Fiddler Bobby Britt’s new CD Alaya is a solo effort that shows off his composing and arranging skills against a backdrop of a breadth of musical styles. Those who are familiar with Bobby’s bluegrass fiddle work with the band Town Mountain may be surprised at the variety of sounds he produces here. They are all done effectively and reflect an artist who is at home on his instrument while traveling its musical backroads.
The formerly somewhat distinct line that separated bluegrass fiddling from old time styles has become pretty blurry in the hands of many artists like Bobby. The musical adventurousness of many young old time players and the willingness of some bluegrass musicians to step outside of stylistic boundaries has resulted in a fresh approach to fiddle music where the old distinctions can seem pre-historic though maybe not unimportant.
Bobby’s banjo player on this CD is Alison DeGroot, a top clawhammer player with a great driving, though melodic style. Her playing creates a pulse throughout the CD that is just as insistent as a Scruggs style banjo might have. However, the effect is one that competes less with the fiddle while knitting the rest of the band together in a very supportive way.
I recognize a number of selections on the CD so I decide to skip around before listening to the whole thing in order. “Big Footed Man in The Sandy Lot” is a tune that I’m very familiar with so I play that first expecting maybe a typical rousing old time rave up. Instead I am treated to an introspective mandolin intro with the fiddle quickly joining. As clawhammer banjo and guitar complete the mix, the signature sound of the CD is on full display – and very sweet it is.
Next I listen to a couple other fiddle tunes I enjoy, “Garfield Blackberry Blossom” and “Silver Spire.” The former is done in driving style, full of near-bluegrass energy. It loses some of it’s slippery melodic texture as a compromise to doing it in full unison duet style (fiddle and mandolin) but hey, it kicks.
I really enjoy Bobby’s version of “Silver Spire” (a tune with several alternate names that’s commonly played in Irish sessions as well as contradance and Canadian styles). Specifically, I like how the banjo and mandolin float in and around the melody to back up the fiddle. Nice dynamics and variations, both rhythmic and melodic, on this tune. It really keeps the listener’s attention and is a lesson in musicality for players.
On “Constitution March” Bobby’s playing suggests that of James Bryan the great Alabama fiddler and frequent Norman Blake collaborator. Researching the tune, I found it on Blake’s recording Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm where it is just played on guitar. It’s interesting that Bobby’s playing reminds me of James’s even though James is not playing it on the Norman Blake recording. Bobby has captured elements of James’s beautiful style and made it his own.
I’m curious how Bobby will handle the Tommy People’s hornpipe “The Fairest Rose.” Although Bobby abbreviates Tommy’s slow air introduction, he gives the tune a great treatment without the need to mimic the bowed triplet ornamentation that’s often typical of northern Irish fiddle style. It’s beautiful fiddle playing with great lift and life.
Bobby has two original fiddle tunes on the CD, “Tar Heal” and “Out of the Woods.” They both have an old time sound with a modern slant and would serve equally well in a jam or at a square dance. Great guitar backup on these two numbers.
My favorite songs on the CD are “Orphan Girl,” “When I Die, I’ll Live Again” and “Look up, Look Down that Lonesome Road.” Yes, I know, those are the only three songs on the CD. They are done extremely well and I refuse to chose among them. Get the CD and you’ll hear what I mean.
The CD closes with an original waltz by mandolinist Andrew Marlin. His “Farewell Mother” is a simple and beautiful tribute that touches us all.
Bobby surrounds himself with terrific musicians for this project. In addition to the aforementioned DeGroot and Marlin, he is joined by Emily Frantz helping with vocals and harmony fiddle, Josh Oliver on vocals and guitar, and Jerry Brown on guitar.