The Hooka and The Bling

Wednesday night we head back into Jack in the Wood in Asheville to catch the old-time music session. We’re late (the girls getting changed!) but manage to catch the musicians. There are two fiddle players, and a guitar player up on the same stage as the singer/songwriters of the other night. They’re seated around a stool that has two pitchers of beer on it and a variety of glasses in various stages of consumption. The fiddlers have their instruments slung low; one underneath his chin and almost dropping downwards into the ground, the other has his pressed almost directly into his sternum with the belly of the fiddle facing almost horizontally out to the side. Neither wear chin-rests and both hold the bow in a relaxed fist, fingers wrapped loosely around the wood and frog and almost brushing the hair. There’s simultaneously a lazy laconic ease to their bow stroke combined with a subtle intensity. Each tune is played singly, occasionally paired with another, for a number of turns. With each round of the tune they pull you into a woosy hypnotic pulse, the rhythm sometimes seeming to add an extra beat to the bar, especially when tagged onto the end of a turn. But we’ve clearly come at the end of the night. They go to wind down and we shout a bit of encouragement, enough for them to spark up another set. The room fills with the joyful swing of this old-time music. Everyone is loving it.

The guitar player packs up first and we grab him as he passes our table. “You guys are from Ireland? You brought the music over here so that we could improve upon it” We sit and have the chat until the older fiddler joins us. The conversation turns to old-time, bluegrass and country music and we quickly realize how nuanced all of this is. The boys are enjoying the chat and with a few nods they’re game for a few more tunes. The guitar player goes out to the car and hauls in a double bass, the older fiddle player takes over on guitar duties and just as they hit the stage a banjo, mandolin and guitar player arrive. It seems this is a quiet night as everyone has gone to the Appalachian String Band Festival in Cifftop, West Virginia (we’re going there Saturday), but this small crew are more than good enough for us. They strike up, the bass adding another dimension of depth to the sound and soon they and the whole pub is reinvigorated – musical Viagra! Well the tunes, songs and chat roll on for over another hour and we’re absolutely loving this sweet, infectious music. Melodically the tunes appear simple on first listen, but there's complexity going on there. The fiddlers rarely shift out of first position, but their unusual grip with the palm’s heel pushing the fiddle into the body allows them a lot of freedom and they make liberal use of the ‘lúidín’ or little finger to drone, slide, pluck – you name it. There’s a lot more going on than I can take it. But what’s most remarkable about this music is the group effort – there’s no sense of individual virtuosity at the expense of the jam. Instead it feels as if everyone is pushing together to create a common sound. It spills out off the stage and into the bar and we’re all carried off by it. There’s a lot of songs too, with all the men (and it is all men tonight) joining in on the chorus, or on a call and response.

After, they join us for a chat again. Ned has been playing fretless banjo beautifully. It’s so different from the Irish tenor banjo (or the ‘plectrum banjo’ as they call it). I recognize the shape of his headstock and neck heel. “Hey, that isn’t a Kevin Enoch banjo by the way, is it!” Yes it is and it sounds great. I’m excited as I’m visiting Kevin in Washington next Wednesday to pick up a banjo he has been making for me for five months now. John Engle, a fiddler joins us, and we have a long and informative chat about where old-time sits in the American music scene. There’s a lot of strong and healthy opinions flying about but it all comes down to the Hooka and the Bling. Don’t ask me to tell you about this now, but if you ever get John in Asheville for a few hours he’ll tell you all about it. John is on the money and the Hooka and the Bling is something I’ve heard many older Irish musicians talk about in exactly the same way, albeit using different terms. Great minds think alike!