Bruce Molsky stands today as the premier old-time fiddler in the world, the defining virtuoso of Appalachia's timeless folk music traditions. That must feel odd for a former engineer from the Bronx, who didn't begin a music career until he was forty. But folded into those strange facts is the secret to his unique genius.
In addition to a prolific solo career, performing on fiddle, guitar, and banjo, Molsky frequently joins genre-busting supergroups, like the Grammy-nominated Fiddlers Four, and Mozaik, with Hungarian Nikola Parov, and Celtic giant Donal Lunny. He was on Nickel Creek's farewell tour, and performs in a trio with Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and Sweden's great Ale Moller.
"Playing in these kinds of groups is an important part of what I do," Molsky says. "Regionalism was one of the hallmarks of traditional music in the old days; now we're in the Information Age, and I don't think that's what folk music does anymore. But the more cultures I discover, the more I realize that folk music performs the same function for everybody; and therefore is the same thing everywhere - just spoken with different accents."
Great fiddlers ask him to teach at their fiddle camps, including Alasdair Fraser, Jay Ungar, and Mark O'Connor, who says Molsky has "a mystical awareness of how to bring out the new in something that is old."
"Young people realize this is a guy who's tapped into the real deep emotional wellsprings of this music," says Matt Glaser, director of Berklee's American Roots Program. "He has a way of removing everything that's unnecessary; and young people are very hungry for something real. Bruce has that in spades."
Molsky was born in the Bronx in 1955, and fell in love with old-time music as a teenager. He moved to Virginia in the '70s, learning directly from old masters like Tommy Jarrell, and seeing how the music fit into people's lives.
"It was only the older people, of Tommy's generation, who still had the music as part of their everyday existence," Molsky says. "At first, I wanted to live like that; but then I realized I didn't want to claim the culture as my own - I just loved the music."
That personal authenticity deeply informs his music. Whether performing an ancient reel from Virginia, a Swedish waltz, or a loping cowboy ballad, Molsky presents himself as exactly who he is. Rob Simons, executive director of the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, says that's the key to Molsky's enormous appeal as a live performer: "He's that unique blend of virtuoso and humble, nice guy that is irresistible to audiences."
Linda Ronstadt hears that same honest beauty in Molsky's singing. She placed his singing of "Peg'n'Awl" on her Rhapsody playlist, alongside Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker. "Bruce has has that ability to track deep emotion in his voice, without any unnecessary adornment," she says. "It's pared back to only the essential architecture of emotion."
After his Appalachian tenure, Molsky became a mechanical engineer, playing music in his spare time with his wife, Audrey. By the time he turned 40, both his parents had died. That got him thinking.
"I had this sit-down with myself," he says, "and asked what I was saving for my retirement that I'd regret if I didn't get that chance. And it was playing more music. I thought, well, maybe I'll try it for one year. I asked Audrey, and she said, 'I can't believe you didn't do this 10 years ago. Go for it.' So I took the year off, and never went back."
Perhaps that's how he discovered the real secret to the humble genius of traditional music: that it's real people's music; the honest expression of life as we all live it. You don't master that by imitating others, nor by trying to live in other people's worlds. You master it by being yourself; and at that profoundly simple and profoundly difficult musical art, Molsky is truly old-time's master craftsman.
"I'm still a social musician," he says, "in the sense that I talk to an audience the way I talk to people in my house; and I play for them just like we're all in the living room together. I want to present myself as who I am; and this music as what it is. The biggest lesson from changing careers at mid-life is that you discover the strength is not in what you do; it's in who you are."
- Scott Alarik
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