Bronx Fiddle Master Designed Drainage System, Made Ronstadt Cry
Bruce Molsky grew up in New York, studied architecture and engineering at an Ivy League university and wears an earring. Not exactly the profile you’d expect from one of the world’s premiere fiddlers.
Even more surprising is that Molsky didn’t start playing the fiddle until he was 18 and didn’t become a full-time musician until he was 41.
“Most people this good start out when they’re 5 years old,” says Jerry Douglas, a dobro virtuoso and mainstay of Alison Krauss’s Union Station band.
While roots musicians such as Doc Watson and Del McCoury are better known and acts like Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks are more cleverly named, few performers in his field are more admired than Molsky.
So how did a guy from the Bronx become the “Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddlers,” as violin master Darol Anger calls him.
Molsky, 55, said it all began when he was 11 and jazz legend Billy Taylor visited his school.
“I heard him play and thought -- man I want that,” he said in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C. home.
“That was the end of Cornell for me,” he said.
Still, music didn’t become his main gig for two more decades.
He worked days as an engineer -- “designing things like hospital wastewater drainage systems” -- until fellow fiddlers Alasdair Fraser and Kevin Burke persuaded him to devote all his time to music during a chat at a British pub.
“By 1996 I was planning my escape -- just a one-year experiment to see what it would be like to live for music,” Molsky says. “I left engineering in 1997 and never went back.”
Molsky isn’t a flashy performer, but his ability to sing while harmonizing with his fiddle is spellbinding. He describes his songs as “music of communities and of workers trying to escape their grinds.”
In “Peg and Awl,” Molsky sings about a shoe-factory worker who is replaced by a machine.
They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine,
I peg one shoe, it pegs fifteen,
I’m gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.
“I cried when I heard that song the first time, and I’m not a crybaby,” singer Linda Ronstadt said in a phone interview from San Francisco.
Douglas calls Molsky “a chameleon” who can adapt to many musical styles with his fiddle, banjo and guitar playing. And his influence extends beyond roots music.
“Both my String Quartet No. 3 and my Concerto for Violin and Cello and Symphony Orchestra have inspiration from Bruce’s playing,” composer/violinist Mark O’Connor said in an email. “It’s his rhythmic drive and how spirited his music is.”
Having so many admirers hasn’t made Molsky rich. On his recent Southern tour, he drove from gig to gig in a Toyota Prius.
“I got 46.5 miles to the gallon,” he said proudly. “The entire gas bill was $150.”
(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)
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