I’d like to start out by expressing my appreciation to Donald Nitchie and Dan Levenson for allowing me the privilege of writing for BNL and the Old-Time Way since 1995. Aside from the music itself, one of my greatest pleasures has been the opportunity to bring deserved attention to folks who are preserving and furthering old-time music, and writing for BNL has made this possible.
This month’s interview does just that, and is especially near and dear to my heart. Having been raised in Los Angeles by Missouri/Texas immigrants and cutting my teeth on local Midwestern/Southern transplants like Mel Durham, Earl Collins, Ab Goebel, Art Chambers, and the like, it truly excites me to see that tradition continuing in the present day.
The Old-Time Tiki Parlour, founded and run by David Bragger and Rick “R.G.” Hocutt (see the January 2018 BNL for Rick’s featured interview), is, in my opinion, the most important thing happening in Old-Time Music these days. Based in Los Angeles, it is the focal point for some of the most crucial work currently being done to teach, preserve, and disseminate the music. Additionally, Tiki is home to a label that is putting out some of the very best, most important, and valuable recordings that are being made.
David is a master musician, scholar, and recording artist. Combining these talents with a dedication to the music and a true desire to be a part of a continuum now entering its third American century makes him a powerful figure in the furtherance of the tradition. David says that; “It’s all about the old-timers, passing down the tradition and giving respect.” It is this sort of philosophy, insight, and commitment that insures that the old music in its purest form will flourish in this new century.
R.D. Lunceford for OTW: David, it is a real pleasure to be speaking with you on behalf of the BNL. I’ve really admired the work you’ve been doing at The Old -Time Tiki Parlour and appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and bring your insights and experience to our readers. Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
David Bragger: My father is a Swiss immigrant from a family of chefs. During my early years, I grew up in a French restaurant. My mom’s family was scattered around South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and California. Neither of my parents are musicians but music was always around when I grew up. My mother and uncle were always listening to a huge variety of music, from Mississippi John Hurt and the Clancy Brothers to Frank Zappa and John Fahey. My grandfather used to restore pump organs and I own one of them. In fact, I even played it on my first album “Big Fancy.” I was exposed to a lot of music from a very young age, but for some reason my mom always thought I would play the banjo. Strange!
OTW: The pump organ—cool! My grandmother played one, and way back when they were often used in North Missouri to back up fiddlers. Please continue.
DB: I love fiddle with pump organ! I spent my teen years learning how to play guitar, percussion and bass while seeking out “unusual” forms of music from all over the globe- from Country Blues and Indian music to Progressive Rock and Bossanova. Off to college I went where I spent most of my time hanging out in the UCSB Ethnomusicology Department, even though my major was Religious Studies and my main interest was film-making. I started studying sitar with Dr. Scott Marcus and later Shujaat Khan. This is where I acquired the discipline and tools for learning a traditional art form. Years later these priceless tools prevented me from learning old-time music in sheet music. I sought out the masters instead. While still in school I began directing music videos for MTV and was disgusted at the idea of making music commercials for ungodly and wasteful amounts of money, so I quit and finished school.
OTW: Sounds like you had an awful lot of musical exposure in your growing up years. How did you get into the banjo in particular?
DB: Just before the turn of the century, I was visiting my aunt in Pennsylvania and I played around with her banjo for about a week. It was mesmerizing. It felt like a sacred object. I’ll never forget the experience of hearing that old magic sound coming out of my hands. That summer I was also visiting biologist and founder of Bad Religion, Dr. Greg Graffin. He grew up in Wisconsin singing old-time songs and gospels. He introduced me to the music of Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson and his Wildwood banjo. It was the summer that changed me forever. A few months later, I was in India living with itinerant street magicians and traveling around the sub-continent in their “medicine show.” In the three months of traveling with them, I could not get the sound of that banjo out of my head. When I returned home, I spent my entire savings ($300) on a horrible Korean banjo but I didn’t mind at all. Something powerful had switched on. Around the same time I inherited my great-uncle’s fiddle, so I was on a mission at that point.
OTW: That all sounds amazing. I think you’ve got the material for a great autobiography (sign me up for the first copy- autographed if you please!). So once you became determined to play the banjo how did you go about it?
DB: It was a rocky start filled with frustration and dead ends for about two years. I started with some music store bluegrass lessons. I memorized rolls and practiced them outside the context of the actual music. It drove me nuts. Then I listened deeply to Doc Watson’s banjo playing. I was instantly hooked and told my banjo teacher that I had to play like that. He hesitated and shrugged it off as “old-timey” banjo playing. I stopped lessons and had difficulty finding a local teacher, so I reluctantly resorted to some instructional books and videos which didn’t help me at all. I soon joined the “Anglo-American Ensemble” at UCLA and “rolled” through chords over bluegrass, Irish and folk songs. After a year of this, several ensemble members decided to take a road trip. We drove to West Virginia to attend the Clifftop Festival which I thought was a parking lot bluegrass fest. Boy, was I wrong. I heard the music of Edden Hammons, Wilson Douglas, French Carpenter, Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, John Salyer, etc. Musicians like J.P. Fraley, Melvin Wine, Marvin Gaster, Don Sorrell, Mike Seeger, Two-Gun Terry, Bruce Molsky, Rafe Stefanini, Joe Newberry and Bob Carlin were hanging around playing music. My mind was utterly blown.
When I got back home I found guidance. The violin-maker James Wimmer and the old-time musician David Lynch had told me about Tom Sauber. I also learned that Bob Flesher lived nearby. Bob Flesher gave me my first clawhammer and Minstrel banjo lessons. Mike Seeger came out for awhile and he gave me my first two-finger and three-finger lessons. With Tom I learned some banjo but he became my serious old-time fiddle guru. I also learned a lot of old-time music from Mel Durham.
Again, I really learned how to listen. I absorbed the music of these masters but I also learned from anybody that came through town like Brad Leftwich, Dan Gellert, Bruce Molsky, Dave Bing and of course, Rafe Stefanini. Ninety-nine percent of everything I learned was by ear. It was difficult at first, but once it became second nature the world of learning became easier. I tried to play like my teachers and I tried to imitate the sounds of old recordings. I knew that eventually my own style would develop simply based on my personal tastes, abilities and the sounds of my teachers. As Dan Gellert puts it, you need to “slavishly imitate” when you learn- this is traditional music after all. You can’t leave “tradition” out of the equation. For years I listened, imitated and never tried to make the music my own. That came naturally as it always does.
OTW: Lot’s of familiar names. In addition to my Dad, Mel Durham was probably my biggest influence. When I was a young teen (late-’60’s/early-’70’s), I got to see and meet many of the older generation at the Southern California Old-Time Fiddlers Association that used to meet on Signal Hill in Long Beach, CA. Fiddlers like Mel, Earl Collins (OK), Clyde Perrin (TN), Ab Goebel (AR), and OT banjo-player Art Chambers (GA). I saw Charlie Lowe’s nephew Ed Lowe a few times, and Tom Sauber too. What was the L.A. Old-Time scene like when you took up the music? What year?
DB: I began traveling down the old-time music road in 1999. I would have killed to be in your shoes! Many of those old-timers who had quite the impact on the SoCal scene were gone before I started playing. I think of Earl as my fiddling grandfather since he was the mentor to my mentor, Tom Sauber. Many of the first tunes that I learned were Earl Collins tunes taught to me by Tom. Tunes like Wagoner One-Step, Great Big Taters, Snowbird in the Ashbank, Little Dutch Girl, Wolves A-Howling, Durang’s Hornpipe and Grey Eagle. I wish I could have met Earl.
I’ll never forget when Tom let me play Ed Lowe’s Kyle Creed banjo during one of my first lessons. Talk about a sacred object! It was the first fretless banjo I ever played. Most people don’t realize the bona fide connection we have to the tradition here in Los Angeles because of musicians like Ed Lowe (Round Peak) and Earl Collins (Oklahoma/Missouri Ozarks). Mel Durham (Southern Illinois), however, was a major figure in the scene while I was learning. I spent quite a bit of time with Mel. He had a huge impact on me. I was fortunate that I would go to these jams and Mel would lead most of the tunes—the elder with his personal and family repertoire guiding the way! I play and teach many of Mel’s tunes to this day.
Through Mel, I was introduced to the tunes of an ex-slave fiddler, Alonzo Janes. Alonzo taught Mel’s family several tunes. In recent years, I’ve come into contact with Alonzo’s descendants and played their patriarch’s music for them. It was very emotional for them to hear his music for the first time! Through Mel, I was able to put a family in touch with the sounds of their dead ancestor. Powerful stuff. I recorded two of Alonzo’s tunes on my solo album “Big Fancy,” one of which is on a Jeff Menzies gourd banjo. The following album I made of old-time fiddle duets was named after one of Mel’s signature tunes, “King’s Lament.” Currently I direct the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. One of my first moves was to rename the contest stage the “Mel Durham” stage. It’s all about the old-timers, passing down the tradition and giving respect.
OTW: Really some deep stuff here. Mel told me about Alonzo Janes and taught me some of his tunes as well, but that you were able to contact his descendants and give them such a gift borders on- no, is mystical! Passing the music down is really where it’s at. You’ve done a heck of a lot towards this end through the Old-Time Tiki Parlour. Could you give us some information about its history, its accomplishments, and your continued vision for it?
DB: The Old-Time Tiki Parlour originated as an umbrella term that represented the space where I teach traditional music, host workshops, organize jams, and put on concerts. It’s a meeting place for students, musicians, and fans of old-time music. As this was developing I joined forces with banjo-maker Rick Hocutt who I met through fiddle lessons. We decided that we should start a company to record and film the greatest traditional musicians alive, whether they’re well-known or not. This is what Tiki Parlour Recordings is about. Rick and I always lamented over the lack of footage out there. Musicians like Fred Cockerham, Jospeh Spence, Mel Durham and many others were rarely filmed, and especially Dan Gellert! So we decided to take things into our own hands. We both love old-time music. We both have backgrounds in film-making and record distribution. We love field recordings and collect 78-records. We’re a perfect match. We knew we wanted to make a product that musicians and fans would really benefit from. Our recordings and videos feature a ton of folk artwork and very detailed liner notes. We don’t cut any corners. The recordings, the beautiful artwork, the physical package, the booklet layout, the essays and notes, the mastering, editing and filming are all made by old-time musicians.
We began by combining resources to bring Dan Gellert out here for recording. Just a month before he came to Los Angeles, Rafe and Clelia Stefanini came out to teach and perform at the Tiki Parlour. We decided to film them and we released our first DVD of the Stefaninis which people fell in love with. Then the Dan Gellert set came out. It rocked the old-time world. We were getting letters from all over the world. We knew we were onto something. Next thing I know, we have fourteen releases from artists like Bruce Molsky, Paul Brown, Spencer & Rains, The Stuart Brothers, Eric & Suzy Thompson, Mike Bryant, Hog-Eyed Man, and three releases of my own to name a few! I’m currently editing three upcoming DVD & CD sets: Scott Prouty, Kirk Sutphin with Travis Stuart & Tom Sauber, and a new Brad Leftwich release!! Additionally, I’ve been working on a secret project since Day One of the Tiki Parlor’s inception. I can’t reveal much now, but it will be the biggest traditional American music project ever to be released.
OTW: In addition to Tiki, what other irons do you have in the fire?
DB: First and foremost, my passion is teaching banjo and fiddle. I teach every day of the week and would have it no other way. Passing down the music and seeing it flourish in the hands of our community is my greatest joy in life. In addition to running the label and teaching music privately, I direct the UCLA Old-Time String Band Ensemble. The past couple years I’ve been getting a lot of gig offers so I’ve made time for some serious touring and festival teaching. I’ve been to Europe twice in the last five months. There are many gigs in 2019 with either my band Sausage Grinder or my duo with Susan Platz, including Pickathon, CROMA, Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Walker Creek Music Camp, the Los Angeles Old-Time Social, Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Festival and the Folkworks Roots Festival to name a few. I also run the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention that Peter Feldmann started forty-eight years ago! This year the festival will be held October 12-13th. Musicians from all around the country attend. Many come out as early as October 10th at nearby Lake Cachuma for camping and jamming. It’s a real hoot! So I guess I’m keeping busy!
OTW: In January of this year you released “Holy Smoke!” with Rafe Stefanini on fiddle and yourself on banjo. In my April BNL review of the recording, I predicted that it would be one of the most important recordings of 2019. Subsequent listenings have only increased this impression. The fiddle/banjo duet is one of the most important facets of the old-time genre. Because it is, could you give us the backstory on the CD, and some insight into what Rafe and yourself hoped to accomplish, including how you went about making this landmark recording?
DB: Just after completing the soundtrack for the western “Gone Are The Days” that my partner Rick Hocutt produced, I called Rafe. He and I bonded while playing Wade Ward’s Nitches Over the Hill a couple years ago. We talked about recording in the unforeseen future. The fire within me grew and I knew the time was right. Rafe felt it too. We started swapping tunes over a period of about six months. Rafe conjured up some great tunes which presented some very exciting challenges. Which banjos and tunings should I use? Clawhammer, two-finger or three-finger? For some tunes, there was a lot to think about and experiment with.
The premise for the album was a no-brainer for us. The plan was to present a highly-energetic, straight-up instrumental fiddle & banjo duet album with no other accompaniment. Both of us like to play with power as well as subtlety, however neither of us are fans of the more modern expressions of old-time that have been surfacing as of late. Just not our cup of tea, but to each their own. Fortunately, there are many paths to take and many ways to play old-time. My inspiration comes from the musicians I listed earlier as well as many other great old-timers. The musicians that I admire weren’t overly gentle and melodic in their playing. They were traditional players that were naturally unique, powerful, direct, and rough around the edges. Real diamonds in the rough. They played the music of the people. So basically we wanted to make a very classic sounding old-time duet album without trying to redefine the genre with “new-time” stylings. I don’t finger the thumb string, play the melody an octave higher up the neck, or throw in reggae beats! I like old-school meat and potatoes with my banjo.
OTW: What kind of banjos do you play?
DB: It’s funny. I’m a creature of habit most of the time. I could eat curry and tacos for every meal of the year. I own several identical shirts and pants. I will rewatch my favorite movies over and over again. I play one fiddle consistently but with banjos, I keep acquiring them. I play my custom Lotus, and fretless banjos made by Jason Romero, an Enoch custom Tubaphone “Devil” open back, a Gibson RB-1, Gibson RB-3, a Bart Reiter Professional, a Bacon Professional, County 12” custom open back, a Menzies gourd banjo, a Menzies 4-string tackhead, a Flesher Minstrel banjo with Lovecraft “Elder Sign” inlay, and a few others. It never ends!
OTW: What important things should banjo-players know about the fiddle and fiddling? As a master of both banjo and fiddle you are in the perfect position to offer invaluable advice. How do you believe that a banjo-player should approach playing with a fiddler?
DB: I need a fiddler to have that strong sense of a downbeat that I mentioned earlier. It’s all about the pulse. I hear it and “feel” it in the playing of my teachers just as I hear it in the playing of Edden Hammons, Joe Thompson, J.W. Day, Isham Monday, Tommy Jarrell, Dan Gellert, Brad Leftwich, Kirk Sutphin, Jim Bowles and Rafe Stefanini! Much of the time, the fiddle is a rhythm instrument first and a melody instrument second. The bow tells a story that is both separate from the melody and intertwined with the melody. When a fiddler has that rhythm, the banjo hops on for the ride. Jerky, any-which-way fiddle bowing can be very frustrating. When that happens, the burden is on the banjo and the rest of the rhythm instruments to make the fiddle sound good. It never really works. If you could divorce the melody from the bowing of any great fiddler and hear just open strings being bowed, you would have music that you could dance to. For me, that is one of the great tests. I can often tell if a fiddler will be exciting to play banjo with simply by watching their bow even without hearing any sound at all. There is a mesmerizing logic to rhythmic bowing that many great fiddlers have in common.
So the ultimate advice for a banjo player, is to find a strong downbeat-oriented fiddler to play with. If a flatfoot dancer can easily dance to their fiddling without having to work at it, then you’re on the right track! Secondly, don’t try to do too much. You don’t need to play every note of a notey fiddle tune. Fifty percent of the notes is just fine. After all, your right hand is in the air half the time. The banjo needs to gallop, breathe and play the core melody. Then you can spice things up with right hand rhythmic devices like rakes, brushes, drop-thumbs, syncopations, etc., and left hand devices such as slides, runs, plucks, hammer-ons and pull-offs. But it’s easy to get carried away. Have you ever met a banjo player who attempts to “cluck” on every single beat of a tune? Too much of a good thing ceases to be a good thing!
OTW: We’ve spoken of the bona fide old-time music tradition that has existed in Los Angeles for many, many years. It was certainly going strong when I left for the Ozarks in 1992. How is it faring these days?
DB: There are more old-time players than ever in Los Angeles. For one thing, there are jams every week around the city. I’ve started up my monthly jam at the Old-Time Tiki Parlour as well. We often kick it off with a 78-record listening “seance.” This has started attracting quite a few people. There’s something about listening to “golden era” old-time recordings before you kick off the tunes in the Parlour. Listen to the spirits of the masters! We also have the Los Angeles Old-Time Social which happens in May every year. It’s three days of concerts, workshops, square dances and a cakewalk.
Frank Fairfield and LAOTS co-founder Kelly Marie Martin have an amazing weekly traditional music concert series called “Down at the Yard.” When I’m too busy to host old-time concerts I love referring old-time bands to them. It’s definitely my favorite music series ever. With the UCLA Old-Time String Band Ensemble now happening, I’m also able to get more young musicians interested in the genre. Since I’ve been bringing musicians out to record at the Tiki Parlour, I make a point of connecting them with the community so musicians get a chance to interact with the living greats of old-time. That means everything to me.
OTW: David, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. Best of luck and continued success with Tiki and everything else.
DB: The pleasure is mine. It’s a real honor to share my story with BNL!