november 2009

Maria Muldaur
Maria Muldaur with the tools of her trade. (Photo by Catherine Sebastian) Interview

Maria Muldaur: Back To The Garden

If anyone can claim to have been true to his or her roots, to have never lost the faith, and has the track record to prove it, it’s Maria Grazia Rosa Domenico D’Amato, better known to the music world as Maria Muldaur, having been performing and recording under her married name even after her marriage to Geoff Muldaur ended in 1972. By any name, this product of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City has compiled an enviable and admirable resume as a roots music acolyte, and as she proves on her wonderful, whimsically titled new jug band album, Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy, she’s just getting started. Truly better each time out, Muldaur has put a lot of distance between the sexy chanteuse who made 1973 so memorable by purring David Nichtern’s “Midnight At the Oasis” into classic status and the sexy earth mama of the past couple of decades when he exploration of the musical styles that inflamed her passions as a young girl has yielded an impressive catalogue of themed projects that have brought well deserved revitalization to some forgotten music and artists. After ending her major label career on Warner/Reprise in 1979 following five albums that were remarkably true to the spirit of her musical aesthetic even if they were mainstream slick (she, and the label, were trying for hits, after all), she made a huge personal statement in 1980 by emerging on the Takoma label with a powerhouse gospel outing with the Chambers Brothers, Gospel Nights. Since then, apart from the three years’ interregnum between 1987’s Live in London and 1990’s On the Sunny Side, she’s released an album every year or every other year, and what a ride it’s been: she’s explored jazz repeatedly, most notably on 1994’s Jazzabelle; paid tribute to Peggy Lee on A Woman Alone With the Blues (Remembering Peggy Lee) and her buddy from back in the day, Bob Dylan, on Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan; retooled kids’ songs in swing fashion on three albums for the Music For Little People label (highly recommended: 2002’s Animal Crackers In My Soup: The Songs of Shirley Temple); done some deep archeological digs into the blues, especially that made by the female artists she’s always admired, including her idol Memphis Minnie, whose spirit—in the form of Muldaur’s saucy, no-nonsense but tender-hearted attitude—informs much of her work these days but is heard most profoundly on 2001’s celebrated Richland Woman Blues, an album that yielded two acclaimed sequels devoted primarily to the music of female blues artists of yore, 2005’s Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and 2007’s smoky, swinging and aptly titled Naughty, Bawdy and Blue; assembled a powerhouse team of her favorite female artists—including Odetta, Joan Baez, Holly Near, Bonnie Raitt, and Phoebe Snow, among others—to raise their voices in protest against war on last year’s Yes We Can!; tipped her hat in righteously fervent passion to New Orleans on 1992’s Louisiana Love Call, with key assists from two of the Crescent City’s foremost musical practitioners, Allen Toussaint and Dr John; and even continued to evolve the folk/rock/blues sound of her Warner Brothers’ recordings on efforts such as her 1998 Southland Of the Heart, which brought her back together with the Chambers Brothers but also included covers of songs by Greg Brown and Bruce Cockburn (the title track).

Which brings us to Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy. The Robert Crumb-influenced cover art by Neil Osborne evokes both the whimsy and the sensuality of the artist and the music, and not least of all the elevated spirits of all engaged in this endeavor—even the few downbeat numbers can’t help being a bit cheery in the end. Muldaur sings it like she swings it, with authority, smoldering passion and a true believer’s conviction. Typical of her approach, the project reunites her with old friends and introduces some new, younger ones cut from the same cloth. In this case, the familiar names joining the fray loom large in her history: David Grisman and John Sebastian, who, before they became bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll legends, respectively, were the young Maria’s compadres in the Even Dozen Jug Band back in the Village; Taj Mahal, a pronounced presence on both Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and Richland Woman Blues, is back on banjo and guitar; and Dan Hicks, Muldaur’s neighbor in Mill Valley, CA, but more important a long-time collaborator (who had a song on Muldaur’s debut album, and from whose song “Sweetheart” came the title of he second album, Waitress In a Donut Shop) contributes two original songs, including the album opening, “The Diplomat,” which features some wonderful, idiomatic (idiomatic of the ‘30s, that is) lyrical wordplay, and the suggestive laid-back blues of “Let It Simmer,” but also engages Muldaur in some of the most suggestive (and apparently extemporaneous) repartee this side of Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep on the by-turns warm and seductive/frantic and heated medley of “Life’s Too Short/When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees.” On this cut, in fact, it’s evident Muldaur still possesses that perky, innocent “Midnight At the Oasis” voice, but she’s now a vital, 66-year-old who projects, vocally and physically, a mature, worldly sexiness that says “Only Real Men Need Apply.” Not that she doesn’t have an eye for the younger generation—or an ear. Meet one Kit Stovepipe, of the Seattle-area Crow Quill Night Owls jug band (the introduction to which opened Muldaur’s eyes to a burgeoning, international jug band revival). Stovepipe, a marvelous ragtime guitar player, also sits in on jug and washboard, and beyond that introduced Muldaur to a raft of new old music through his collection of vintage 78s. You can imagine that with players such as these on board the album boasts a down-home sound, and so it does, with other players such as fiddler Suzy Thompson (who saws away so evocatively on a swaggering treatment of the Mississippi Sheiks’ “He Calls That Religion”) and horn players Bob Schwartz (trumpet) and Kevin Porter (trombone), making their mark as well. Among the other highlights: a faithful, horn-rich rendition of “The Ghost of The St. Louis Blues,” originally cut in the mid-‘20s by the blackface Minstrel Man from Georgia, Emmett Miller, otherwise known for recording the original version of “Lovesick Blues” and being cited by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bob Wills’s great lead singer, Tommy Duncan, as their principal vocal influence (Duncan was hired on the spot when he told Wills, a major Miller fan himself, of his high regard for Miller’s singing style); a raggedy, stomping blues powered by shambling acoustic guitar and Suzy Thompson’s energetic fiddling, “Shout You Cats,” from the pen of Hezekiah Jones in 1931; and closing the album, a pair of songs unnervingly suited to the temper of the times in blues woman Martha Copeland’s dark, brooding—and self-explanatory—“Bank Failure Blues,” written at least a year ahead of the Crash of ’29, and, signing off, another Hezekiah Jones song, 1931’s “The Panic Is On,” which could hardly be more appropriate to the current day with lyrics such as “what this country’s comin’ to/I sure would like to know/if they don’t do somethin’ by and by/the rich will live and the poor will die/doggone, I mean the panic is on…” In the final verse Muldaur updates the lyrics to, “Them greedy politicians ruined everything/but now I’m here to sing/Obama’s in the White House saying ‘Yes, we can’/I know he gonna come up with a real good plan/then doggone, hard times will be gone…,” going out on a high note of good feeling appropriate to an album chock full of same, fueled by the delightful give-and-take instrumental dialogue between John Sebastian’s baritone guitar and Kit Stovepipe’s National. One hesitates to call this her best album yet, because the diversity of her art renders such statements inherently unfair—unfair, that is, if so many of the others weren’t of the same high caliber. Let’s leave it at another unqualified triumph of conception and execution, with a surplus of greasy, funky soul to recommend it. This music lives.

We caught up with Muldaur between tour dates in Canada, en route back to the States, and got the big picture about her modus operandi and how Her Garden of Joy fits into it. By necessity, then, we have to travel back in time to get to the present day.

There’s so much personal history involved in this album. What drew you to jug band music way back when?

Maria Muldaur: Well, I grew up, born and raised in Greenwich Village, and in the early ‘60s I was drawn to the folk revival scene that was going on right there on my doorstep, at a time when people in the urban north were discovering and exploring various kinds of roots music—bluegrass, old-timey Appalachian music, blues, Delta blues, different kinds of blues, and jug band music. I was drawn to all of it; I was on the scene, a young beatnik babe on the scene learning to play. I feel in love with old-time fiddle playing, especially after hearing Doc Watson and his family come to New York to do the Watson family concert. I just fell in love with the way Gaither Carlton played the fiddle, and they invited me down to North Carolina to learn to play fiddle, so that I could learn to play from him. So I was involved not just in jug bands but in every bit of that music that I just mentioned and really loved.

Maria Muldaur talks about discovering country and early rock ‘n’ roll as a child (filmed 2007)

Meanwhile—this is a little-known fact—somewhere around 1962, I loved singing bluegrass, and we would jam in Washington Square Park around the big fountain in the middle. There would be bluegrass pickers, old-timey pickers and blues pickers and so forth. So I would often be singing with David Grisman and his pals, and we actually formed a band called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers. That was short-lived but it was one of many things I was involved in; I was also in a Carter Family duo with a gal named Annie Byrd, who was from Virginia. She had the authentic sound. Anyway, right around that time, David Grisman and John Sebastian and Peter Segal, Josh Rifkin, a bunch of guys got together and started playing jug band music. They had stumbled upon that motherlode of music, and Victoria Spivey heard them. And Victoria was a contemporary of Bessie Smith, one of the blues queens who had survived the ensuing decades since the heyday of that music and had moved to New York; and as far as I know is the first artist to be savvy enough to have her own label. So she was always out there talent scouting for acts to sign to her label. It’s well known that she was the first to record Dylan, even before Columbia. So she told these guys that she would record them. Now we were doing this music for the pure love and joy of it. The idea of making a record was not something we would even have been daring to aspire to at the time. We were just enjoying playing it.

So they were all excited, they were going to do the record. And then—according to them—she said, “Now you boys sound real good, but y’all need a little sex appeal up there.” And she suggested, “Why don’t you go get that little gal I saw up there playing the fiddle with you boys? Now if you get her in the band you’ll really have something.” So they came running over to me one afternoon in the park and said, “Guess what? We’re gonna make a jug band record and Victoria Spivey says we need some sex appeal. So will you join our band?” And since this was way before women’s lib, I did not even take it as an insult and go, “What?! You don’t want me for my amazing talent!?” I thought, Wow, this sounds like fun. Count me in! The music was fun, really fun, happy and lighthearted kind of music to play and funky as all getout. The songs were fun, And Victoria Spivey took me under her wing. When I think back on it now I think what a blessing I received to even to get to know her. She took me to her apartment and started playing me old 78s of songs she thought I would sound good singing. She introduced me to Memphis Minnie, who’s my all-time blues favorite. And she also gave me pointers like, “Now when you get up there, it ain’t even to sound good. You got to look good to. You got to get up there and strut yo’ stuff and have all eyes be on you.” Then she’d take a pause and say, “Now that’s called stage presence!” I took her advice very seriously and took good notes, and it’s carried me in good stead ever since. So that’s how I got involved in jug band music, being mentored by some of the best and getting to play with some of the best.

Maria Muldaur with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Richard Greene on fiddle, Fritz Richmond on washtub bass, Geoff Muldaur, guitar and lead vocal)

Meanwhile, the Kweskin Jug Band, which had emerged out of the Cambridge scene—another epicenter of the folk revival was up in Cambridge, Mass.—and they had put an album out on Vanguard. They were in LIFE magazine and got a three-week gig at the Bitter End. Elektra Records heard about this and decided jug bands were gonna be the next thing to sweep the nation, so they very much wanted to sign one themselves. So they went over to Victoria Spivey and bought our little contract out from her. She was a little miffed, but I think she made out okay on the deal. She always took me aside and said, “I don’t blame you. I know you didn’t have nothing to do with this. You still my baby.” And would tap me on the leg. She was very kind and supportive of me from that day until she passed away. On the Naughty, Bawdy & Blue album I did, there is something so touching on that, which is a review she did of me when she heard me with the Kweskin Band at Newport. It was only brought to my attention a couple of years ago, and I put it on the back of that album. It just blew my mind.

So we got signed to Elektra, made the album, and our first two gigs were at Carnegie Hall, one at a big hootenanny that had everybody in folk music including Pete Seeger, and the second was opening for Nina Simone and Herbie Mann. You can imagine this raggly-taggly bunch of kids on jugs and tubs and blowing kazoos, and that was our grandiose debut. Then we did a Hootenanny TV show, but the harsh reality was that most club owners couldn’t afford to hire a 13-piece band; and most of those guys wanted to go back to college and stuff, and I, in the meantime, had fallen in love with Geoff Muldaur from the Kweskin Band and he invited me to move up to Cambridge to be with him. Within a few months I was asked to join that band and I ended up performing and recording with them, five albums, and performing all over the U.S. and Canada and we were on every major TV show. And that’s my jug band history in a nutshell.

You mentioned jug band music being so much fun, and that’s a quality that’s all over this new record of yours. We both know some dark, depressing blues, but this music is so sunny. There are only a couple of really sad songs on here, but even those have an upbeat, optimistic undertone. Whatever you’re singing about, it seems, there’s some bright lining to it.

Muldaur: When I had the idea to do it, I had just done a very weighty album last year, nothing less than changing the entire paradigm of the world as it exists today and creating a world where war is obsolete. In other words, a pro-peace album called Yes, We Can. I created the Woman’s Voices for Peace Choir with Joan Baez and Odetta and Jane Fonda, and the music was really funky and good, but talk about a weighty subject! And it had been very labor-intensive to pull off an album of that magnitude, because I produce them all myself these days. Meanwhile I’ve been making an album a year more or less since 1991; I’ve made about 18 albums since 1991 and produced virtually all of them. And I was thinking, Maybe I’ll take a year off from producing and do some performing until the next great idea hits me. And I was driving around in the rain this April and some really funky old bluesy jug band music came on the radio—I have XM Sirius just for the blues channel. Like a lightbulb went on over my head. I started being nostalgic for that wonderful, fun but very funky music that I had enjoyed earlier on. So as I’m driving around, I just dialed up John Sebastian’s number and told him about it, then I called David Grisman, my alumni from the Even Dozen Jug Band, and said, “Hey, I’ve got a wacky idea. Whatta ya say we make a jug band album?” They both thought it was a great idea, long overdue, and they just said, “Say when and where” and they’d be there. I got so excited and so enthused and immediately took out my vast collection of old vintage blues and jug band material to start looking for songs. I picked up a compilation of some early women blues artists, most of them so obscure that even I had never heard of them. I collect these things because (a) I enjoy them and (b) I’m always looking for material. And the first song I hit up was called “Bank Failure Blues,” written and recorded by this woman [Ed. Note: Martha Copeland] in 1929. I put it on and it was so perfect. Then I knew that this wasn’t just a wacky idea; something was resonating, because here we are facing the same thing. And I realized that jug band music originated out of pretty hard times—even leading up to the crash of ’29, a lot of people were having hard times. This music, it’s blues-based, but not all blues is sad and depressing. In my opinion, within the singing and expressing of the blues, the end of the song somehow transcends the problem. There’s something really therapeutic; it’s music telling it like it is, certainly, but with a healing transcendence that happens. I’ve never quite figured out what it is, I just know I feel that way and many other people who love the blues feel that way. It’s not like sappy, feeling sorry for you music.

I think part of the act of writing and singing the blues is actually getting over the blues.

Muldaur: Exactly. There's no cure for the blues like hearing some blues.

Having said that, there’s a lot of humor in a lot of regular blues, but jug band music takes it two notches up. It’s music that doesn’t take itself seriously. First of all, it evolved because the people in the rural South heard the ragtime and jazz on the radio that was coming out of New Orleans, and places like that, and they loved the sound but they could afford maybe some stringed instruments, or maybe made some banjos, mandolins and fiddles, but couldn’t afford the larger instruments like a standup bass and a whole drum kit. So they were making the bass out of a tub, making the bass sound out of a jug that you had on hand, and instead of drums everybody had an old washboard somewhere. So it just has this kind of zany, carefree character to it. It’s blues based but there’s a lot of ragtime and jazz flavor in there too. And the songs tend to have a humorous, carefree kind of quality to them that just makes everybody happy. My bass player played it for his 80-year-old father. He said he was kind of nervous to do it because his father’s a real jazz snob, but all the 80-year-old father kept saying over and over was, “This is so much fun! I’m having so much fun!” And I thought if we can make an 80-year-old feel like he’s having fun, we must have been doing something right.

Maria Muldaur talks about exploring roots music throughout her career (filmed 2007)

You mentioned David and John getting involved. There’s another person on here you have a history with who has a pretty substantial role on here, and that’s Dan Hicks, who writes two songs and does that wonderful medley with you. And I gotta say, that little spoken interlude would melt the CD player, if such a thing were possible. I had to stop and fan myself when I was walking through Central Park listening to that one morning.

Muldaur: I want to tell you, Dan is such a creative genius. I just love him to his soul. I’ve known him for years, we both live in Mill Valley, California. We have a funny synchronicity. No matter what time of day or night I go down to the mailbox, three times out of four I run into him, loping along. He is so funny; everything he does cracks me up. I’ve always loved his music; I’ve recorded several of his songs before and in fact I recorded one on my Midnight At the Oasis album. He’s a hip, hip writer—I call him the ultimate hipster. I ran into him at the Post Office—and he has something called the Christmas Jug Band that he’s had for over 25 years—and knew he’s always been a big fan of jug band music and of the Kweskin Band and so forth. I thought he’d know of a jug player; I had to fill out my jug band. Since dear Fritz Richmond has departed us for jug band heaven, I wondered who I would get.[Ed. Note: washtub bassist without peer, Richmond, Muldaur’s bandmate in the Kweskin Jug Band, was also an in-demand recording engineer, and a bit of a fashion plate who was credited by both Roger McGuinn and John Sebastian with introducing granny glasses to rock and roll fashion, and Sebastian further credits him with suggesting Lovin' Spoonful as a band name; Richmond died of lung cancer in 2005, but he’s heard playing jug here on “Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul,” the reprise of the title song from Muldaur’s 2005 album.] So we’re at the Post Office and I’m asking Dan, “Who do you get to play jug with you in the Christmas Jug Band?” And his eyes lit up so much when I was telling him about the project, he was so enthused that by the end of the conversation I was saying, “Of course I’d love you to sing a couple if you felt like maybe doing a duet with me.” He was all over it. And he turned me on to that great Emmett Miller tune, “The Ghost of the Saint Louis Blues,” and he found me some players. I ended up doing two of his tunes, which I think are really strong tunes, “Diplomat” and “Let It Simmer.” They’re both about anger management and I think they’re so hiply written.

Then we set about looking for a duet to do and we happened to find these that were originally done by Three Cats and a Fiddle, and turned them into back and forth duets. When we went into the studio to record them, as the intro was going by, he just started this little dialogue, and I was sort totally surprised but I think I rose to the occasion pretty well, This was completely unscripted, unrehearsed, totally on the fly. We did it several times and some of the other stuff he said was even more outrageous but it was all brilliant! Then when he starts going into the scat singing, you can tell I crack up, but he’s so spontaneous. Somebody said we should be the Burns and Allen of the jug band world. I’m not good at that, really. Some people can get up at a jam and make up blues verses and stuff; I’m not real good at that, but I think I rose to the occasion. I had the best time doing it.

David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian: Feeling ‘nostalgic for that wonderful, fun but very funky music that I had enjoyed earlier on,’ Maria called up a couple of old friends and the game was on. (Photo by Catherine Sebastian)

It must be great to get together with John Sebastian. He’s, He’s so musical and so smart, he brings a lot to whatever he does without ever taking over. He knows what he needs to do, lets you shine, but you know he’s there by the expressiveness of his playing alone.

Muldaur: The way he plays, his sense of rhythm, it’s like he he’s a bass player, but he plays guitar, and I say he has the thumb of love—the way he can do that fingerpicking with his thumb, he puts the funk into it. He does not skim over the surface of the groove, he digs a trench with the groove he creates. There’s no denying it—it’s greasy and funky and has this real laid-back syncopated thing going on. I just adore working with him. And he’s one of the most good-natured people I ever met on this planet. He’s nothing but positive. So he brings all of that, plus he plays great harmonica, great banjo.

So now I had those three and I needed, I happened to call up my bass player Curt Jenson, who lives in Port Townsend, Washington, which is a small, funky town near Seattle. He plays in my regular electric blues band, my Red Hot Bluesiana Band, and I just was telling him about my zany idea, telling him about who already said they’d do it, and he said, “It’s so weird you should come up with that idea, because there’s a weird jug band revival going on up here in the Pacific Northwest.” I said, “There is not! No way!” And he said, “Way!” To prove it to me, he said there were three or four just in Townsend alone and three or four more in the whole area and some of the guys were amazing. I was disbelieving, so to prove it he went to the local record store, bought three or four CDs and sent them to me. They were all good but there was one that just blew my mind. It was a band called the Crow Quill Night Owls. And there was this guy playing ragtime guitar to beat the band—I mean it’s so funky and so syncopated, for my money he’s the best ragtime picker I’ve ever heard. Until I saw him I thought the sun rose and set on Jim Kweskin’s ragtime picking, because he’s fabulous. But the kid has an added element of some kind of funky syncopation that makes it more ragged in a good way. And not only that, it turned out he was playing washtub and jug and washboard on it, his girlfriend played this wonderful rhythm banjo, and then he sang and scatted like nobody’s business. I said, “I gotta have that guy.” I got his phone number from my friend, left him a message. My friend told me he’s only 26 years old, and also said there are more young people forming jug bands and acoustic string bands than are getting involved in rock ‘n’ roll up there. And he added, “And not only do they play vintage music. They wear vintage clothes; they have vintage suitcases. They live a whole vintage lifestyle, kind of off the grid.” Lots of times they ride the rails to get to their gigs. I just found this so hard to believe. Anyway, after hearing this guy play I called him up and said, “You probably don’t know who I am. My name’s Maria Muldaur and back in the day I was in a couple of jug bands. I’m doing a project and I heard your music and I’d love you to be part of this project if you’d be into it. Here’s my number.” I heard back a couple of days later, I got a message saying, “Hi, this is Kit Stovepipe. You asked if I know who you are. Of course I know who you are! You want me to be part of this project? This is awesome! Yes, of course!” Anyway, I hooked up with him and his girlfriend, and that was the band. Plus a couple of other players from the Bay Area that I’ve played with. Like Suzy Thompson, who’s a wonderful fiddler and loves this kind of music.

We recorded it in what I call Come On In My Kitchen Studios, which is my house. I have a really good Pro Tools engineer who came and turned my entire house into a studio, with people in the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room and other bedrooms as well. We made the whole record in not a very long time and the neighbors were pretty nice about it. Anyhow, it was so much fun, and so here we are, just starting a six-week tour. Of course I couldn’t get people like Dan and David Grisman and John to come out on the road because they’re busy with their own thriving careers, but I am going to do a gig or two with John Sebastian on the east coast. So to round out the touring band we got these two wonderful players called the Gallos brothers, one of them is named Devin Champlin, the other is Lucas Hicks. They all play with Kit as part of his Crow Quill Night Owls jug band. When I look at the band behind me they look like they just fell off a western wanted poster from the last century. They just have a feel for this music and play it with great joy and authenticity.

The way John Sebastian and Kit played together was like hand in glove. For me, my own personal favorite, is “The Panic Is On,” just the two of them playing guitar like that, that push me-pull you, rhythmic syncopation they set up, is wonderful, the old soul and the new generation coming together in a traditional sound but with a fresh kind of spin on it. I just completely did this on intuition, no planning, just following the thread to see where it would go. We could have gotten together in my living room and not gotten along at all.

The audiences have been delighted, we’re selling CDs like hotcakes. People are really digging this. I think this music is very timely. Things are hard. For half a second we thought, Oh, Obama got in, things are going to be better. Now things are as dreary as ever, except that we have someone intelligent in the White House. Things are bleak on a certain planetary level. People really need the uplift that this music provides. I thought I was going to take a personal little trip down my own musical memory lane with some of my buddies from back in the day, and it’s turned out to tap into something much larger.

Do you know there’s 150 jug bands in Tokyo alone. Who would have dreamed? I was completely unaware. So this reporter looked it up and it’s called the post-modern neo-jug band movement. I was just minding my own business but I’ve tapped into something.

Maria Muldaur performs Memphis Minnie’s ‘Me and My Chauffeur Blues,’ from her Richland Woman Blues album (released 2001)

The Dan Hicks song that starts it off is so perfect. His use of the language, he could have been writing those in 1930. But to start there and end up at “The Panic Is On,” it has a wholeness about it. It’s works, like a complete song cycle.

Muldaur: The guy who wrote “The Panic Is On” is Hezekiah Jones. Those two songs—that and “Shout You Cats”—were brought to me by Kit, and you know, I fancy that I know quite a bit about early blues, but he collects 78s and these kids are turning me on to a lot of stuff I wasn’t that aware of. So he brings me these Hezekiah Jones songs, and I think he’s a brilliant songwriter. I want to turn Dylan on to him, if Dylan doesn’t know about him. The real economy of words and real rhythmic phrases—they just have the right amount of description and narrative. “The Panic is On,” Ken Burns couldn’t do a movie that would describe and show what was happening in the Depression better than that song.

The great thing about these songs you’re talking about finding, and about the albums you’ve been making for the past 20 years, is that you’re still eager and willing to learn, willing to go there and discover it. I think a lot of artists don’t do that at a certain stage. They just coast.

Muldaur: I can’t afford to coast! The other thing is I don’t write. Of course if I did write I would have made way more money than I have being a singer and interpreter of songs. By not writing I have made it my business for having a knack of finding all the good, the best of the best songwriters in any given songwriters. Artists that write, sometimes that stuff dries up for awhile. Even Dylan had some years where he wasn’t very prolific and he thought the well had gone dry.

‘I’m gonna swing with this jug band thing for awhile because we’re having a ball, and it’s truly surprising to me how much people are loving it.’

I realize this album is just out. But you did those four great blues albums in a row, now this is jug band record. Is further exploration of your roots in the offing next time around?

Muldaur: Yes. Before I even got involved in jug bands, what drew me into the folk scene in Greenwich Village was old timey music. I used to go to Allan Block’s Sandal Shop and that’s where I first heard old-timey fiddle, people like Mike Seeger and John Cohen were there every Saturday afternoon, and that’s where I first picked up the fiddle, before I met Gaither Carlton. So I love old-timey music. But for years I didn’t play the fiddle. I played it in the jug band, but when I became a solo artist—and a blues artist especially in the last 15, 18 years—it was just gathering dust. Then I hooked up with Suzy Thompson, found out she loved Gaither Carlton. First of all I’ve been nagged by Dylan for years. Every time I see him he says, “Are you playin’ that fiddle of yours? You oughta get it out because people need to hear that rustic way you play.” Talk about a way with words, describing my playing as “rustic.” I said “rusty” is more like it. But when I hooked up with Suzy, and she had really been drinking out of the same musical fountain as me, we got the rust off. I’m still a very…let’s say “rustic” player, rudimentary, almost like rhythm fiddle, but it did get me playing again. Not being a writer, I have written two old-timey instrumentals that other people have actually recorded, and then I’ve written two old-timey songs. One of them is called “Old Timey Gal,” and I want to make an album called Old Timey Gal. It’s not going to be a No Boys Allowed kind of thing but I’m going to use a lot of my women old-timey playing friends—Suzy Thompson, Candy Goldman who’s from the Seattle acoustic music scene who plays the most lovely, lilting, frailing banjo that sounds like a bubbling, babbling brook—and get together with mostly women, but if we need a couple of menfolk in there, that’s okay too. I want to do that album and do some of my old favorites, because that’s another musical love of mine. Since I’ve been revisiting it of late, and the fact that I’ve written four songs in the genre and I’m not even a songwriter, I thought that would be something to be the centerpiece of the album. I’m sure I’m going to make tens of dollars on the writing royalties, but that’s not why I’m doing that. So that’s on the backburner.

But I’m gonna swing with this jug band thing for awhile because we’re having a ball, and it’s truly surprising to me how much people are loving it. —by David McGee

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