Old School

A New Generation of Musicians Reinvigorates the Sound of Prerecording America

by Geoffrey Himes

The Mammals perform at the Royal Nov. 4, at Bethesda’s Glen Echo Park Nov. 5, and at Westminster’s Carroll Arts Center Nov. 6.

Warm-Blooded: The Mammals breathe new life into old-timey music.
The multiplatinum success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000 was hailed as a triumphant comeback for bluegrass—even though the movie was set in the late ’30s, several years before bluegrass even existed. The soundtrack was mostly true to that period, serving up a pre-bluegrass sound known by many names—“mountain music,” “pre-war string-band music,” and so on, but most commonly “old-timey.”

The distinction between old-timey and bluegrass isn’t mere hairsplitting; they are very different sounds, and string-band musicians usually pledge their allegiance to one or the other. It’s like the difference between Dixieland jazz and bebop. Like bebop, bluegrass is a modern music, invented during World War II, with an emphasis on speed, precision, and virtuoso solos. Like Dixieland, old-timey is a traditional music with close ties to the prerecording era and a stress on dance rhythms, bluesy emotions, and collective improvisation.

Ten years ago old-timey was on the brink of extinction as older musicians died off with no younger ones taking their place. But since the turn of the century, a new generation of old-timey bands has emerged. They include the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Duhks, the Tarbox Ramblers, the Be Good Tanyas, Po’ Girl, Carrie Fridley, Ollabelle, the Boxcar Preachers, the Foghorn Stringband, the Crooked Jades, and Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops. The most interesting act, though, is the Mammals, a band led by two kids who spent much of their adolescent summers at folk festivals. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger is the grandson of banjo legend Pete Seeger and became his grandfather’s guitar accompanist at the age of 14. Ruth Ungar is the daughter of fiddle legend Jay Ungar (composer of “Ashokan Farewell”) and is a remarkable fiddler and songwriter herself.

In early 2001, Rodriguez-Seeger and Ungar formed the Mammals with their mutual friend, New Hampshire rock and ska guitarist Michael Merenda. They released two albums as a trio featuring various guests, but for the new Rock That Babe (Signature) the Mammals became a full-time quintet with the addition of drummer Ken Maiuri and bassist Pierce Woodward. As the title implies, rhythm and irreverence play a big role in their music, but old-timey—epitomized by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ late-’20s song “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia”—has always put a premium on nose-thumbing raucousness.

Babe, for example, includes the hoariest of folk songs, “John Henry,” but the Mammals make it rock as it never did in elementary school. Fiddle and banjo lead, but the picking’s driving abandon and the whooping vocals owe as much to the Replacements as to Pete Seeger, with a recklessness not found in bluegrass and an energy absent in singer/songwriter folk. So why old-timey rather than rock ’n’ roll? Because the acoustic instrumentation reduces the distance between performer and listener and because lyrics about that “steel-drivin’ man” provide a theme larger and more timeless than whining about a fickle girlfriend.

The Mammals similarly invigorate several other traditional numbers—a medley of fiddle tunes and the kiss-off song “Fall on My Knees”—but their old-timey originals dominate Babe. Sometimes they adapt an old song (as they do in turning the children’s song “Mockingbird” into the political satire “The Bush Boys”), but just as often they invent a new banjo or fiddle tune.

The lyrics are often in the spirit of Michael Moore, and the pleasure is often in the music’s rollicking momentum, but the Mammals can also pull off a slow song. Ungar’s “Tinderbox” is a lovely meditation on romance’s unpredictable, uncontrollable nature. And Merenda’s “Go on Traveling,” dedicated to his songwriting class at Maryland’s Common Ground on the Hill festival, serves up a series of aphorisms for young people, not in the style of a stern, lecturing parent but in the manner of a chuckling, eccentric uncle.

The Old Crow Medicine Show didn’t inherit this music from its members’ families; they found it on the street corners of small-town America, where in the late ’90s they played and passed the hat for food and gas money. They settled down in Boone, N.C, where one afternoon a woman heard them and asked if they would stick around so she could bring her father by. Half an hour later she came back with her daddy, legendary guitarist Doc Watson. He was so impressed with their version of “Oh My Little Darling” that he invited them to play Merlefest, his annual celebration of traditional music.

A Nashville booking agent heard the OCMS at Merlefest and hired them to play outside the Grand Ole Opry and eventually inside it. Marty Stuart heard the band at a Tennessee festival and invited it on tour. It got better, but it never faltered in its devotion to the high-pitched tumble of mountain music and the low-pitched rumble of the blues. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings took the OCMS under their wing, and Rawlings agreed to produce its first professional album (after three haphazard DIY projects).

The resulting O.C.M.S. (Nettwerk America) opens with a defiant declaration of intent, a performance of the old-timey standard “Cocaine” (retitled “Tell It to Me”) that buzzes with the jittery energy associated with its subject. Ketch Secor’s vocals echo his harmonica’s wails, and he doesn’t soft-pedal cocaine’s attractions or dangers; he simply plunges forward, describing life not as it should be but as it is. This sets the tone for an album that confronts life’s attractions and dangers with heedless momentum. When Willie Watson moans, “There’s not a thing for a poor man in this world,” he doesn’t whine. It’s more like he’s awed by the implacability of fate.

That sense of providence is missing from most modern music, and it’s what makes old-timey so appealing. It’s reflected in OCMS’s loosey-goosey banjo-and-fiddle arrangements that allow mistakes to co-exist with passion, and in original songs like Critter Fuqua’s Vietnam tale “Big Time in the Jungle” and Secor and Watson’s poverty lament “Trials and Troubles.”

The album ends with “Wagon Wheel,” Secor’s rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Rock Me Mama” (an unreleased outtake from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and itself a rewrite of an old-timey tune). Secor asks his woman to “Rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel,” but his weary voice and wearier fiddle riff suggest not an impatient man in heat but surrender. And this notion that there are forces larger than ourselves, older than the Beatles and too raw to need an amplifier, is the secret magnetism of old-timey.

© 2014 Baltimore City Paper