JOHNSON CITY -- A new century is dawning and folks are full of anticipation for great things to come. It seems almost foolish to mourn the passing of what has gone before. The Reeltime Travelers of Johnson City, though, see things a little differently.
“We’ve been learning at the feet of some of the masters around here, like fiddler Ralph Blizard, Wade Mainer, Pryse Venable and Hobart Crabtree,” said Roy Andrade, who plays clawhammer banjo and sings with the group.
Respect and reverence for “the masters” is evident throughout The Reeltime Travelers’ self-titled debut album, which the band unveiled Friday, Aug. 18, during a concert in Johnson City at the Down Home.
Their ability to hold to these traditions and yet generate their own distinct style has gained them the respect of peers and mentors.
“There’s real love of music here -- real creative talent,” said Dr. Richard Blaustein, professor of sociology and anthropology at East Tennessee State University.
The band first got together informally in 1999 to perform at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. There was an undeniable magic in the music they produced, which led to a permanent partnership. All five members of this old-time string band share a common bond in that each traveled to the East Tennessee region to search for “the heartland of bluegrass and old-time music,” said Thomas Sneed (mandolin, vocals).
Sneed and Martha Scanlan (guitar, vocals) were living in Montana and working as wilderness guides for troubled teens when they heard about ETSU’s Bluegrass and Country Music Program. Both performed with the program’s Senior Bluegrass Band at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in February 1999.
David Havas (bass, vocals), a self-proclaimed “white-collar hobo” from Niwot, Colo., came to Asheville, N.C., to play more music. Although he may not be able to settle down where a day job is concerned, Havas is certainly centered and focused on his bass playing. His steady rhythm keeps the group’s timing true and his rendition of Western North Carolina banjo picker Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Swing Low” resonates.
Roy and Heidi Andrade (fiddle, vocals) hail most recently from Berkeley, Calif. Roy is a graduate student in Appalachian studies and works in the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU. Originally from Asheville, he was surrounded by old-time music all his life, but did not become interested in it until moving to California.
Heidi teaches music to K-8 students in Carter County and always includes some bluegrass and old-time music in her curriculum. She played fiddle in the California-based bluegrass group, The Round Valley Hog Callers, from 1982-1996. Heidi is also known to clog dance during Reeltime Travelers’ performances.
The group’s catchy name was inspired by Blaustein, a fiddler, banjo player and ardent advocate for old-time music, from whom the band learned their rendition of “Short Life of Trouble.”
“It’s a play on words: ‘reels,’ as in the old recordings we’re always listening to for song ideas, but also because we’re traveling through time on music,” said Sneed.
“And because we do ‘old-time,’ but we don’t do all old-time,” added Scanlan.
“It’s our invented genre,” said Roy Andrade.
The Travelers unanimously describe their “invented genre” as “pre-post-modern,” hovering somewhere between old and new, a slave to neither yet inspired by both.
“In our music, there’s ‘bluegrass’ and there’s ‘old-time,’” said Havas. “I think we show how thin the distinction can be between the two.”
“It’s rooted in old-time music, I would say, but there’s a lot of room for creativity and bringing in new ideas,” said Scanlan.
“There’s a rock-solid foundation of hard-driving, traditional, Appalachian string-band music here, but these five talented, versatile musicians aren’t ‘stick-in-the-mud’ purists or copycats. I enjoy hearing them play whenever I can,” said Blaustein.
The group combines the elements of traditional bluegrass and old-time string band music to produce a refreshing sound that dances effervescently from past to present. Their recording weaves strands of the traditional (“June Apple,” “Rock That Cradle Lucy”) with the more recent (Bob Dylan’s “Hardtimes in New York Town”).
“Part of our repertoire is made up of old recordings that Roy found in the Archives, but it also includes songs that we’ve reinterpreted and songs that Martha writes,” Sneed said.
Scanlan’s compositions are timeless in their own right, written in the folk tradition of such artists as Dylan, Norman Blake and Gillian Welch. They speak with melancholy of hard times and dance on whimsical melodies. What influences her?
“Most of the time, I’ll get a tune in my head, and the words come later,” said Scanlan. “While I was working on ‘One Time Charlie’s Railroad Blues,’ I was listening to jug band music and reading a book about train wrecks! So it’s really a variety of things that get me thinking and ready to write.”
Yet even though the group tends to look to those who have gone on before when in need of inspiration, the focus of their performances is on those musicians yet to come.
“I think it’s fair to say we’d like to inspire young people to think about and even perform traditional music,” said Sneed.
During the first weeks of August, The Reeltime Travelers performed throughout the Rocky Mountains at such venues as The Grange in Niwot, Colo., and the Northern Rockies Folk Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho, prior to the Johnson City concert. For more information, e-mail The Reeltime Travelers at firstname.lastname@example.org.