Dan Gellert,
The Old-Time Tiki Parlour Presents
(Tiki Parlour, 2014)

Bruce Molsky,
Can't Stay Here This a-Way
(Tiki Parlour, 2016)

Spencer & Rains,
The Spotted Pony & Other Tunes from the Midwest Corridor
(Tiki Parlour, 2016)

Tiki Parlour is a project spearheaded by David Bragger, a Los Angeles-based Appalachian-style fiddler. The Tiki Parlour is an actual place in Bragger's house, where visiting folk musicians perform, usually in front of video camera. By "folk musicians" I do not mean singer-songwriters or "Americana" roots-poseurs but individuals who, if not always raised in the tradition, are so immersed in it that it has taken over their musical lives and transformed them into masters of it.

I learned of Tiki Parlour only accidentally. Within minutes I had written Bragger to ask if he would be willing to send me his releases for review at Rambles.NET. He responded immediately, and before the week was out, a package had arrived at my door. Alas, my review was not nearly so fast. Frankly, the music I heard over the days and weeks that followed overwhelmed me. Doing what I do, I am fortunate to be at the receiving end of a lot of good music. (And yes, some not so good, which I usually don't review unless there's some larger point to be made.) It both helps and doesn't help that I am not a musician myself, merely a close listener who's accumulated some knowledge of the relevant traditions along the way.

Tiki Parlour's recordings, however, are almost in a category of their own, and not only in the quality of their creative, impressively eye-catching packaging. At least in the area of pure sound, the comparable recordings are to be found, most recently and spectacularly, on the four-CD set Legends of Old-Time Music (reviewed here on 16 January 2016). Legends revisits County Records' latter-20th-century field recordings of native-born banjoists, fiddlers and guitar players from rural North Carolina and Virginia, few of them still living. Two of the Tiki Parlour releases up for review, on the other hand, are from New York-born individuals who learned from these and other tradition carriers. "Learned from," though, barely covers it. These artists delve far into songs and tunes, ordinarily closed to even the most sincerely intentioned outsiders, in a manner so profound as to feel like a cracked code.

It is just as true that words fail me as one who is not an active participant in the creation of such music, only its passive recipient. I can't crack the code that renders, for example, Dan Geller's rendering of "Poor Rosy" and "Raleigh & Spencer" or the instrumentals "Railroad Through the Rocky Mountains" and "Pretty Little Shoes" explicably the source of wonder, joy or -- specifically -- the sort of delicious unease one feels when unvarnished truths and emotions have been captured and expressed.

I can tell you that the rarely recorded Gellert, who is the father of Rayna Gellert (herself a fiddler, once a member of the popular all-female stringband Uncle Earl), sings and plays banjo and fiddle in a manner that sounds something like a century and a half ago, before it was possible to preserve traditional performances on records. Yet he is, though a resident of Ohio these days, a product of New York City, a self-described "red-diaper baby," meaning he was raised in the Communist Party USA culture in which the Guthrie-Lead Belly-Seeger folksong movement, which continues (minus the Stalinist associations) into the 21st century in robust health, was born.

If fancier words aren't there for me, I take comfort from someone far more authoritative than I, someone who also senses that in the end you don't explain, you just listen. Here's the estimable Ry Cooder, quoted in full: "Beyond the real and the instructive, there you find Dan Gellert, nosing around, lurking about. Yes you can learn from watching him play, as I have, but it's a bit more like stumbling into a pure music experience without the need for a practical use. What's it all about? 'There ain't no book you can read. There ain't nobody can tell you,' as Al Einstein used to say."

Relatively speaking, Bruce Molsky is the most famous of the artists under review. Molsky, some of whose previous recordings were reviewed here (most recently on 22 June 2013), is well documented on a number of accomplished CDs, each rich in his superior instrumental skills, appealing choice of material and well-beyond-passing knowledge of the tradition.

Most of the material, as on Can't Stay Here This a-Way, is from the Southern mountains, but he usually throws in a tune or two from somewhere else, arranged in an organic fashion and not seeming out of place. On the current disc it's a melody ("Brothers & Sisters") he adapted from African sources and a Swedish tune ("Come Home") from the longtime Scandinavian folk-rock band Hoven Droven. (I suppose one could add, while American and Southern, the Little Hat Jones blues-pop "Bye Bye Little Girl.") Even when the cut has a familiar title ("Red Rocking Chair," "Polly Put the Kettle On"), though, the versions sport unusual melodies, tunings and lyrics. In other words, they have the feeling of something you haven't heard before.

As Molsky digs ever deeper into the sources, the results exude an authenticity of their own, in other words something un-borrowed from somewhere else than the place of his birth, which is the identification the late Mike Seeger gave the appearance of: an outsider gone native. Of course, that's only approximately -- maybe metaphorically is the word -- true. Most Appalachian states are now deep red, and most outsiders drawn to traditional Southern music have deep-blue hearts. Even so, if by whatever mix of instinct, intelligence, musical mastery or magic an outsider finds a way inside, even if for the music and if not for the whole cultural package, he or she is both celebrating the tradition worth preserving and carrying it forward.

The "Midwest Corridor" that runs through Spencer & Rains' country is Kansas, where Tricia Spencer grew up playing fiddle, down through Texas, whose fiddle tunes Howard Rains began collecting some 15 years ago. The Spotted Pony celebrates mostly non-Appalachian folk music. Even naive listeners will be able to hear the differences as well as the inevitable similarities; after all, the fiddle and banjo moved westward with the pioneers who left the Southeast and sought their fortunes in Texas elsewhere (the subject, incidentally, of the traditional song "I Am Going to the West," not included here). As those who have been exposed to it are aware, Texas fiddle tunes tend to be smoother, with a greater emphasis on clean dancer-friendly melody.

On Spotted Pony (named after a tune Spencer learned as a girl) the singing and harmonies lack the sometimes harsh nasality of Appalachia. Though "Ida Red" is ubiquitous throughout the South, it is sung with a particular sweetness here. All but a handful of the 22 cuts are instrumentals, with veteran old-time players John Schwab and Brendan Doyle filling out the core sound at times, and nothing fails to please the ear. "Mississippi Snagboat," heretofore unknown to me, is a particular high point among many, and in that regard I ought to mention "Louisiana Traveler," which is just about otherworldly in the mood and atmosphere it conjures up. I am pleased, too, to hear the seldom-visited song "Sundown," which will not soon leave your psychic jukebox.

Each of the discs is accompanied by a DVD in which the artists perform the same songs and tunes, and in the same order as on the CDs. Tiki Parlour is a project well worth supporting, and I encourage you to do so. The pleasure will be yours.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 November 2016

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