Bruce Molsky,
Poor Man's Troubles
(Rounder, 2000)

Bruce Molsky is a fine old-time fiddle player, but he doesn't stop there. He also plays banjo and guitar, and has a decent singing voice as well. On this album he's joined by Darol Anger on baritone violin, Paul Brown on banjo, Martin Hayes on fiddle, Audrey Molsky and Beverly Smith on guitar, and Dudley Connell on vocals. It's a CD that will appeal to fans of old-time music, but may leave the more general bluegrass audience less than enthused.

The problem isn't that the playing is sub-par. On the contrary, this is some of the best old-time music you're likely to hear, and the singing, if not superb, is more than acceptable. It's just that there's a similarity to much old-time music, and by the time you've listened to twenty tracks for well over an hour, the lack of variety can become tiresome.

The album starts off well, with Molsky's solo fiddle setting up a savage wall of sound for the title tune. Molsky uses a variety of tunings throughout, and this one in open A allows him to use double stops throughout to perfection. "Fishin' Blues," an old Henry Thomas number that may be better known through John Sebastian's take, gets a reading here that stylistically straddles the Thomas and Sebastian versions. It's a fine song, and always fun to hear. Molsky accompanies himself on guitar, and proves himself a master.

"Peg and Awl" is a wonderfully haunting traditional ballad, and Molsky's fiddle joined with Anger's baritone fiddle make for a rich and evocative sound. A polyrhythmic guitar solo, "Brothers and Sisters," based on the sound of the Zimbabwe National Choir, offers a lovely change of pace. "The Poor Cowboy" has Molsky and Dudley Connell doing a western song with fine cowboy harmonies.

By far the most interesting tune on the album is "John Cole," a fiddle-guitar instrumental duet that has a stuttering stop-start rhythm that will have you shaking your head in perplexity. The darn thing sounds like it goes in and out of tempo, but count rigidly (or use a metronome), and you'll find that the meter never really changes. It's a fascinating aural illusion.

"I Truly Understand" is an old mountain ballad whose variations you've heard many times, but which never wears out its welcome. There's an eerie droning quality to this one as well. There's also a great rhythmic pulse in "Billy Joe Banes," a duet with Celtic fiddler Martin Hayes.

For me, these eight mentioned cuts are the highlights. The rest of the album has some Texas fiddling, frailing mountain banjo, a fiddle hornpipe, some traditional fiddle tune medleys, a traditional ballad sung as a vocal solo, and some fiddle/guitar, fiddle/banjo traditional duets.

If you've heard the original recordings of Ed Haley, Hobart Smith and other old-timers, a lot of this is just more of the same. They're brilliant recreations, and they surpass the originals in musicianship, intonation and, of course, recording quality, but when all is said and done, they're no more groundbreaking than Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Repertory group that aims to preserve the jazz of the '30s and '40s by solidifying it in aural amber. It shows a great deal of respect for the old music, but I'd rather see musicians of the caliber of Molsky and those who join him here take the style into new areas, opening our ears to more than the old traditional sounds. It does happen on this CD, but rarely.

So, in short, the all-purpose review: if you like this type of music, this is the type of music you will like.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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