Molly McBride is Fieldwork Coordinator at the Michigan Traditional Arts Program. She’s also a first-rate fiddler who plays with great assurance. Mind you, there’s nothing flashy here: it’s all about the tunes. But when you choose the right ones, as she has, that’s plenty.
The title tune of McBride’s album comes from Kentucky fiddler George Lee Hawkins and appears in two forms, once with her Sigogglin’ String band and once solo. The second, writes McBride, is because “I wanted to include a solo version of this tune that better captures its awesome rawness.” Of course the solo performance leaves her more exposed as a performer, but McBride is ready for her close-up. She likewise solos on two other tracks, “Walking the Water/Snakewinder” and the terrific closer, “Grand Spy.” In neither case do you miss her accompanists.
Not that they aren’t on their game when needed. Banjoist Jeff Norman is a fine foil for McBride, typically echoing her tunes clawhammer-style and once, on “Fine Times at Our House,” surprising with a brief harmony line. But the spotlight is McBride’s. Even on a barn-burner like “Gray Eagle,” where you might expect to hear the banjo and guitar solo, they don’t. This is a fiddle record.
But when the fiddler has McBride’s ear for tunes and knack for delivering them, that’s no cause for complaint. She plays with authority in tandem with terrific nuances. There’s lovely ornamentation on “Fine Times at Our House,” baleful drones on “Rock Andy,” bluesy slurs on “Maggie Meade.” The Skillet Lickers’ “Sleeping Lulu” is put over with an appropriately rakish edge.
McBride got her MA in Ethnomusicology from Memorial University of Newfoundland, so you might expect a Celtic tune or two. Expectations aren’t exactly realized, though there’s a decidedly Irish lilt to both “Jake’s Got the Belly Ache” and “Fine Times at Our House,” both sourced to West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons. McBride contributes brief but informative notes on the sources of her tunes and her propensity for “G minor/modal tunes,” not to my ears a habit she should consider breaking.
Producer and engineer Chris Scales has done a splendid job of recording and presenting McBride and her Sigogglin’ String Band, which frankly fails to deliver on its name: that’s reportedly an archaic Appalachian adjective meaning “not built correctly, crooked, skewed, out of balance.” There’s none of that here; the playing is supportive of the fittingly star-billed fiddler. So consider this review an unqualified rave. If you love great old-time fiddling, well recorded and delivered sans frills but not without a deep sense of engagement with the music, then you’ll find Molly McBride’s album to be 43 minutes of unbridled bliss.