The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 3

Feature

The Not So Run of the Mill String Band
By Todd Denton

Tree-lined suburbs of Philadelphia may seem an unlikely place to find good old-time southern string band music. Yet this is the home of one of America’s most vibrant old-time music communities and the widely acclaimed but humbly named Run of the Mill String Band. For the last 25 years, the core trio of Palmer and Greg Loux and Paul Sidlick have honed their kills at dances and contests, blending powerful, dance-driving rhythm with easy-going musical sophistication. They continue to be very active, with a new CD, Steal Aboard, more public appearances, and the addition of a long-time stalwart of the Philadelphia old-time community, Tom Schaffer, on bass fiddle. Despite the band’s name, there is nothing “run of the mill” about this band.

Courtesy Margaret Sidlick and Fran Kuber
Listen to The Run of the Mill String Bands
Georgia Crawl

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Palmer Turnburke fell in love with the sound of the violin when she heard a young neighbor girl play a sweet version of “Lightly Row.” After finding a good instrument and the right teacher, eight-year-old Palmer was on her way: “My grandmother bought me a lovely little violin, which we still have.” In the mid-1970s, she went to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. On a Memorial Day weekend in 1977 she made the first of many life-changing treks to the Fiddler’s Grove convention in Union Grove, North Carolina. Since she only knew four or five fiddle tunes, she spent her time at Union Grove just listening, sitting in the stage area, taping the whole thing. Working from that tape, she had enough of the basic repertoire by summer’s end that she could “walk into any jam and just start playing.”

. . . Though Palmer can be an energetic fiddler on the fast tunes and rags, waltzes are a band specialty. Paul [Sidlick] claims, “that’s because we have the best waltz fiddler ever.” Adds Tom, “I was always of the opinion that old-time music should be kind of rough and rowdy, not too pretty; but on the waltzes, Palmer does such a smooth job that I feel compelled to make them as pretty as possible, and I confess I’m enjoying that.” Banjoist Paul also manages some uncommonly masterful waltz accompaniment on tunes such as “The Cherry Blossom Waltz” and “The Italian Waltz,” from Marvin Gaster.” . . .

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Though Greg Loux had also had the requisite childhood piano lessons, he was more strongly drawn to the guitar, obtaining his first one around age 12. Today, Greg’s guitar playing is easily recognizable. Though he worked hard to master the boom-chuck rhythm he heard on early country records, he went on to develop a unique, galloping style of playing that incorporates more complex rhythms. He’s also experimented with a cross-picking style inspired by George Shuffler, long-time band mate of the famous Stanley Brothers. And he studies the early recordings: “The guitar playing on almost half of the old-time recordings is more of a straight, flat strum with no boom-chuck. If you listen closely, often a jazz or swing back-up—what I would call a sock rhythm—is what they're approaching, so that's what I do on rag tunes like ‘Wink the Other Eye’ and ‘Going to Jail.’ ”

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Paul and Margaret Sidlick were musical omnivores from the start, attending folk music festivals, and eventually focusing on old-time music. They have played in combination with a number of fine Philadelphia area musicians over the years. From the mid-80s through the 90s, Paul and Margaret also played in the County 502 String Band, with Tim Brown, fiddler Sue Shumaker, and bassists Rich McKenzie and (later) Doug Odell. In 2003, young fiddler Matt Brown enlisted Paul to play in the Rusty Beaus, an energetic old-time concert and dance band that includes Tim Brown, Rusty Neithammer, and sometimes Sara Slaughter. Paul has also been playing recently with fiddler and tunesmith Jane Rothfield.

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Tom Schaffer, who plays guitar, bass and fiddle, has been part of the Philadelphia old-time scene since the early 1970s. He bows as well as plucks his bass, and brings a rich, full bottom end that envelops the trio’s sound. “He comes off as a very unassuming person, but he has a definite opinion about what he wants to hear, and he won’t hesitate to make a suggestion,” laughs Palmer. Paul observes that Tom “is a chordal minimalist,” and that, as a physics teacher, “he’s got that analytical thing going. And having his tonal range with the bass makes it that much easier to sing. [Playing with him] has been a lot of fun.”

Though Tom has been playing old-time music for many decades, he confesses to one major aberration: “There lurks a 1969 United Artists release by a psychedelic/ metal power trio called Thunder and Roses, which went quickly to oblivion, except for one original song which was later covered by Nirvana and just recently resurfaced in their big box set.” Tom’s checkered past also includes a stint with The Munchkins, “a very turbulent outfit, but we did have a lot of contact with Todd Rundgren, who stole our drummer at one point, and had the honor of opening for such greats as Jay and the Techniques and even The 1910 Fruit Gum Company.”

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The vibrancy of the old-time music community in the Philadelphia area is evident in the number of parties and jam sessions. Fortunately, unlike many other forms, “this music was made for small groups. It’s very social and very friendly,” says Palmer. Area folks like Clare Milliner and Walt Koken host regular gatherings in Avondale, Chester County. Carl Baron and Beverly Smith host a monthly jam in the city’s Chestnut Hill section, and other jams convene regularly at various locations in and around Philadelphia. And Paul and Margaret Sidlick have hosted a regular jam for several years at their home in Malvern, Pennsylvania. These gatherings regularly draw musicians from Washington, D.C. to upstate New York and everywhere in between. The attraction is a steady source of friendship, feasting and fiddle tunes, where novice players can rub knees with the most talented bowers and thumpers in the region. With so much good food at the potluck parties it’s a wonder much music is made, but it’s not uncommon for six or seven different jams to be ongoing in different rooms—sometimes even in a closet!

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“Bands are like marriages. Some of them last, some of them don’t,” says Margaret. “No matter what, we all grow and change, but we’re all still playing music, and we’re all still friends. We listen to other types of music, even play other types of music, but old-time is what we all come back to. It’s a common interest that holds us all together and we’ve all become friends because of it. It’s obviously a commitment in everybody’s lives.”

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