Bruce Molsky,
Soon Be Time
(Compass, 2006)

You can depend on Bruce Molsky to produce music that is at once convincingly traditional and profoundly his own. He is able to do that, first, because he is conversant in a wide range of American and other folk musics and, second, because he is a singer and player of the first rank. You hear Bruce Molsky, and he calls to mind nobody but Bruce Molsky.

The influences that guide him are everywhere yet nowhere specifically. He is not, in other words, trying to reproduce, note for note, tone for tone, lyric for lyric, the sound of, say, a 1920s stringband 78. At the same time his approach, firmly rooted in sounds from another time, feels more organic than experimental. This is, in other words, the tradition reimagined by someone who knows it intimately, enough to understand its language and, when he picks up an instrument, to take up residence there.

Playing solo fiddle, banjo or guitar, he turns to 15 songs and instrumentals, most of them from the rural South (or, as in the Child ballad "Golden Willow Tree," at least filtered through there). There is also a Bulgarian tune, "The Brass Band Ruchenitsa," plus "Come Home" from the Swedish folk-rock band Hoven Droven, and "On My Street," an original guitar instrumental. Whatever their particular geographical reference points, though, Molsky's versions all seem to hail from the same block.

Perhaps the most arresting cut, at least to my hearing, is the bare-bones vocal/fiddle rendition of the old cowboy lament, once ubiquitous but no longer often sung, "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." As usual Molsky gets extraordinary tone out of his instrument, and the stark, haunted performance lingers in memory even after the CD has gone silent. He picks up two tunes from the influential Tommy Jarrell ("Cider" and "John Brown's Dream") and another ("Cotton Eyed Joe") from Jarrell's longtime associate Fred Cockerham, both of western North Carolina. He manages, however, to imprint enough of his own musical personality on them to allow these pieces to be interesting in their own Molsky-derived right. Not all Jarrell-taught players -- imitators, many of them -- are able to do that; for a recent example, there's Riley Baugus's 2006 Sugar Hill album Long Steel Rail.

Molsky consistently produces well thought-out, beautifully arranged albums, loaded with smartly chosen material. Hard to believe, but Soon Be Time is even better than all those admirable recordings that preceded it.

by Jerome Clark
17 February 2007

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