Quick Q and A with Tim Rowell (Jubilee Mule)
by Kathy S-B · 2 September 2009
Who would ever think that a vibrant band of old time musicians had a very real presence in the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts? Having witnessed these guys in action, I can vouch for the fact that if it were not for the ocean breeze wafting through the windows or the sound of nearby Abbot Hall’s tolling chimes, you’d think you were smack dab in the middle of Appalachia. Jubilee Mule plays regularly at the Cantab in Cambridge and has developed quite a loyal following. You can read all about Jubilee Mule and see some terrific videos at their website.
What’s your definition of “old time” music?
Old Time music to me is American music from the Civil War up until the mid 1930’s. The stuff that I’ve been really interested in for about the last 35 years or so has been primarily from the southern Appalachian mountains and surrounding areas. It’s music that is strongly connected to a time when people wrote or played music as easily as often as we flip on a TV. The songs were written about whatever was happening at that moment — a crow landing on the fence at harvest time, the exploits of a traveling railroad man, the chickens in the henhouse, unrequited love and on and on.
As an award-winning banjo player, I have to ask — what is it about the banjo that rocks your world?
I’m not 100% sure. I can’t explain the hold that it has on me. I love a lot of different instruments and am always trying to learn how to play new ones — but when I sit down to play or practice I almost always pick up the banjo — much to the chagrin of my extremely patient wife. I find that the clawhammer style in particular has a groove and a drive that I really love and that lends itself to a bunch of different styles of music.
Tell us about your mentor, Steve Mote. What is it about his music that has inspired you?
Most old time musicians are closet ethnomusicologists. They love to learn about the tunes that they play and love. They try to preserve the heritage of this unique American art. Until I met Steve, my biggest influence was Pete Seeger and the way that he used music as a tool to bring people together. Pete said to me once that he was really a guitar player with a banjo in his hands and I think that his playing style totally reflects that. His banjo has a long neck with three extra frets so that it matched his vocal range and long limbs and could easily play in more keys with the same relative tuning. The style was really unique to Pete. Steve exposed me to the clawhammer playing style. He learned his tunes directly from the families of musicians in the Ozark mountains who handed the tunes and the playing style down from generation to generation. The first time I heard him play I felt like a was a witness to something primordial — like salmon swimming upstream or a river cutting its way through limestone.
How did Jubilee Mule become a playing entity?
I was driving through Marblehead during the summer with my windows down and I heard this great music coming out of this small art gallery and it was JP (John Price) playing the mandolin with someone. The groove was undeniable and I had to find out who was playing. I stopped the car in traffic and accosted him with my phone number and he called and we’ve been playing together ever since. There have been a bunch of different musicians who have joined us on various stages in the past eight or nine years, but the core of the band has remained with me and JP.
Do you continue to explore new musical frontiers with your own music and with the band?
Yes, absolutely. Right now the band is a really interesting mix of different musical points of view. JP has been playing guitar in a really interesting way that incorporates Irish sensibilities with dynamic rhythms and innovative tunings. His son, Ren, has contributing great rhythmic drive with a variety of hand percussion and occasionally bass. Tim Baldanzi is a really talented mandolin player and singer who’s playing I’ve enjoyed since first hearing him at play at the Monday night old time jam at Sandy’s Music in Cambridge. Tim and I first bonded while playing tunes in modal tuning or what we affectionately call “spooky tunes.”
Our newest member, Etienne Cremieux, has just entered Berklee and brings a whole world of hard driving and intricate bluegrass chops to the table. This musical soup has included everything from Civil War marching songs to Frank Zappa. I really look forward every time to sitting down and pulling out the instruments with these guys because I’m never really sure what’s going to happen but it has almost always been an adventure.