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Meet the Masters 


One asserts, “I’m not an egghead scholar of old-time music, I’m a gunfighter.” The other has opined, “Why does anybody try to spread the word about anything they think is beautiful? It’s just because it’s beautiful. There’s no secret message in there.”

The former is revered Queens-born, wild-eyed, stompin’ fiddler John Specker; the latter is celebrated Bronx-born multi-instrumentalist and teacher Bruce Molsky. This venerable yin-and-yang twosome—each world-renowned masters of old-time music—will be performing at the Rosendale Theater on January 15 as part of Hop High Productions’ World Culture Concert Series.

Billed as “Modern Masters of Old-Time Fiddle,” Specker and Molsky have not tread the boards together since they first crossed paths in Ithaca, New York in the early ’70s as members of the pioneering, back-to-basics Correctone String Band. Although fate sent them on divergent paths, each man left an indelible imprint on Ithaca, now considered a hotbed of roots music.

Like their inspirations the Holy Modal Rounders and the New Lost City Ramblers, Specker and Molsky began their respective troubadour journeys as urban hipsters looking for music that resonated amid the shrill chaos of modern pop culture. Each discovered prebluegrass hillbilly tunes via records and older musicians, and found that the raw intensity of the oft-maligned rural music transported them like nothing else.

“This is invisible art,” the outspoken Specker has said, “a whole different smell and feel. People don’t even know it. Bluegrass got started because country people didn’t want to be associated with ‘hillbilly music’ and poverty. The children [of old-time musicians] never got into old time music. The people who took up old-time music were urban hippies, which I’m a part of.”

While Specker—sometimes called “the Mick Jagger of the fiddle”—has made a name for himself as an intense solo performer, sssaying ancient chestnuts like “Liza Jane” and “Turkey in the Straw” as well as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Molsky has stretched his oeuvre to include Nordic and West African folk music, releasing acclaimed CDs on which he sings and puts his expert hands to guitar, banjo, fiddle, and all manner of stringed instruments.

As in those various strains of folk, the line between audience and performer in American old time music is porous, and the songs—which rarely are notated—are more open to personal interpretation. “Old-time music was really community music,” notes Molsky. “It’s just what people did.”

Local impresario Jed Greenberg of Hop High Productions enthuses, “I am thrilled to have John and Bruce performing for our World Cultures Concert Series. These guys are titans of the old-time music revival. What is cool about this combination is that stylistically they represent two distinct approaches to the art of modern old-time fiddling...the scholarly and the innovative. Both are serious artists, world-class entertainers, and important purveyors of our unique musical heritage.”

Bruce Molsky and John Specker will perform on Sunday, January 18 at 5pm at the Rosendale Theater. (845) 658-8989; www.hophigh.org.

click to enlarge Bruce Molsky
  • Bruce Molsky
click to enlarge John Specker
  • John Specker

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