Nathan Bontrager – Oldtime Cello & Fiddle


When I moved to New Haven, CT in the fall of 2009 I was at the end of a number of years of studying classical cello. Those valuable years taught me not only technique and musicality but also that my home, despite the energy invested, was not in the world symphony orchestras and Beethoven quartets. It didn’t take long after arriving in New Haven for my musical identity to splinter and settle into three distinct areas which inform the bulk of my musical life to this day: improvised music, early music, and traditional folk music. A chance fundraiser concert brought me into contact with Brian Slattery and a fairly instantaneous friendship, musical and otherwise, ensued. I knew about Appalachian music but my primary exposure up until that point had been singing Sacred Harp hymns. Soon a plan was hatched in order for me to dive in, as a cellist, and see whether I sink or swim when it came to fiddle tunes. Brian invited Harry Bolick down for a visit and we had at it in my living room. Needless to say, I was lost. Thankfully, those patient chaps let me continue to limp along, first discarding the bow and plucking away, cello pretending to be a bass. 

It took some time but by Clifftop pilgrimage number two I could hold my own and successfully join a session without immediately ruining the groove – the cello comes across quite loud in a fiddle band context and with great power comes great responsibility! As someone with a penchant for (read: addiction to) obtaining new instruments, I got myself a fiddle and banjo before too long as well. Upon moving to Germany in 2012 I was suddenly no longer an ok fiddler among thousands but the only oldtime fiddler in the neighborhood. This proved a boon to my life as a fiddle player which has been evolving ever since.

I’ve found myself in the last seven years in the position of being some sort of ambassador for the music in Germany and elsewhere. It can be a somewhat odd position as my relationship to oldtime is entirely musical and is not connected with lineage, be it familial or geographic (I’m from Pennsylvania). I see it as an honor and a responsibility to take seriously that I am often the automatic reference point for Appalachian music in my local context. In that sense, I try and point people towards people and resources more directly connected to the tradition while also ensuring that the music remains fun and open to all. As oldtime is one of many musical elements in my life and I am a fan of cross-pollination, so to speak, I continue to be involved in projects which take oldtime into new places. Keep your eyes and ears peeled, for example, for an upcoming release from the Idumea Quartet.

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