'Old-time', as folks who play it call it, is a catch-all label to describe the hollering, funky sounds that arise from the musical tradition of the Appalachian Mountains on the east coast of America.
Old-time music has its roots in the mid-1800s when, presumably, somewhere in the rural American South, an Irish fiddler met an African banjo player, and the two of them sat down and played tunes for hours and hours until a groove - neither Irish nor African - developed; a loping, driving, hypnotic rhythm that compelled people to dance wherever they were standing until they fell over from dehydration. It's 19th Century funk, or techno.
The rhythm set up by the fiddle and banjo is the core of old-time music. While some label the interplay between these two instruments as a duet, this only hints at their complex relationship. In reality, the fiddle and banjo work together to jab at the melody (the tune) while simultaneously building the groove, in roles similar to those of funk musicians. With good fiddle and banjo players, nothing else is needed to make people dance, but most people also add a guitar and bass to strengthen and support the high-end instruments. These four instruments - fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass - comprise the traditional old-time string band, though one can feel free to add more instruments, either doubling the instruments already present or adding others, like a banjo ukulele (yes, a real instrument), a mandolin, or in a nod to the aforementioned roots, drums or percussion of any variety.
This Sounds like Bluegrass
It isn't. Old-time and bluegrass have a lot in common, of course - Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys developed bluegrass out of the old-time tradition - but they diverge in several important ways.
Melody vs Groove - the Struggle for Hegemony
Bluegrass follows a pattern very similar to rock music in that there are verses, a chorus, and room for instrumental breaks or solos. Though also intended for dancing, the emphasis in bluegrass is mainly on the melody with either those high, close harmonies, or the current solo - be it a mandolin, fiddle, banjo, or guitar. Old-time musicians play in a style that rock musicians would call jamming in that they follow a tune, usually a very simple one, when playing together, but no instrument gains sustained, particular interest at the expense of all the others, and everyone is encouraged to wander from the tune to keep things interesting. In old-time, the emphasis is always on the rhythm. This is reflected in the styles of old-time fiddlers and banjo players compared to bluegrass banjo and fiddle.
Bluegrass fiddlers are noted for a flashy, virtuoso style, often jam-packed with as many notes as possible. Old-time fiddlers are more subdued and have a darker, denser sound, sacrificing melodic for rhythmic complexity. This means that while the left hand of an old-time fiddler is relatively simple compared to bluegrass - and rudimentary compared to classical violinists - the right hand, the bowings, are of a more complicated order of magnitude. To create the rhythm that whips people into a frenzy, old-time fiddlers execute bowings that take years to master, even for classical or bluegrass musicians who decide to switch over. Old-time fiddlers also tend to favour open tunings, which allow for drone strings to help them, and the rest of the band, get their groove on.
Bluegrass and old-time banjo players differ from each other even more. A bluegrass banjo player first attaches metal or plastic picks to his thumb and two of his fingers and uses them to produce a bright, rolling sound, the sound most people think of when they think of banjo playing (this is called Scruggs-style playing, after its inventor, Earl Scruggs). Old-time banjo players use a technique known as 'clawhammer', which is a style of playing that uses the thumb and the nail of the middle finger to produce a more 'poppin'-and-lockin'' sound, somewhere in between Scruggs-style playing and a slap bass. A bluegrass and old-time banjo even differ structurally: a bluegrass banjo has a plastic head and a resonator attached to its back to amplify, brighten, and sustain the sound; an old-time banjo ideally has a skin head (usually from a calf, sometimes with the hair still on it) and is open-backed, which means most of the noise from the instrument goes into the banjo player's stomach, leaving the dancers with a sharper, plunkier, more percussive, and indeed, funkier sound.
Old-Time Music Sounds Fabulous! Where Can I Hear It?
Live old-time music can be heard sporadically in bars up and down the east coast of the States, though it's hard to find unless you know where to look (try Ithaca/Trumansburg, New York or Asheville, North Carolina). If you find you have a strong stomach for prolonged exposure to old-time - say, a week - the best place to hear it live is at old-time music festivals, which go on all summer long across Appalachia. Two festivals in particular attract a few thousand musicians and are quite friendly to the listener: the Fiddler's Convention is held in Mount Airy, North Carolina on the first weekend of June, and the Clifftop Festival, West Virginia is held during the first week of August.
Recordings of old-time music from the 1920s to the present abound. Some of the most well-known traditional old-time musicians are the Skillet Lickers, Tommy Jarrell, Dock Boggs, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, Benton Flippen, and Melvin Wine1. Their recordings are available from County Sales records, Merrimac Records, Smithsonian releases, and, sporadically, from Rounder Records. Younger (or living) old-time musicians such as Bruce Molsky, Bob Carlin, the Horseflies, Bubba George, The Red Hots, and The Freight Hoppers also have records out. Thankfully, in this day and age, all of them are relatively easy to come by.
Those who choose to delve into the recorded history of old-time music will note that, though the music is considered 'traditional', the style of playing has changed rather dramatically over the years. As Jeff Claus, guitarist for the Horseflies, once said:
Even those real old guys like Tommy Jarrell - they didn't play just like their fathers did. They took their daddy's music and rocked out.
The rejuvenating of the tradition continues, as each subsequent generation brings with them their own set of influences. Old-time musicians who came of age in the 1960s bring in their own meandering hippie aesthetic; those who came of age in the '70s and '80s approach the music from a punk and new wave point of view. Today, the next generation of old-time musicians are getting their acts together under their own influences and ensuring that the music, while celebrating the players of the past, stays fresh and vital for people today.