Many of the bands who claim old time influences these days really have more of a folk or Americana style, with traditional songs set to a more modern sound. Brian Vollmer, a banjo and fiddle player originally from Maryland (where he studied banjo with the likes of Mike Munford and Bill Keith) goes in completely the opposite direction on his debut release, Old Time Music Party. Instead of folk tunes with perhaps a bit of clawhammer banjo here and there, this fourteen-track collection is filled with songs done in a straightforward old time style, performed and sang much the way they might have been a century or more ago in the hills of southern Appalachia.
The album opens with Arkansas Two-Step, a peppy fiddle tune which Vollmer pulled from home recordings of Fiddlin’ Bob Rogers, an old-time fiddler from near the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. This is a great opening track, both in terms of its upbeat sound and the fine fiddling done by Vollmer and Rosie Newton. Ben Townsend contributes some interesting banjo licks, as well. Another well-done, upbeat fiddle tune is Ladies on the Steamboat, which comes from Clyde Davenport, a fiddler from south-central Kentucky who is well-known to scholars of mountain music. It’s a smooth, driving piece, with Vollmer joined on fiddle by Nate Leath.
Another enjoyable track is the traditional number Trouble in Mind. Vollmer’s version was pulled from eastern Kentucky singer Roscoe Holcomb, and here it’s light and just a bit mournful. Bluegrass fans may be interested in the early Stanley Brothers piece Rambler’s Blues. This take on the song is stripped down, with just sorrowful vocals from in front of a simple guitar rhythm – a little more Carter Family than Carter Stanley.
Vollmer named the album Old Time Music Party, and mentions several times in the liner notes how much he enjoys “party music” or “jam music.” As such, much of the album is the upbeat stuff of all-night jams and dances – the mandolin-led Skillet Licker Breakdown is one of the best. However, two tunes in particular are quite the opposite – lonesome and dark. Elzik’s Farewell comes from West Virginia, and is played here as a duet between Vollmer on the banjo and Ben Townsend on fiddle. Birchfield’s Sally Ann is a purely lonesome piece that comes from popular old-time band the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers and has a nice full band sound.
The liner notes state that while Vollmer started out playing bluegrass banjo, he has since been drawn to “the more acrid sounds of backwoods country music.” While I might not describe the tunes here as “acrid,” they are a bit rough around the edges. Those who prefer bluegrass may be turned off by this aspect of the album. Fans of old time music, however, will appreciate the authenticity Vollmer has worked towards with the project. The liner notes provide stories behind the songs and their sources, as well as the keys and tunings in which Vollmer has recorded them. The musicianship is top notch, with Vollmer (banjo, fiddle and vocals) joined by a whole host of supporting musicians. The fiddling throughout the album particularly stands out, especially on tunes featuring two fiddles.
For more information on Brian Vollmer, visit his website at www.banjoandfiddle.com. Old Time Music Party is available now from Patuxent Music, and can be purchased from Vollmer’s website or a variety of online music retailers.