or multiple parts. These are called “crooked” tunes and are frequently “jam-busters” in that they can be hard to follow when trying to pick them up on the fly. I was deep in the weeds of learning “Five Miles from Town,” but, much to my roommates’ delight, I finally learned the tune after weeks upon weeks of trial and error on my banjo.
As I dug deeper, I learned the tune came from Clyde Davenport. His old-time music origin story is about as classic as it gets. According to the National Endowment for the Arts:
How about that for dedication? He’s a prime example of how playing old-time music isn’t just a desire but a purpose. While I never met Clyde, I’ve heard many tales from pals of mine who were lucky enough to spend time with him. He was always willing to share his knowledge and stories with anyone. He spent time in the army, worked in auto factories, farmed, ran a truck stop, and made and repaired fiddles. He was notably not a contest-style fiddler. I think this fact adds to the rawness of his style as subtlety abounds. There’s a hypnotizing quality to his fiddling. The groove runs deep. It’s the kind of trance-like state that can be hard to tap into but once you’re there, time seems to stand still. He passed in February 2020 at the age of 98.
I recorded “Five Miles from Town” on my debut solo album Chimney Swifts, playing the gourd banjo along with my father Ken Kolodner on hammered dulcimer. My gourd banjo is fretless and takes on some of those slide-y, blues-y qualities the fiddle can have. My father is using the damper pedal on his dulcimer to mute the strings for an added percussive effect. My father and I lean into the percussive and rhythmic qualities of this unusual pairing as we strive for that somewhat elusive deep groove old-timers like Clyde Davenport can tap into.
Here’s a challenge for you: Have another listen to Clyde’s version of the song above, and try to see if you can count how many beats are in each part. Maybe it’ll take you down a similar path I took discovering the joys (and addictive frustrations) of this hypnotizing style of music.
Brad’s latest record Chimney Swifts released on September 10 and is available for purchase at https://bradkolodner.bandcamp.com/album/chimney-swifts. You can tune into Brad’s show Old Time Jam right here on Radio Bristol on Tuesdays at 6pm EST. In the meantime, check out this recent video performance of “Catalpa Hop” from Brad’s debut solo record Chimney Swifts:
Brad Kolodner is a banjo player, event coordinator, and radio broadcaster. Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol.