Fiddler Bruce Molsky might not be a household name, but those in the know say he’s one of old-time music’s greats.
Molsky, headlining the Olympia Old-Time Festival this weekend, is “the Rembrandt of the Appalachian fiddle,” according to fellow fiddle wizard Darol Anger.
“It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say he’s the Wynton Marsalis of old-time music,” said Juli Kelen, one of the festival organizers. “He is a master of a lot of different aspects of the tradition.”
Indeed. Molsky, of Beacon, New York, doesn’t just fiddle. He plays guitar and banjo and sings. Better yet, he sings while fiddling, a feat of coordination that’s not easily mastered. He’ll play all three instruments at the festival’s Friday (Feb. 12) concert and teach free workshops Friday and Saturday.
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His visit here is a big deal, Kelen said.
“We were able to bring him to town thanks to a gift from someone in the community who said, ‘We really need to bring Bruce Molsky, and I will ante up for that,’ ” she said. “We would not have been able to afford him otherwise.”
Molsky is about as well-known in old-time circles as Marsalis is among jazz lovers, Kelen said. And the comparison doesn’t stop there.
“Wynton Marsalis grew up in New Orleans, steeped in the tradition,” she said. “He played a big role in the Ken Burns documentary ‘Jazz.’ He talks about jazz very knowledgably.
“I think Bruce Molsky has an equal depth in old-time music.”
That’s saying a lot, especially considering that Molsky grew up in the Bronx. He has encountered plenty of folk music, though.
“Folk music was big on the radio, and there were a lot of Southern artists coming through on their way to festivals,” he said.
His career does have a jazz connection. He got serious about music as a fifth-grader when jazz pianist-composer Billy Taylor visited his Bronx elementary school.
“He just lit a fire in me,” Molsky said. “I went home that day and asked my mom if I could have music lessons.”
He studied guitar with a teacher for just one year. Since then, he’s been teaching himself. “I’m a total DIY musician,” he said.
He worked on guitar, banjo and finally fiddle, which he picked up when he was 18.
“I started fooling around with the banjo, and then I realized that everything I was playing on banjo was a fiddle tune, and the light just kind of came on,” he said.
So he decided to give it a try.
“I had my sister’s high school band instrument,” he said. “I worked on a farm that summer, and every night after work, I would go out of earshot, and I spent the entire summer learning to play one tune.”
It was later that Molsky began singing along with the fiddle after hearing another musician do it. Of course, he found his own way. To hear him talk about it, the skill is something like patting your head while rubbing your stomach — and then adding another task.
“We have so many things we do in everyday life that consist of a number of different things happening at once with our bodies — making a left turn with your car, anything,” he said. “I treated it that way. I practiced scales trying to train my body to do all that stuff at once.”
These days, the self-taught musician is himself a teacher, part of the American Roots Music Program at the Berklee College of Music, and he’s appreciating the opportunity to share old-time techniques and styles with a new generation that will use them in new ways.
Friday, he’ll share the stage with members of that new generation — Pharis and Jason Romero of Seattle and The Onlies, a fiddle-driven trio who are seniors at Seattle’s Garfield High School and have been playing together since they were 2 years old.
Olympia Old-Time Music Festival
What: The eighth annual weekend of concerts, square dances, jams and workshops celebrates and spreads the word about the joys of old-time music. Fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky headlines.
When: Friday (Feb. 12) through Sunday.
Where: Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way SW; First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE; and Arbutus Folk School, 600 Fourth Ave. E., all in Olympia.
Tickets: $15 each for Friday (Feb. 12) night’s concert and Saturday night’s dance, free for ages 12 and younger, free for workshops and Sunday’s cabaret.
Listen: Hear Molsky fiddle and sing at tinyurl.com/h9v9scb.
FRIDAY (FEB. 12)
Noon-5 p.m.: Workshops.
6-7 p.m.: Concert with Lowest Pair.
7-10 p.m.: Concert with The Onlies, Pharis and Jason Romero, and Bruce Molsky.
10 p.m.: Late-night square dance.
Noon-1 p.m.: Kids jam.
Noon-5 p.m.: Workshops.
3:30-5 p.m.: Old-time barn dance class.
4-5 p.m.: All-ages dance with the Bow Weevils.
6-7 p.m.: Concert with The Onlies.
7-9:30 p.m.: Square dance with Bruce Molsky and friends.
9:30 p.m.: Cajun dance with Toulooloo.
3-5 p.m.: Cabaret, with all invited to perform; each act limited to 5 minutes.