I became deeply interested in American vernacular music in the mid 1980s. It was an interesting and challenging time to find recordings. The record business was in flux. Older LP recordings were going out of print and the new CD format had not caught up with the demand, such as it was, for deep-catalog jazz, blues, bluegrass, and other forms of roots music. I spent a lot of time in used record stores seeking out the old Yazoo and County reissues of blues and pre-WWII country music. Acquiring the music itself was the primary goal, but the secondary objective was to get the detailed liner notes, written by record collectors, historians, and musicians, which added depth and context to the music that was spinning on the turntable. As a budding musician, the other perk of those notes was that there were a few nuggets scattered throughout, some more detailed than others, that might help one along the journey to learning guitar, fiddle, or banjo. At the very least, one could expect to find banjo and fiddle tunings and that, along with repeated close listening, might get that new tune under your fingers.
It was nice to see those nuggets of information in the liner notes included with Mike Bryant and Paul Brown’s recent recording for David Bragger’s Old-Time Tiki Parlour label. As the music biz moves farther and farther away from physical product, it is nice to see that a few stalwarts are still pressing first-rate, physical records. This is a quality package that has a cohesive design, good writing, unique illustrations and photographs and superb music, which will be welcomed by old-time music listeners who still seek the thing to hold, look at, and read, rather than being content with a convenient, ubiquitous stream. David Winston’s biographical notes are concise and present a nice introduction to all the musicians participating on the recording. The tune notes, while brief, give the curious listener the tunings used by the banjo and fiddle as well as the source chain for each tune. The booklet and CD case are well designed and have lovely photographs (by Paul Brown and Joseph DeJarnette) and illustrations by fiddler/artist Howard Raines salted throughout.
The center of attraction is, of course, the music presented by Mike Bryant, Paul Brown and their partners and rock-solid rhythm section of Marcia Bryant (guitar) and Terri McMurray (banjo and baritone uke). This recording documents the playing of important and influential veterans of the old-time music scene. Bryant and Brown are both in great form on all 15 cuts, and arguably at the height of their abilities as old-time musicians. Paul Brown is well known in old-time music circles and beyond through his years as a beloved NPR broadcaster. Fiddler Mike Bryant might be a new name to some old-time music listeners. The liner notes mention that he has not been recorded much, so this recording is a gift for those who might not have heard him at a jam session, as a champion fiddler at Clifftop, or playing for dances and performances in his home region in Tennessee. A relative latecomer to the instrument (he started to play in his twenties), Bryant made up for his late start by spending hours and hours listening to old-time fiddle music and trying to tease out the tunes for himself. Now, decades into that quest, Bryant is himself a true master of traditional fiddling.
The Bryant and Brown recording is, in my mind, an example of outstanding old-time ensemble playing. They play with a familiar, comfortable groove. The fiddle might be the lead instrument but it is not the center of attention. Mike’s fiddling is strong without being overly showy or distractingly technical. The three rhythm instruments – banjo, guitar, and uke – provide elegant backing for Bryant’s fiddling. None of the three steps on each other or over-plays, and it is always a joy to hear Paul Brown’s finger-style banjo accompaniment. The music on Bryant & Brown is an example, in my opinion, of the performance being a vehicle to express the tune rather than as a showcase of the performer’s chops. Needless to say, getting that easy and understated feel is not simple and the music within is an illustration of Bryant and Brown’s mastery of their instruments and the traditional string band style.
It is also worth noting that the band sounds cohesive as they play a set of 15 tunes with relatively diverse origins. The tunes presented on the CD come from a variety of mainly mid-South sources in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Mike Bryant’s home in Harriman, Tennessee, is pretty centrally located in the middle of all of those hotbeds of traditional music so the tunes sound right at home in his hands. The Clardy and Clements Mississippi tune “Little Black Mustache” is a nice change-up, although, interestingly, the tune was played by older Tennessee fiddlers such as Benny Martin and Benny Sims, so perhaps it fits right in. Mention of those musicians calls to mind the tunes sourced from commercial fiddlers such as Tommy Magness (“Natural Bridge Blues”) and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith (“Walking In My Sleep”) as a reminder of the close connections that popular early country and bluegrass fiddlers had to true-vine tunes and traditions. The only small critique I might make regarding the repertoire is that I would have liked to hear Mike’s playing on a good, old-time waltz number.
Mike Bryant and Paul Brown’s effort for the Old-Time Tiki Parlour label is highly recommended for any fan of American old-time string band music. There is a batch of good tunes here and if you’re learning a fiddle or banjo this would be a good title to snap up so you can get to work trying to figure them out. The tunings are in the notes! The Tiki Parlour website points out that they are capturing the “Old Weird America” and the raw sounds of old-time music. Bryant and Brown is anything but. Beautifully played and superbly packaged, the recording is a testament to the soul, skill, and taste of two of the best living practitioners of old-time music in America.