By Casey Phillips, Chattanooga Times Free Press
The violin has been used in ensembles for seemingly every style imaginable, from rock and jazz to swing and classical, there’s something beautifully simplistic about the sound of an old-time duo of fiddle and banjo.
In a move that hearkens back to the days when these two instruments alone could constitute a “band,” local fiddling guru and philanthropist Fletcher Bright joined forces last year with California-based five-string banjo player Bill Evans. In December, Evans traveled to Bright’s Lookout Mountain home, where they spent two days laying down about 20 tracks that rollick across the musical spectrum, from old-time to Irish to bluegrass.
Culled down to a final group of 16 tracks, the result of that session, “Fine Times at Fletcher’s House,” will make its Chattanooga debut Saturday, Aug. 3, in a CD release party and concert at Barking Legs Theater. The event also will include a special guest appearance by bluegrass band The Dismembered Tennessseans, which Bright has led for 68 years since founding it as a student at McCallie School in 1945.
“[The album] is a broad brush of a lot of different tunes. I brought him back to basics on the banjo, you might say,” Bright says. “I understand that not everybody cares that much for fiddle and banjo, but if they like it, they can get it in a big dose here in one sitting.”
Bright says he has known Evans for 15 to 20 years. Their paths have crossed numerous times as instructors at various music camps, from mountain music workshops at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., to Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp at Maryville College outside Knoxville.
Like many bluegrass musicians, Evans treads a fine line blending the traditional approach of artists such as Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe with the progressive, genre-blending of artists such as Bela Fleck. He has appeared alongside many acoustic luminaries, including David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Tony Trischka and Sonny Osborne.
For years, Bright and Evans “threatened” to work on a CD together, but their geographic separation and busy schedules kept the idea on the backburner. When it finally came to fruition, Bright says, it was well worth the wait.
Between The Tennesseans and a local fiddling group that includes his son, George, Bright has released about 10 albums, but he says experimenting with such a limited lineup was an exciting change of pace.
“There’s something about fiddle and banjo that is rhythmic and simple and pure and a lot of fun,” he says. “When you listen to it, you really don’t miss the other instruments that much. It’s interesting.”
The early response from reviewers, he says, suggests he’s not alone in thinking so.
“At least, they’ve been kind,” he says, chuckling. “I haven’t read a review that hurt my feelings so far.”
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.