Matt Brown and Greg Reish’s Speed of the Plow is a collection of lively and entertaining old time fiddle tunes. The album demonstrates with deceptive ease how old time music can exist in the present, while at the same time represent decades-old musical traditions. Matt and Greg discussed via email how they got their respective starts in old time music, where they discover new inspiration, and how they evolve with a tune once they decide to play it.
See Matt Brown and Greg Reish at Swallow Hill Music on Friday, January 22 as part of their Speed of the Plow album release tour. The following day, Matt will teach an old time fiddle workshop, while Greg will teach a workshop for guitar.
Matt – You are now based in Chicago, are there many avenues to play old time music in an upper-Midwestern metropolis? How are they different from what you’ve encountered in the East and Southeast? Greg, what is the old time scene like in Murfreesboro?
Matt Brown: Oh yeah, there are many avenues to play old time music in and around Chicago, starting within the confines of the Old Town School of Folk Music (where I teach), and radiating out from there. I host a monthly old time jam at Baker Miller, a restaurant a few blocks from the School’s Lincoln Square campus, and there are other public and private jams throughout Chicagoland. The Chicago Barn Dance Company hosts regular contra and square dances, all with live music, often old time. The University of Chicago Folk Festival happens each February, and there’s always old time music there. There are also several local venues, large and small, that book old time bands.
I grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where there was a remarkably strong old time scene, but it was only really visible to those of us already within that community, as most of the events were private house parties or barely-advertised square (and eventually contra) dances. I actually know Swallow Hill Music’s Lindsay Taylor from those days – we became friends because both of our families participated in the local music and dance scene. I even wrote a tune inspired by Lindsay and her sister, Laura, one year when I was playing a dance at The Philadelphia Folk Festival with their father, Bob Taylor, on bass.
Besides the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, an amazing organization that to this day puts on monthly concerts and a great yearly bluegrass festival, there weren’t many presenters around home willing to book old time music when I was growing up.
Greg Reish: There isn’t much of an active music scene in Murfreesboro, although we do have the Uncle Dave Macon Days Festival here each July and that’s wonderful.
Expanding one’s view to the Middle Tennessee region, however, and you quickly realize that this area is a true hotbed of old time music, bluegrass, and other kinds of tradition-based acoustic music. Some of the small towns south, east, and west of us have really grass-roots, homemade musical communities that are as strong as ever. Thirty miles up I-24 lies Nashville. It fully deserves the nickname “Music City,” and the amount of talent and musical activity here is extraordinary. Old time music in Nashville can be overshadowed by the songwriting industry, and by some of the more commercially vibrant genres–traditional country, Americana, swing, and even bluegrass–but there’s still a lot of old time music lurking beneath the surface.
Truth is, a lot of the people who make their living playing other kinds of music are well-versed in old time, and enjoy playing it. There are lots of jams, some advertised and others not, where you find incredible musicians getting together to swap tunes, sing old country songs, and rip on barn burners of all kinds. There’s a wide range of generations represented, too, as many of the fantastic young musicians now migrating to Nashville (from Brooklyn, Boston, Asheville, Denver, LA, Chicago, and many other places) are really enthusiastic about old time music. I should also mention the living connections in this area to some of the legendary pioneers of old time music and their descendants. I’m continually amazed by the people I meet in Tennessee.
What initially got you interested in playing old time music? How old were you when you got into it? When did you realize it would be a major part of your musical life?
Matt: I started playing old time music at my father’s urging. He’s a banjo player who also picked up guitar when I was a teenager. When I was born, he was already playing banjo in an amateur old time band. I started taking Suzuki violin lessons on my fourth birthday, and once I had a few classical pieces under my fingers, I learned simple renditions of classic old time tunes from my dad and his band mates.
For a number of years, old time music was something I was lovingly compelled to do. Then my mom took me to The Swannanoa Gathering’s Old Time Week sometime in my early teens, and I had a blast. I already had enough music in me that I could hang on in a jam with the teachers (Brad Leftwich, Rayna Gellert, Kirk Sutphin, John Herrmann, Tom Sauber, Meredith McIntosh, Phil Jamison, Gordy Hinners, and Don Pedi, to name a bunch), many of whom I already idolized thanks to their recordings which we listened to at home and in the car. I had so many inspiring jams, classes, workshops, lessons, conversations, and visits with older musicians throughout my teens beginning with that year at Swanannoa and continuing with annual treks to Clifftop, Southern Week at Jay Ungar & Molly Mason’s camp Ashokan in upstate New York, plus various events around home, many of which my parents hosted.
Greg: I grew up in Atlanta in the 1970s, at a time when Southern rock was the predominant genre. So I started playing guitar to learn songs by the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. My older brothers also turned me on to folk rock like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, whose music I still love.
It was my first guitar teacher who introduced me to old time music by way of Doc Watson and Norman Blake, two of my biggest influences to this day. I first heard them flatpack fiddle tunes when I was 10 or 11, and I was immediately hooked. Through Doc and Norman I discovered older music like the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. They also led me to discover classic bluegrass like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, as well as contemporary musicians such as Tony Rice and David Grisman.
Over the years I continued to play rock, got heavily into jazz and classical music (including a PhD in musicology with a specialization in 20th century Italian avant-garde), and eventually worked my way back to the old time and bluegrass music I discovered as a kid.
How do you stay true to old time tunes while also making them fresh and current for modern listeners?
Matt: By listening obsessively to source recordings, immersing myself in a particular rendition of a tune long enough to understand its core and several of its distinctive variations, and then letting go of any intellectual approach to the melody and just playing with it. It helps that in this collaboration with Greg, we both enjoy spelunking through source recordings, returning to them at various points in our arranging process, but then always letting ourselves get carried away in flights of musical fancy as we craft our version of the tune.
I don’t believe that old time music is an endangered musical species, so once I feel like I have a reasonable sense of how a tune goes, the pressure’s off, and I like to follow a melody wherever it leads me that time around.
Greg: I listen a lot to the recordings made by early country musicians in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as field recordings from many decades. At the same time, I stay current with contemporary bluegrass and Americana. There are also the wide range of influences (jazz, rock, folk, blues, world, classical) that I absorbed over the years as a musician and musicologist. All of that comes into play when I’m thinking about approaches and making specific decisions about styles and arrangements.
It’s good sometimes to recreate something not slavishly, but close in spirit and style to the original. But then it’s also rewarding to bring a 21st century mentality to the process and take some liberties. Old time music, despite the irony of the name, needs to grow and develop to stay fresh, just like any other idiom. The key with old time music, though, is to have a strong sense of where the music came from and not to lose sight of that when modernizing it.
Old time music is currently performed in many settings – informal like around a campfire or at a house party, or in a more formal concert setting like your upcoming show at Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music. How do you prepare for different shows based on the setting? Or do you keep things relatively the same?
Matt: Well, I hope to bring the same intention each time I play, whether it’s at an informal event or a concert where people have paid to hear me play. In each case, I want to get out of the way as much as possible and let the music speak for itself, interjecting variations and improvisation only when inspiration strikes. And whenever I’m playing a dance tune, even if there’s no one dancing within sight, I imagine there is.
What’s different is how I talk about the music. At a concert, I think it is important to entertain an audience and to educate them, so I do spend a bit of time before and during a show thinking about what is relevant and helpful for the average concertgoer to hear from me in order to best appreciate the music. I don’t assume that everyone is familiar with old time music and its sources. I’m still constantly learning about the genre, so I reckon that others are, too, even the most devoted fans and musicians.
Greg: Matt and I are both teachers, and while a show is not exactly like a teaching situation, there are some commonalities. One of the most important is to know your audience, to know who they are, their level of familiarity with the music, their expectations. So, aside from the obvious considerations that vary from one venue to the next (like the sound of the room or the number of people in attendance), we try to tailor the shows to match the audience. There are many ways to do this, of course, including varying our set lists, spending more or less time talking about the music between numbers, and taking some chances with the material that were not part of the official rehearsals.
Matt and I have played together long enough to be able to do things on the fly, when the situation is right.
A recent survey of contemporary old time music in the Bluegrass Situation talks about “heaps and heaps of great resources for old-time music today,” how – and where – do you find old time material that is new to you to play and record?
Matt: I usually start with my iTunes library. I currently have 2,772 albums loaded on my computer, and anything I don’t have, Greg probably does. I recommend being in a band with a musicologist who is the director of the Center for Popular Music. I doubt we will ever run out of source material!
Greg: As Director of one of the most important archives of American vernacular music anywhere in the world, I am fortunate to have hundreds of thousands of recordings readily available to me. When I was a kid and just getting interested in this music, it was hard to find. Now it’s easy. The challenge is to figure out how to wade through all of it in some purposeful manner so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. Much of what I immerse myself in at any given point is driven by specific projects I have taken on, musical or research projects. Interacting with other knowledgeable musicians whose curiosity is insatiable like mine is another good way to focus in on good material. Matt and I certainly have developed a symbiotic relationship when it comes to discovering and sharing source music.
This interview was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.