A few months ago Uncle Earl, an all-girl old-time band, was playing at a bar called Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. I found my way there thanks to directions from Pete’s swanky retro website, walked in, and was immediately impressed by the décor—vintage bar stools, checkered linoleum floor, and cozy booths with a reddish, low-watt glow about everything. Coming from a back room were the familiar sounds of an old-time stringband: driving fiddle, plunkety banjo, offbeat guitar, insistent bass. Making my way back to the music, however, proved to be a task in itself. The place was absolutely mobbed. The little hall that separated the bar from the stage area was crammed with people eagerly stretching their necks to catch glimpses of the musicians. The room itself was full of 20- and 30-somethings piled two or three high around tables with more spilling onto the floor and filling the aisles. The scene was true to what the AOL city guide had told me about Pete’s: “Draws consistent throngs of neighborhood hipsters and alternative music hounds.” Still, I couldn’t help but marvel that they had all come to hear old-time music.
The make-up of the crowd that at Pete’s Candy Store speaks to a current trend in old-time music. There are simply more young people interested in this music at present than there have been since the popular folk revival in the 1970s. Hot, young bands are springing up all over the country and successfully drawing large crowds to their shows. Perhaps even more surprisingly, these crowds—their fan base—is made up not only of middle-aged folkies left over from the revival, but also of the sorts of young “hipsters and alternative music hounds” you might expect to find at an punk or indie rock show. As the child of some of the abovementioned middle-aged folk revivalists, I have grown up with old-time music as an ever-present soundtrack to my life and can attest to the fact that Appalachian string band music has not always attracted the positive attention of my hip, alternative peers (“Your parents do what?”).
So, what is attracting this young crowd to old-time string band music? Why is the infusion of young blood occurring at this moment in history? And what does this mean for the future of American old-time music? To answer these burning questions, I turned to eight members of old-time’s current “younger generation.” They named a variety of personal attractions to old-time music, but there were some distinct recurring themes, such as the fact that attitude and spirit are valued over technical skill.