On a spring night in Asheville, in a front yard several blocks north of downtown, a square dance is taking place. Eight dancers whirl across the lawn of a sagging bungalow, negotiating the lumpy turf beneath them by a porch light’s diffuse glow.
Nearby, a cluster of musicians bends to the exertion of a tune called “Lonesome John,” sawing and plucking their way through the melody, whose beginning and ending comes around again and again. The dancers promenade, lock arms in a right-hand star and do-si-do around each other. They smile — a lot.
There is no crinoline about, no gingham dresses, no bolo ties, any of the expected square-dancer attire. Instead, the dancers are clad in soiled Carhartt pants or rolled jeans, sweaters with frayed cuffs and T-shirts that look like they were tailored with paper scissors. They seem to embody all the possibilities of the word “scruffy.” Most everyone — the musicians, the dancers, the porch-sitters with their Pabst tall-boys — are in their 20s. They are “punks,” loosely, and part of one of the most energizing, and unexpected, things ever to happen to the style of music known as old-time.
For many people, the word “punk” calls up images of dyed hair held aloft with epoxy glue, black clothes bound up with ranks of safety pins, aggression, and a deep contempt for the status quo, all set to the soundtrack of British bands like the Sex Pistols or American groups like the Ramones. But through more than three decades of evolution, punk has given rise to as many variations as there are forms of youthful disenfranchisement: the skater punk, the hardcore punk, the straight-edge punk, the crusty punk. Uniting them is a strong anarchist leaning and a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They hop freight trains — really. When possible, they eschew car travel in favor of bikes. They are fond of Dumpster diving for meals and accouterments.
They are, at best, indifferent to personal hygiene.
They also have an appetite for loud, unpolished music, an appetite that, increasingly, is leading many punks to the traditional music of Southern Appalachia.
Allison Williams, a self described “punk-as-folk” musician who lives in Asheville, grew up in Arkansas with the punk bands Black Flag and Dead Kennedys contributing what she calls her “soundtrack to adolescence.” The music — fierce, unapologetically pissed off — seemed a godsend.
Travels eventually brought Williams to Portland, Ore., where she fell in with a group of musicians whose tastes straddled the punk-rock world and the folk world. The scene, with its weekly square dances and old-time house parties, was a nurturing one for Williams, who soon had a second-hand banjo more or less grafted onto her.
Within a year, she and her girlfriend had started a band, the Milkcrate Rustlers, playing, as she puts it, “the drinkinest, fightinest outlaw songs we could dig up.” Audiences came to mosh, and weren’t about to let the music’s acoustic format get in their way.
For Williams, who is 29, initiation to old-time music was a homecoming of sorts. Bluegrass and old-time are endemic to the part of Arkansas she grew up in. (“My first record,” she says, “was a 45 of ‘Turkey in the Straw.'”) Her learning curve was steep; today Williams plays banjo for the Forge Mountain Diggers, a string band fronted by former Freighthopper and perennial fiddle-contest winner David Bass.
Pass around that long-neck bottle
If the nostalgic plink and squeak of old-time music seems an odd pairing with the punk ethos, a closer listen clears things up. Often as not, the songs are a celebration of sudden violence, near-pathological loneliness, a weakness for white liquor and its manufacture, occasional varmint eating and general lawlessness, all delivered in impassioned shouts and yawps.
The song “Police,” best known from the playing of the late Low Gap, N.C. fiddler Tommy Jarrell, is a perfect anthem for rebellion, whether the villain be the World Trade Organization, the military-industrial complex, a difficult landlord or a donut-dunking local constable:
Police come, I didn’t want to go this morning.
Police come, I didn’t want to go this morning.
Police come, I didn’t want to go,
Shot ’em in the head with my .44 this morning.
Punks, seeing their cherished music being co-opted by MTV and other global tastemakers, began looking for something raw but imprinted with the same values. As Williams puts it, “activists found ancestors in Woody Guthrie and Jean Ritchie. Train-hopping punks heard ‘Reuben’s Train’ as an anthem they’d been lacking. Anarchists thrilled to hear Tommy Jarrell sing about shooting a policeman in a head with a .44.”
Viva la banjo
To speak of old-time music — the fiddle-driven, mostly instrumental music that presaged bluegrass — is to speak of revival. The music was once the fare of the farmhouse, the mill and grange hall across the rural South and, to some degree, the Midwest. By the 1960s it was a dying art, known mainly through commercial 78s from the 1920s and Depression-era field recordings. But by the early 1960s, a band called the New Lost City Ramblers came to the rescue of the old style. Fronted by Mike Seeger, the Ramblers inspired hundreds of young people, mainly Northeastern urbanites, to take to the South’s byways in search of old players. They had the chutzpah to foist themselves on the deepest, darkest portions of Appalachia, all in service of their musical passion.
By the late 1960s, turtleneck sweaters and rounds of snaps had given way to the back-to-the-land movement. The emphasis, evident from pictures of old-time musicians taken at the time, seemed to be on beards and braids. Now, those musicians are in their 50s and 60s — a salt-and-pepper horde that each summer descends on places like Mt. Airy and Clifftop, W.V. to exorcise the sound and fury of the postmodern world in favor of the plunky tones of the past. Their kids are in their 20s and 30s and, in part, are responsible for the current revival.
Woodfin old-time player Meredith McIntosh (the Heartbeats, the Rockinghams, the New Southern Ramblers) came to old-time music in the 1980s, later in her life than most of her peer group. Still, she has spent decades in service of a style of music unknown to most of mainstream America. The current resurgence at the hands of punks is a welcome, hoped-for development.
“It feels like I can die now,” McIntosh says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek (she is 53). “And I think that may have been how it was for people like Tommy Jarrell. If it hadn’t been for people like Mike Seeger and John Cohen showing up and learning tunes from him and others, I don’t think all of us other transplants would have any tunes to play. And now there’s a group of much younger musicians getting excited about the same music.”
State of the art
Ask Tim Gastrock why he plays old-time music and the answer is satisfyingly unacademic.
“Because I like it,” he says between tunes on the sidewalk in front of Malaprop’s, a messy pile of dollar bills filling an instrument case at his feet. Three-and-a-half years ago, Gastrock’s musical tastes switched over from bands like Antischism to dead fiddle and banjo players like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. “It was something different to get into,” he explains.
Regardless of his diffidence on the matter of why he plays old-time, Gastrock’s pursuit of the style borders on obsession: If he’s not working at Mayfel’s, in downtown Asheville, he’s busking with his banjo on the street or at home, making music with his girlfriend, a fiddler.
Asheville, with its Appalachian heritage and its long-established community of old-time players (not to mention the deep pockets of tourists, starry-eyed for “authenticity”), is a natural stopover and, occasionally, end of the line for train-hopping punks like Gastrock.
Old-time music, of late, has been forced to swim in the murky waters of “Americana” for the sake of packaging — witness the recent success of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Mammals and Uncle Earl, all nominally “old-time” but reaching farther afield for influences. Nevertheless, the genre has managed to dodge — so far — a wholesale co-option by the music industry, a fact which works well with the DIY, anti-consumer lifestyle that both punks like Gastrock, and earlier revivalists like Meredith McIntosh, hold dear.
“I don’t think the public really ‘gets’ it,” says McIntosh. “Old-time music is still played mostly on porches. It’s not esoteric. You don’t have to have the chops that, say, a jazz musician has, to jump in and start playing. It’s a music of the people. That’s one of the best things about it.”
It just might be the last incorruptible style left.