One could say that fiddle and banjo reign supreme as the heart and soul of old-time music, and in saying so, one would be telling the truth, even if the truth seems to be in short supply these days. A perfect example of this truth is Holy Smoke! – a deceptively simple recording of fiddle and banjo that just oozes with truth. Here are two artists having a conversation so deep and old that words cannot express the subject of the discussion. The language here is not English or French or Russian… the language is music. A very specific music that bubbles to the surface in our Southern states, even to this day. Nay—not only in our Southern states, but indeed, way out west in California!
Los Angeles is the unlikely home of the Old Time Tiki Parlour, a project of fiddler David Bragger that has gained a barrel of respect from the old-time community at large. This respect is evidenced by the many invitations David gets from festivals and camps all over the country, including the famous Festival of American Fiddle Tunes held every year in Port Townsend, Washington. His workshops at Fiddle Tunes are always packed to the gills, but I digress. On Holy Smoke! David puts down his fiddle and nimbly caresses several of the sweet banjos in his collection. Fiddle duties are dispatched quite handily by David’s collaborator, the inimitable Italian-American Rafe Stefanini.
The booklet of liner notes helps the listener understand all about this music, from fiddle and banjo tunings to the fascinating historical provenance of each tune, as well as a first-hand account of David’s personal musical journey and his friendship with Mr. Stefanini. Beginning with the first tune, we learn about fiddler Arthur “Cush” Holston from Florida, who disappeared suddenly without a trace into the Great Hereafter (we assume) in 1964. We learn about Esker Hutchins of North Carolina, who during a live radio recording, deliberately switched up a well known standard tune just to needle his band. About Alabama fiddler Wyzee Hamilton, who was struck by a car and thrown over 70 feet, an accident that resulted in his demise the very next day. About Maryland-based African American fiddler Will Adams, who played a low-tuned “Frankenstein” fiddle provided for him by Mike Seeger when he recorded Adams in the late ’50s.
The tunes here represent a wide gamut, from obscure nuggets to well known chestnuts, all played with precision and joyful energy. What I love about this record is the inclusion of two pure-drop Irish trad reels. Bragger and Stefanini bucked the current trend of keeping the old-time repertory pure and devoid of any outside influences, especially Celtic. In the spirit of a tradition as old as the hills, they brought authentic Irish grit into the fold with blindingly brilliant results. Picture the early immigrant settlers in Virginia, Kentucky, or Carolina: what tunes did they play? While comfortably retaining their authentic Hibernian pedigrees, these melodies could sit with confidence in any collection real Appalachian fiddle tunes.
Oh wait. They already do – on this record.