"Don't take it serious, it's too mysterious!" Veteran old-time musician Paul Brown is quoting his grandmother, Louise, after being asked about the operating principle behind the Bent Mountain Band, touring again for the first time in 20 years. Band member Mike Seeger makes a similar observation: "It's one of those mysteries of chemistry, as far as I'm concerned." But Andy Cahan, who rounds out the trio, has a simpler take on the proceedings: "It's nice to be in a band again."
Following on the heels of their reunion set at the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Convention in Virginia last fall, Bent Mountain will appear at Chapel Hill's Playmakers Theater for two full performances, hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill's Curriculum in Folklore. Proceeds will benefit the Dan Patterson Folklore Fieldwork Fund.
The group threatens not only to continue touring (when schedules permit), but to release a CD--their first. Given their two-decade absence as a group, it's a welcome turn of events for those who love traditional music, not least among them Brown, Seeger and Cahan.
Seeger, who's dedicated his life to playing acoustic music with groups like the New Lost City Ramblers and the Strange Creek Singers as well as documenting the playing of countless others, says Bent Mountain benefits from the band members' "mutual commitment to old-time music and our longtime experience with it.
"We've all hung out with older musicians and done documentary projects and have listened to a lot of traditional music that we just really revere. So we like to move around in that same eccentric circle--or is it concentric circle?"
In fact it was while jamming at legendary Mt. Airy fiddler Tommy Jarrell's house that the three men first discovered their unique chemistry. Cahan, born in New York City, had come south and spent years visiting fiddler's conventions and learning music from old-timers like fiddler Jim McCarroll, all the while keeping body and soul together by doing woodworking jobs. He met Earnest East and the Pine Ridge Boys at the Low Gap Fiddler's Convention and was invited to be their banjo player, a post he held for 15 years. Cahan says he was at Jarrell's house at least once a week at the time, hanging out, recording and playing along with many of his like-minded contemporaries from up north--including Seeger and Brown.
Brown came from a family of Southerners who moved to New York City following the Great Depression. Even so, his mom and aunt continued to spend summers on a farm outside of Forest, Va.
"They learned a lot of old songs from two elderly African-American men who were there, and some other folks as well," Brown recalls, "and when I was growing up, mom used to sing these songs quite a lot. I loved them. I cannot explain to you why I liked that type of music, but I can tell you that from as early as I can remember, I was able to relate to old-time and mountain and blues music in a deep way."
Brown got his first banjo from the Sears-Roebuck catalog when he was 10. But it wasn't until he attended Oberlin College in Ohio that he fell in with other musicians who shared his interests. He dropped out, entered trade school, did furniture upholstering, and, like Cahan, began visiting the South and learning to play from older musicians.
In 1980, he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study with Tommy Jarrell. But the grant itself went to the senior artist, Jarrell, leaving Brown to get by on his upholstering savings and income from working at a veterinarian's, a sawmill and a truck stop. While he studied with Jarrell, Brown played fiddle with a Surry County group, Benton Flippen and the Smokey Valley Boys. Although Brown, Seeger and Cahan had all met informally before then, and knew each other from the festival circuit, Cahan remembers them playing together for the first time at Jarrell's.
"Every now and then, Tommy would get tired of playing, or want a break, and he'd say, 'Well, why don't you all play a little for me?'" Cahan says. "And there were several occasions when we just happened to get into this trio situation, and it clicked in a way that really thrilled us all."
The thing that made it click, he explains, was that all three men had friendships with and admiration for players who, like Jarrell, "were one step away from the 19th century" and had been making music before the homogenizing influences of radio and recordings set in.
"We both just happened to feel like there was a big difference between the way the old people played and the kind of a common, old-time sound that was developing," says Cahan of his early acquaintance with Brown. "And I think he and I both made a point of trying to keep what we were playing close to traditional ways of playing. We listened to a lot of the same recordings; we both had an interest in music from Galax [Va.]." It was an approach and an interest that Seeger had already embraced.
The original Bent Mountain Band lineup featured Cahan on fiddle, Brown on banjo and Seeger on guitar. But the group lasted only a year before "blowing up" due to band politics. In fact, Cahan had laid off performing--he hadn't been to a fiddler's convention in a decade--when he received an e-mail from Seeger inviting him to reconstruct the trio for a special set at the Rockbridge Festival last fall. It was at Brown's country cabin in Stokes County that they reconnected and played together for the first time in 20 years. All agree that it was a deeply emotional--and musical--experience.
"I've always felt a special ability to be creative and to do my best playing when I'm with Andy and Mike," says Brown, "because things occur to us and we're able to try things that I don't try with other groups. There's some sort of communication going on. One of us will have a glimmering of an idea, and the other two will catch on very quickly to what the first one is thinking. And we somehow just manage to fall in together and expand on the idea."
"There's a feeling you have when you get in a real musical groove, when you feel like you can just take off and not have to worry about the rhythm breaking up," Cahan adds. "You're gliding along with it, and you're on the same wavelength, and you can really play your best instead of having to fight with timing."
Because each member plays multiple instruments--fiddle, ban-jo, guitar, and others--the Bent Mountain lineup will change from song to song. Seeger says he might bring a cello--once a mainstay of old-time string bands. Brown might bring his military chaplain's portable pasteboard organ.
They've already laid down several tracks, including "Fisher's Hornpipe," for possible release on CD. And they plan to continue playing whenever their regular schedules--Seeger's solo career, Brown's job as executive producer for weekend programming at National Public Radio, and Cahan's "honest work" as a cabinet maker--allow them. "We expect to have some fun with merchandising," predicts Seeger of the possibilities inherent in the band's slogan, "Get Bent."
"Give me one good reason why we shouldn't hit the road and scare the populace?" Brown says, more as a statement of intent than a question. "[From] Chapel Hill all the way out to California, if we can figure out a way to do it."