From one Depression to another

The annual Swannanoa Gathering is an ideal locale for interviewing the Twilite Broadcasters. Here, on the campus of Warren Wilson College, Adam Tanner and Mark Jackson are surrounded by fellow musicians obsessed with the myriad forms of archaic Americana. A killer multi-instrumentalist and mainstay on the Western North Carolina folk scene, Tanner is scheduled to play several times during the week-long, workshop-intensive exploration of traditional song and fiddle.

Graduates of the Mike Seeger school: The duet carry on the close-harmony tradition. Photo by Jen Lepkowski

Swannanoa Valley is gorgeous tonight. For now, the suffocating heat has relented. After meeting-up outside Morris Pavilion we grab beers from Highland Brewing’s makeshift tent and carve out turf near the fiddle circle, from which a serene drone permeates the atmosphere.

The Weaverville duo is beside itself. “Did you just see Charlie Louvin perform?” they both ask, minds clearly blown.

A member of the music staff at this year’s Gathering, Louvin is one of their idols. The Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, helped pioneer the close-harmony/brother-duets tradition the Twilite Broadcasters now mine. Sandwiched between the “hillbilly” craze of the ’20s and bluegrass’ ascent in the mid ’40s, it’s a stripped-down, melancholic style of country music that found a home during the Great Depression, with groups like the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys and the Rich-R-Tone-era Stanley Brothers.

I first caught Jackson and Tanner (who started playing together in 2008) last summer at the Bluff Mountain Festival in Hot Springs. Their act totally stuck out. During what felt like a laid-back gathering of family and friends, the Broadcasters gave a real-deal performance, one steeped in professionalism and hardcore music scholarship. Their vintage sartorial flavor, sharp but not enslaved to a bygone era, made their stage presence only that much more formal.

The disconnect between their intensity and Bluff Mountain’s pastoral vibe is something the Broadcasters believe is a region-wide phenomenon. “[Asheville] is a casual town when it comes to folk culture, and Mark and I are into stuff that’s a bit more edgy,” says Tanner, a Californian by birth. “What we do is a presentation, and some people are uncomfortable with presentation. If it isn’t about the communal, ‘we’re all one’ thing, then people can be a put off. That’s just not our focus. We’re trying to put on an old-fashioned show.”

This explains why there’s also a kind of subtle irony in hanging with Jackson and Tanner at The Swannanoa Gathering. To invoke a Seeger-family dichotomy: It’s an awesome event for sure, but ultimately it favors the egalitarian, jam-session ethos long espoused by Pete Seeger. The Broadcasters, in contrast, have adopted more of a Mike Seeger perspective: folk revivalism isn’t always about open participation and camaraderie; sometimes, it’s about a small group of skilled musicians attempting to hone a singular language, something unique to that particular ensemble.

The Twilite Broadcasters aren’t alone. Over the last several years a handful of younger musicians have emerged who clearly graduated from the Mike Seeger school, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Black Twig Pickers just outside Roanoke, Brooklyn’s Dust Busters and the enigmatic Frank Fairfield. As with the Twilite Broadcasters, these artists create music that means something in the now by balancing extreme erudition in old-school folk and country with a desire to wipe away wispy mountain nostalgia.

Indeed, there’s currency in Tanner and Jackson’s aesthetic. Instead of producing a strict retro-shtick, they’ve distilled what’s universal about this old-time tradition. The close-harmony/brother-duets style, you see, didn’t just die off; it was sucked into mainstream country and pop music. Whenever you hear tight, soaring vocal work — everybody from the Everlys and the Osbornes to the Byrds and Big Star — you’re hearing the descendants of those first-generation groups mentioned above.

“There were certain guys in the ’60s who carried on the tradition of the Louvins and the Monroes,” explains Tanner. “Buck Owens and Don Rich definitely did, so we started incorporating some of that stuff into our set.”

Jackson, who spent his childhood in southwest Virginia listening to both country and rock music, picks up the thread. “On the Beatles’ Live at the BBC album they do that Carl Perkins song ‘Sure to Fall (In Love With You),’ and it’s so much like a Louvins song. It’s so stripped down. It’s country music.”

The Twilite Broadcasters have yet to record “Sure to Fall,” but their debut album Evening Shade, recorded at Altamont Recording, contains numerous tracks reflecting their ability to look beyond history’s gauzy surface. My favorite stretch comes near disc’s end when the pair jump smoothly from the Everly Brothers (“Long Time Gone”) to the traditional ballad “Pretty Red Shoes” (aka “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet”) to the exquisite fiddle tune and title track “Evening Shade.”

With other jam circles now soaking the air around us, the Broadcasters close out our talk with an irony that easily surpasses any we’ve thus far discussed.

“We’re making Depression-era music, and we’re right back there,” says Tanner, with a laugh. “So we’re kind of like, ‘Hey, it worked back then, so it might work now.’”

It’s a rather sad notion, but hey, that’s the nature of this wonderful music.

[Justin Farrar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, and other publications.]

who: The Twilite Broadcasters, with Frank Fairfield and Ian Thomas
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, July 15 (8:30 p.m. $8/$10.

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One thought on “From one Depression to another

  1. boatrocker

    Thumbs up to brother bands. Funny how it takes a guy born in California to show NC how it’s done for all the Nashville booty kissing of modern string band music.

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