The following is an interview with Ken and Brad Kolodner, the father-son duo based in Baltimore, Maryland, about their new album “Stony Run.” Aside from their touring duo, Ken and Brad are the hosts of the Baltimore Old Time Jam and the Baltimore Old Time Festival.
Let’s start with the title of the album. Where does the name ‘Stony Run’ come from?
Brad: The title track is inspired by a little stream that runs through the center of Baltimore City between my house and my parents’ house. It’s a lush area of solace amongst the bustle of urban life. I take frequent jogs and walks along the trail next to the stream. Sometimes I’ll get out my banjo or fiddle and play tunes as folks pass by. Naming the recording Stony Run is also a nod to The Friends School Stony Run Meeting House. Both my father and I attended Friends School in Baltimore and spent much reflective time in that special Meeting House. We also have fond memories of performing many intimate concerts in the meeting house. We’re both born and raised in Baltimore so we’ve always felt a strong connection to what we affectionately call “Charm City.”
You released your last album, the Swift House, three years ago. How would you say you’ve changed or grown musically since then?
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Ken: Our previous record, The Swift House, was the first album where our playing partners, Alex Lacquement and Rachel Eddy, play such a prominent role. Over the past few years, we have performed together frequently. As with any band that performs regularly, we have grown as an ensemble better understanding each other’s strengths. Consequently, various elements of our performance have tightened including our instrumental groove and vocal harmonies. We’ve continued to explore the sonic possibilities of our unusual instrument combination. In recent years, we made a conscious effort to integrate the hammered mbira (a steel rod version of the hammered dulcimer) as reflected in its inclusion on three tracks: Wisteria, Black Eyed Susie and Shakin’ Down the Acorns. Brad has become a much more confident vocalist so we’ve incorporated more songs into the mix. It feels so much easier to put it all together now!
One thing I love about Stony Run is that you’re unafraid to put original material alongside “traditional” tunes and songs. Where did you draw inspiration for the original tunes on the album?
Brad: What is there to be afraid of?! No tune just fell from the sky. Original music is an essential part of keeping this tradition moving forward and evolving. We very much love traditional tunes and respect where they came from but we’re not “afraid” to take creative liberties and push the boundaries. I think it’s a necessary approach for the long-term health of the music. That said, the inspiration for writing tunes doesn’t really come from a feeling that we must write original music – sometimes it just happens! I find myself particularly inspired by nature and the outdoors. Wisteria came to me while sitting in my little backyard under the pergola I built with my roommate. We planted a little wisteria vine in hopes that it will one day produce those fragrant blooms and provide shade on those hot summer days. The tune is more or less a lullaby for that wisteria vine. It must’ve worked because I’m currently sitting under the pergola with the wisteria in full bloom directly overhead. It smells and looks incredible. Dizzy Creek was written a number of years ago, I can’t recall exactly when. The title is the first in a very long list of imaginary tune names I’ve been keeping for about eight years. There are so many hilarious Old Time tune names out there already (i.e. Feed Your Babies Onions, Possum’s Tail Is Bare, Jaybird Died of the Whooping Cough, etc). I thought it would be fun to compile a list of silly tune names from phrases I was hearing in random conversations with friends. This list evokes so many memories of fun hangs with pals at music festivals and jams…and all the strange scenarios when these phrases were uttered. A few examples: “Rancid Taters, Lobster On The Ceiling, Put That Whiskey Under The Tent Flap, Piddle on the Fiddle, Carrot Juice Through The Eye Hole, Moldy Gravy, Eggplant Boat On A Sea of Mushy Lettuce, Cousins in Kansas, Tuning For The Clout, Cold Frosty Hot Dog, Amy’s Got Poop Between Her Toes, Quiche In Both Pockets, Boil ‘Em Crocs Down, Fluff My Dill, Squeezing The Smell Hole, you get the point… I have over 300 tune names on there at this point. Maybe someday this list will be published in a Smithsonian Anthology. Or I’ll accidentally delete it from the notes on my iPhone and that’ll be that.
Ken: I wrote The Circle after a trip to Ontario. A group of musician friends in Ontario asked me to write a tune for the group. A few weeks later, a three part waltz resulted. Realizing the A part moved through the circle of fifths, I thought it was a fitting tribute to the group of friends to name the tune The Circle.
Alongside the original tunes, one thing that makes your sound unique to me is the instrumentation. First of all, the hammered dulcimer is an instrument that was ubiquitous at oldtime jams in my area growing up, but I’ve rarely heard it in a band context. Ken, why do you think we don’t hear more hammered dulcimer players in bands, and what made you want to play hammered dulcimer in this project?
Ken: The second part of that question is easy to answer. There does seem to be very few hammered dulcimer players playing in bands these days, and even less playing old-time music. As I have always loved playing with others, it was an easy choice for me. The combination of the dampered hammered dulcimer and clawhammer banjo is unique and super fun to explore. Why don’t we hear more hammered dulcimer players in bands and especially why are so few HD players playing old-time these days? This is probably too big a question to adequately address here. But I can make some broad generalizations that hopefully won’t get me in trouble. When I first started playing the hammered dulcimer, it seems like most players (Bill Spence & Fenning’s All Stars, Walt Michael & Co, Malcolm Dalglish in Metamora, Sam Rizzetta in Trapezoid, Sam Hermann in Critton Hollow) were in bands or mostly played with others. Over the years, I have witnessed a tendency of hammered dulcimer players to move increasingly to develop their chops as solo performers and often not fully develop jamming and ensemble skills. It also seems that many hammered dulcimer players are drawn to the instrument and perhaps fail to fully immerse themselves in the genres that they hope to play. This is unfortunate because many players do not learn the groove, the swing and the feel of the music. There are still many hammered dulcimer players who love old-time but they mostly exist outside of the old-time scene. Part of that can be attributed to an unwelcome vibe from so many in the old-time scene. I do get a lot of the reasons for that: hammered dulcimers ring forever, many players can’t groove and can’t play backup. All I can do is hopefully try to change that perception a bit, along with some other players out there who really do know the music! When I started playing fiddle and hammered dulcimer nearly 40 years ago, my goal was to be able to play with others. And to this day, as much as I enjoy solo performance, nothing compares to the experience of playing with others. I also have used a damper pedal since 1986! The sustain of the hammered dulcimer has its place but the damper is essential to bringing out the groove and to playing backup. I make it my mission as a teacher to focus on ensemble and especially backup and jamming skills.
And on the topic of instrumentation, can you describe the other instrument that you play on the album for us laypeople?
Ken: I do make a few appearances on the fiddle (fiddling with Rachel on Possum on a Rail and with Brad on Happy Hollow/Hunting for the Buffalo)! But presumably you mean the hammered mbira! Ten years ago, I was about to play a concert near Portland, Oregon. On a nearby field, I saw a man playing a strange instrument that looked like a hammered dulcimer. I knew that I had to have it! The player was the instrument builder Don MacLane. Don had the idea to capture the sound of the African instrument known as the mbira or kalimba (also commonly known as the thumb piano) in the layout of the hammered dulcimer. The hammered mbira has sonic qualities akin to a steel drum as well as the standard mbira. It has a ton of overtones. We love the earthy combination of the gourd banjo with the mbira.
The sound of the mbira and the gourd banjo together is, in my mind, a big part of the “Ken and Brad” sound. When did the two of you start arranging pieces for those two instruments? How did that come about?
Brad: The mbira was initially a novelty piece in our shows. Ken would pull out the mbira in our concerts and just play solo. Just prior to a show in Easton MD, our bassist Alex started playing along with Ken on the mbira on The Swift House as we were warming up for the show. I was just standing there with my gourd banjo and I joined in. I’d heard the tune so many times that it was surprisingly easy to jam along. Much to our initial surprise, we realized the sound really worked. We haven’t looked back since. On the new recording, the hammered mbira sets the stage on Wisteria by creating an atmospheric foil for my steel string banjo and Alex on the bass. On Shakin’ Down the Acorns, the mbira lays down an ostinato of quarter notes that morphs into various grooves as I lay down the melody on the gourd banjo. On Black Eyed Susie, the mbira and gourd banjo are joined by Rachel on fiddle and Alex on bass. Much to our surprise, this combo earned the blue ribbon in the neo-trad band competition at Clifftop in the summer of 2019. We find the earthy tones of these two instruments blend really well together. The mbira washes over everything with its overtones and the mellowness of the gourd is quite hypnotizing. There is still so much to explore with this combo! Additionally, these two instruments have strong African connections. As many of us know, the roots of Old Time are deeply connected to music brought here by enslaved Africans. This combo allows us to touch on the complex history of the music in our live shows to help start conversations.
I definitely see Stony Run as an oldtime album, but there are also plenty of clear influences from other genres like the blues and bluegrass. How would you describe the album if someone asked you what genre it was, and how do you approach playing traditional tunes and songs with elements of other traditions?
Ken: We still describe what we do as “old time” but recognize that we often stray far from a traditional presentation of the genre. Part of it is our instrumentation: we do very little of the standard fiddle-banjo-guitar-bass combo. At the heart of our sound instrumentally are the dampered hammered dulcimer and clawhammer banjo. We fully embrace the percussive qualities of these two instruments, exploring the rhythmic underbelly that is so central to old-time. Rachel and Alex are incredibly rhythmic players but they go way beyond simply providing rhythmic support with their immense creativity on fiddle, guitar and bass. Alex’s ability to bow fiddle tunes and provide rhythmic grooves with his bow opens lots of possibilities. We take many liberties with the music. Our chord progressions are often not “standard” as we frequently use chord substitutions. We also like to take significant liberties altering tempos, often slowing down tunes and finding the beauty in the melodies. Borrowing from Bluegrass, we feature each instrument with instrumental breaks including Rachel flat-picking on guitar and Alex bowing solos on the bass. Rather than simply play in unison, we often explore using counterpoint and harmony lines. Ultimately, we go wherever our collective creative energies take us, not feeling constrained by how it is “supposed” to sound.
The two of you are backed on parts of the album by Rachel Eddy and Alex Lacquement, who also play concerts with you regularly. How did you settle on the backing musicians for your duo?
Brad: I met Alex at Clifftop back in the summer of 2012. We have remained very close friends ever since. We even lived together for a few years here at my house in Baltimore. We play quite regularly in our other band Charm City Junction, a quartet that fuses Irish, Old Time and Bluegrass music. I could make the case that I actually play more with Alex than anyone else. We are intimately familiar with each other’s strengths and capabilities. Alex listens really well and plays with such emotion. I was drawn to his bass playing the moment I heard him outside my tent at 4am at Clifftop when I was trying to fall asleep. I grabbed my banjo to join in and the rest is history. Similarly, I met Rachel at some ungodly hour at Clifftop a year later. Alex and I were wandering around looking for another jam to join before bed and we heard an awesome jam down the hill. The jam consisted of Rachel Eddy on fiddle, Kristian Herner on banjo, Hunter Walker on mountain dulcimer and Bob Shank on hammered dulcimer. We introduced ourselves, sat down and played tunes for hours. There was an instant musical chemistry. Rachel plays with an infectious joy. Their versatility as a fiddler, guitarist and singer allows us to fully explore the many sonic textures we strive for in our sound. Rachel is also a helluva banjo player!
The two of you have also been involved in plenty of other projects. I’ve got to ask, Ken: how is the experience of touring and recording with your son different than doing the same with other musicians? Does it feel different at all?
Ken: I have had many fantastic musical partners over the years. I toured for 12 years with Chris Norman and Robin Bullock in Helicon, recording five CDs. Then, I recorded three CDs with Quebec fiddler Laura Risk. Over the years, I have performed and recorded with Scottish fiddler Elke Baker. I’ve learned so much by playing and recording with all those players. In the early days playing with Brad, I think it is fair to say that I made more of the creative decisions and was more likely to identify performing opportunities. That has changed significantly: it feels very collaborative in all respects. I’ve learned so much about how to groove on the hammered dulcimer to complement Brad’s banjo playing as well as accompany vocals. It is a great pleasure to be able to tour and record with Brad. Up to age 17, Brad was really not that interested in traditional music or old-time. I would never have dreamed that I would someday play professionally with my son and many other young players such as Alex and Rachel. I am having an amazing time!
And Brad, what’s it been like touring and recording with your father?
Brad: While I wasn’t terribly interested in my father’s music as a kid, I always appreciated it. I went to many of his shows and listened to his records as I would try to fall asleep at night. His playing was influencing me in those early years even though I didn’t realize it at the time. When I picked up the banjo and we started jamming together, there was a strong musical connection from the outset. I’ve always found it very easy to play and collaborate with my father. We are very much a team handling all aspects of the touring and recording process fairly evenly. There are some big differences working with my father. Like any self-employed career, there are some times when it can be hard to turn off our work brains. It can be hard to disentangle our work while together with family. We still make time to hang out together for things outside of music like watching Ravens football games, going on vacations to the beach or Vermont, and playing squash or soccer. We have many shared interests beyond music. Touring with Charm City Junction is a very different experience as we’re all in a similar age bracket and are more likely to hang out late or grab a drink after a show. That band has more of a brotherly kind of feel. With my father, it still feels very much like a close father-son relationship when we’re touring as the bond is so much deeper.
How has the quarantine affected the release of the album, and are you planning a CD release tour after it’s over?
Ken: We picked a very inopportune date to release the CD: March 13, 2020. We were to release the CD at the 2nd Annual Baltimore Old-Time Music Festival which we co-founded. We had to cancel the festival just a day before the kickoff concert. We have been fortunate to receive a bunch of very positive reviews and hit #4 on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts. The inability to perform has naturally impacted sales and given the uncertainty of the near future, we are not booking any in-person concerts. When it’s safe, we will certainly be rearing to get back out there and do as much performing as is possible! In the meantime, we’re playing some “sidewalk concerts” in Baltimore which are mini-shows from the sidewalk at a safe distance for folks listening on their porches. We are performing some online live-streaming shows. Brad put together a really successful Online Old Time Banjo Festival with Cathy Fink in early May with plans to do another in mid-June. Brad and I are hosting a slow to medium-fast online jam every other Tuesday on Facebook – The Baltimore Old-time Jam. Join us! We’re doing our best to keep the music alive despite the circumstances.
To get your hands on Ken and Brad’s new album, Stony Run, head here: https://kenandbradkolodner.bandcamp.com/album/stony-run
Check out Ken and Brad’s Website: https://www.kenandbrad.com/
Or their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/kenandbrad/
And the Baltimore Old Time Jam Page, hosting online slow jams every other Tuesday: https://www.facebook.com/groups/445722452176784/