What Is Mountain Music?

bruce molsky, “an evening of mountain music” @ hatch recital hall, eastman school of music, rochester fringe festival, 22 september 2022.

Bruce Molsky. Photo: Steve Ford.

There is a moment in the chorus of songs such as “Jack of Diamonds” and “Green Grows the Laurel” when Bruce Molsky brings his voice up around the melody to the major third of the tonic just before he returns from the hinge-like dominant chord back to the root note. Most singers would go right in through the front gate of the starting note of the home chord, but not Molsky; instead he cleverly jumps the fence, or maybe better said uses a little melodic step ladder to bring us up and over it before we arrive back to the hearth. It’s a magical, signature move and part of what makes Molsky such a pleasure to listen to as a musician.

To get technical for a moment, since the major third is a sweet note and yet also the sixth note in the dominant chord, the melody hangs in the air more uncertainly for a second before coming back down. Then Molsky slams the door shut, bringing us in safely in from the cold. The melodic choice jumps up, anticipates resolution, pauses for a moment above it, then settles back into it. Molsky traces the steps along the way, hopscotches his voice across the stones in the path, but always gets back back where he was headed all along. The effect of this little melodic flourish is maybe that it helps us notice some stormy clouds gathering on the horizon, maybe some regrets and sadnesses and worries around the edges, but then we still land on our feet, returned to home, to a place of comfort and stability.

Performing in Hatch Recital Hall at Eastman School of Music as part of the Rochester Fringe Festival, Molsky presented “an evening of mountain music”; but what mountain were we on here, exactly? One with a vista, that’s for sure, a way of glimpsing distant shores while knowing where we stand. We heard classic Appalachian fiddle tunes, of course but also Northern Ontario and Finnish ones, guitar blues, Celtic fingerpicking, even a new, contemporary singer-songwriter composition reimagined for the banjo. In between the songs, Molsky told stories, jokes, and welcomed the audience into his world.

Center stage, he actually kept directing our ears and eyes elsewhere: to the community of characters, stories, gestures, feelings, foreign countries, familiar places, and uncanny moments in the songs. There was a pining lover swearing oceanic fidelity to a beloved across the seas; a country boy bopping down the road to see his sugar babe, glad to have everyone watching him do so, and a little adorably goofy and embarrassing for that fact; a lonely old man by a fire, not so much looking back on his life but living in the moment of his older age and its slowing, thickened soup of memories; a devilish showman playing tricks on us with his legerdemain; a woman too smart, kind, and giving for anyone around her; even a fiddle tune (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”) that Aaron Copland stole, which resonated nicely, both symbolically and sonically, in a classical music hall.

Molsky as musician is that rare thing: a sturdy radical. His sound is solid, grounded, earthy, yet it also flies. There are times when you feel like three fiddlers are playing, not one, but the point is not virtuosity, it is relational energy. He circles up around the root note to seek out, in fact, the root of things, as radicals should do. After all, you can only soar effectively if you know how to keep your balance. Likewise, you can only return home if you know how to get a bit off-kilter and wild on the way there. It’s all there: the ups and downs, the outward glance and the inward core, the tripping and regaining of your stride, the stepping out and the looking back, the leap and the return, the pluck and the swerve. The opposites dance, waltzing, double stopping, pushing onward, lifting and bowing, climbing and falling. It’s a puzzling jig and a jigsaw puzzle, assembled together, teetering confidently atop the peak of Molsky’s total, mountainous sound.

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