“Maybe the way forward is to dig deeper into the past”: interview and tunes with Brian Slattery


I haven’t listened to or seen this interview since I did it at Clifftop, and as it was conducted in the crazy haze that is the Appalachian String Band Festival, I don’t remember what I said, either. But I do recall it happening during what, after less than a year, already feels like a moving, transformative time—one that’s still happening.

In June and July last year I was writing my previous Oldtime Central piece about rhythm in fiddle music, which got woo-woo enough as it was. I finished the draft of that in a motel in Elkins, WV, an hour and a half before I was supposed to check in as the beginning banjo instructor for Old-Time Week at the Augusta Heritage Center.

That week—and Clifftop, which came hot on its heels—turned out to be quite clarifying. The current very public reckoning that traditional music is having with its past mirrors our own national reckoning, and is also different from it in some very key ways. In my experience, the complicated questions we’re wrestling with now about race and class, and who owes what to whom, were always hovering at the margins of the fiddle scene, tapping us all on the shoulder, ever since I got into the music over 20 years ago. I’m sure for many people have been feeling those taps on the shoulder for much longer than that. 

We always knew there were problems. But they felt too explosive to really drag into the light. I would only talk about them one-on-one with people, in the safety of our apartments and houses, or on long car trips. There were other problems to deal with, anyway, old fights that still hadn’t gone away. When I first went to Clifftop in 1997, the generation above me was still talking about the year they tore down the stalls at Galax, and it often felt like I and my little cohort of musicians were just sitting around, in our Gen-X way, waiting for the next, bigger shoe to drop.

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Then suddenly, it did. Maybe it was the influx of new musicians into the scene that did it, or maybe it was the shift in our national mood, but bang! here we all were, talking about the things that, 20 years ago, were too uncomfortable to talk about. The current conversation has made some people very angry. It has made a lot of people uneasy. A lot of people have asked why we can’t just shut up and play the music already. A lot of us, for a minute there, weren’t really sure where our place in the music was anymore.

But for me, this summer, and the moment of this interview, was the beginning of an understanding that I really only had one choice; that if there was a side to pick, I’d already picked it a long time ago. I’d grown up in Ithaca, NY, hearing what I’d heard and knowing no different, and I’d learned to play from the people in my town. In the years since, I’d gotten into all kinds of other music, and I’ve looked for both the things that make styles of music unique and the things they have in common. And I’ve always felt humbled, a tiny speck in an exhilarating and terrifying musical tradition that I’ll never fully understand and will always keep coming back to.

So I’m here for the work of examining where the music comes from, the hard story of how it came to be that runs through genocide, slavery and poverty, the toughest questions that America faces. I want to be a tiny part of doing the work of that reckoning, and figuring out how to move forward from here. As we gear up in the United States for another bitter election, I’m not always sure that the country is going to survive. But I genuinely believe that within our music community, there’s a way out—that we can turn and face it, and work through all of it, and come out the other side still playing music with one another. Maybe the truer answer is somewhere in the music itself, and after we talk it out, we have to play it.

Brian plays in numerous bands, but be sure to check out the super groovy and innovative music he’s making with The Moon Shells: www.themoonshells.com


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