Although old-time music has recently experienced a surge in popularity, most of the groups who bill themselves as old-time are of the string band variety, with a focus on banjo and fiddle music. An instrument that’s often neglected in the traditional music world, despite its potential to create beautiful music, is the hammered dulcimer. One of today’s most widely recognized players of the instrument is Ken Kolodner, a native of Baltimore who is also a noted old-time fiddler. Some of Kolodner’s latest work comes from a partnership with his son Brad (a clawhammer banjo player), and the duo has recently released their second album together, Skipping Rocks.
If there was one word to describe this recording, “peaceful” would likely be the best choice. The music the Kolodners create is, for the most part, calming and soothing, with the banjo, fiddle, hammered dulcimer, and various guest instruments combining to create a unique old-time experience. Most of the songs here are traditional numbers that have been popular throughout the years in both the bluegrass and old-time worlds, while Brad has contributed three originals and Ken one.
Ken’s hammered dulcimer is featured on eight of the album’s fifteen tracks, and on each, it adds a completely different level to the tunes. John Brown’s March is mournful yet dignified, while Falls of Richmond is darker, somewhat stark, and more urgent. Both are banjo/hammered dulcimer duets, played tightly and strongly. The pair also duet on a unique version of Reuben’s Train. Brad plays gourd banjo on this tune, giving it an organic, rootsy sound with a great groove.
A few of the songs have more of a full band sound, thanks to guests Robin Bullock (guitar, mandolin, and cittern), Alex Lacquement (bass), and Elke Baker (viola and fiddle). The title track is a cheerful original from Brad that is sure to get listeners’ toes tapping. Brad sings lead on Down on My Knees (a version of the traditional number also known as Fall on My Knees). Brad’s vocals are soft and resigned, with Kagey Parrish of the Honey Dewdrops providing nice harmonies. Grub Springs has been transformed, with the liner notes referring to it as “a neo-traditional take on the traditional fiddle tune.” It’s gentle and melodic, featuring Brad on banjola, and definitely is the most contemporary-sounding track on the album.
While the majority of the album is not string band music, the Kolodners also prove they know their way around a fiddle tune. The album closes in fine style with Lost Indian (a variant of Cherokee Shuffle), which features both Ken and Brad on fiddle. They also transform Boatman, a minstrel song from the mid-1800s, into a peppy fiddle and banjo number. The Reunion, an original from Ken, also features two fiddles, though it has more of a Celtic feel than old-time.
An album based around clawhammer banjo and hammered dulcimer might not seem like it should work, but this does. There’s truly not a bad song on the album, though the Kolodners pull from various influences and some songs will definitely appeal to certain listeners more than others. Ken and Brad are both exceptionally talented musicians and they have created a tight, top-notch sound.
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