Tommy Edwards and Andrew Marlin communicate like kinfolk.
As they discuss making music together and the process of learning from one another, they offer sharp-witted jabs, punctuating an exchange that otherwise suggests a mutual admiration society. They could be brothers, with a long age gap separating Marlin's brown locks and Edwards' graying blond hair, or perhaps even father and son. In truth, more than 40 years divide the two, but they began playing music together almost as soon as they met eight years ago. Edwards' guidance even helped shape Mandolin Orange, Marlin's folk duo with Emily Frantz.
"It's the first time in a long time when Emily's not standing beside me," Marlin says, talking about playing with Edwards now instead of Frantz. Together, Marlin and Frantz have welcomed increasing success over the past year and a half, thanks to their elegant 2013 album, This Side of Jordan, and a busy touring schedule. "[But with Edwards,] I'm the better-looking one in the group."
Edwards and Marlin both laugh, though their age difference and their music point to an important component of what they do together: Because so many bluegrass tunes come from a broad and common canon, it's easier to find familiar territory among other players.
These elements bind Edwards and Marlin and have made the elder a mentor for the rising star. Edwards is a veritable North Carolina bluegrass institution. His five-piece, The Bluegrass Experience, will celebrate its 44th anniversary in March. In an age when one can hear sounds from around the world online in an instant, their regional, educational relationship is a distinct reminder of the oral tradition that drove folk music for centuries. In Edwards, one generation bestows what it knows on Marlin's youth.
"It's a great thing to be a part of—soulfully, musically," Marlin says. "In all aspects of life, it's a great music to be a part of."
Marlin and Edwards met at the Rubber Room, the acoustic-centered Chapel Hill recording studio. Edwards was at the Rubber Room to make an album, while Marlin was essentially crashing on a couch at the studio, working under the tutelage of the studio's owner, Jerry Brown. They'd never even heard of each other. When Edwards would arrive with a guitar, banjo and mandolin, Marlin would borrow an instrument he wasn't playing to write songs in one of the studio's soundproof rooms.
"I'd come out an hour later after we'd done a song or something like that," Edwards remembers, "and Andrew would say, 'Hey, Mr. Edwards, want to hear a song I just wrote?'"
Some of those tunes have survived in the Mandolin Orange catalog. And some of the lessons and ideas Edwards gave Marlin went on to shape Marlin's approach to and understanding of bluegrass.
Both attribute their fast friendship to Brown's encouragement.
"Andrew and Tommy are both absolute true musicians: They both play all the time, every minute that they can," Brown says. "That's just what they do. It's like putting two magnets together."
When the pair play at the North Carolina Museum of History as part of PineCone's Music of the Carolinas series, their approach will be loose, as they prefer to play off the cuff rather than from a meticulous set list. Their varied musical backgrounds—Edwards, the bluegrass veteran, and Marlin, the kid raised on heavy metal and rock—boost the spontaneity.
"Part of the great fun with playing with Andrew," Edwards says, "is just seeing what's going to come out next."
Indeed, the Edwards-Marlin approach to bluegrass standards is unorthodox.
"Structurally speaking, the songs are pretty simple," Marlin says. "Because of that, when it's just Tommy and I, there's so much freedom for the two of us to play around and mess with the structure and form a tune."
Edwards says they tend to approach the songs as if they were jazz musicians, adding improvised elements to the basic tune. The joy comes from wrestling the unknown from the familiar.
"When there's only two of you and you're furnishing all the music, then you can have fun not only with the solos and vocal interpretations, but with the rhythm," he says. "Sometimes we'll be doing really peculiar things right at the same time, and we'll stick with it for several beats."
Sticking with the format, though, can be a challenge: As Mandolin Orange continues its steady rise, Marlin's down time is increasingly scarce. Edwards, on the other hand, relishes the freedom he found in 1999 after retiring from teaching school for 30 years. He still runs a small shop in downtown Pittsboro selling antiques and instruments, but playing music is his main concern.
"I'm learning things, I'm writing as hard as I ever did, and I actually have time to do more. I don't have a football team to coach or papers to grade," he says.
For Marlin, more time on the road doesn't mean he avoids music on his off-days. Instead, he can't get enough of it.
"Whenever we're home, what it all comes down to is I just want to play all the time," Marlin says, estimating that he practices maybe five hours a day if left to his own devices. "Whatever that happens to be—whether that's with Mandolin Orange or with Tommy, just sitting at home playing by myself—that's kind of what I'm always doing."
Good thing, then, that he's found both a willing partner and teacher, especially one who doesn't mind the occasional wisecrack.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Old strings."