Off the Record: The Evil City String Band - Birthplace of Country Music

Off the Record: The Evil City String Band

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love.

Howdy friends, Brad Kolodner of the Old Time Jam here to share with you one of my all-time favorite recordings, one that played a pivotal role in my early days as a budding old-time music fanatic.

When asked to write this blog and pick a recording, I knew exactly which record I wanted to write about. While I’ve had many influential records from contemporary legends of old-time music – for instance, Foghorn Stringband, The Freight Hoppers, Bruce Molsky, and Brittany Haas to name a few – the Evil City String Band record is what truly got me hooked on playing and singing old-time music. It’s not a record you’ll find in every old-time music aficionado’s collection. Heck, I don’t even know if there are any hard copies available anymore. In any case, it had an immediate and lasting impact on me personally and musically.

Cover art for The Evil City String Band album -- a yellow/brown background with black and white drawings of the various musicians playing together.
The Evil City String Band album, released in 2008 via CD Baby.

The story begins in the fall of 2008, my freshman year at Ithaca College. I had recently picked up my first open-back banjo and was practicing night and day, driving my roommate crazy. As a relative late-comer to playing old-time (I didn’t play until the age of 17), I was trying to soak in as much as I could as fast as possible. I grew up around traditional music – my father Ken is a renowned hammered dulcimer player and fiddle. However, it wasn’t until I went off to school that my own personal discovery of old-time music began, thus carving out a new life passion. My first banjo lesson occurred in the summer of 2007 just prior to college when I took an intro to clawhammer banjo course at a music camp in Maine from Richie Stearns, an Ithaca-based clawhammer genius famous for his work with Natalie Merchant and The Horseflies among others. His soulful and inventive approach to the instrument really inspired me. It was pure chance I ended up at Ithaca College a year later studying Television-Radio.

I connected with Richie on a handful of occasions for some lessons. In my first couple years at school, I was practicing away in my dorm room, mostly remaining on campus. In my junior year, I started venturing off-campus a bit more, discovering the rich, vibrant and storied old-time music community in Ithaca. My college girlfriend and I went out to dinner one night at a little New Orleans-inspired restaurant in downtown Ithaca called Maxie’s Supper Club for their “Chicken-Fried Tuesday.” Off in the distance, I could hear what sounded like fiddle and banjo music. To be fair, there seems to be fiddle music playing in my head whether or not a fiddler is nearby. Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I went into the next room and BAM! There was Richie playing banjo with a rockin’ old-time band called the Evil City String Band. I had stumbled into their monthly gig spot where they played old-time music for four hours in exchange for the best fried chicken dinner in town and tips. My girlfriend and I relocated to the bar area where the music was happening and stayed for the next two hours enthralled by their hypnotizing groove. We made it our monthly tradition to head on down to Maxie’s, eat our fried chicken dinners, and listen to the Evil City String Band groove out for hours on end.

Red advertisement bearing a drawing of a chicken with text about "Chicken-Fried Tuesdays" overlaying the image.
Advertisement for Maxie’s “Chicken-Fried Tuesdays” from the Maxie’s Supper Club website.

It was my first up-close-and-personal experience hearing an old-time stringband complete with twin fiddles, banjo, guitar, and bass. The tunes, the songs, the smiles, the energy – all of it infected me. The lineup consisted of Richie Stearns on banjo, Steve Selin on fiddle, Paddy Burke on guitar, and Ben Gould on bass. My Ithaca College classmate Rosie Newton frequently joined in, adding that magical twin-fiddle sparkle. I even brought my banjo along to jam with them one time – more on that later… One day, I noticed they were selling a CD. I immediately grabbed a copy and began listening to it on repeat for months on end – I’m not kidding – I probably listened to the entire album well over 100 times. (Funny story: The album was released as a companion to a cookbook written by an Ithaca-based chef.)

This was all around the same time when I started co-hosting The Hobo’s Lullaby on the Ithaca College radio station WICB. The show’s longtime host Gene Endres was planning to retire after 30 years hosting the weekly two-hour folk program when he decided to pass the torch on to me. I began to play the Evil City String Band’s recording on my show each week. As I dug deeper into the album, I soon recognized it’s not your average old-time album. What pops out the most is Richie’s banjo playing. Regarded as one of the most driving and improvisatory clawhammer players on the scene, Richie’s banjo is cranked up in the mix so as to not bury his clever solos, funky rhythms, bluesy notes and groovy bass runs. Steve Selin’s fiddling is like a freight train, driving and solid, with an energy that keeps my head bobbing the whole time. The album is raw and real. It’s got a layer of grit mixed in with brilliant musicianship. It’s authentic because they aren’t trying to sound authentic. The recording captures their live sound flawlessly and brings me back to those dimly-lit, fried chicken-scented, mythical nights inside Maxie’s Supper Club.

As I began to perform regularly with my father, we started to work into our set Evil City’s version of “Down on My Knees.” In fact, it was the first old-time song I learned all of the words to (and let me add, apologies to my senior-year college housemates for me practicing that song for hours and hours in my bedroom…). My father and I recorded the song on our second studio album, Skipping Rocks. In the spring of my final semester, I headed down to Maxie’s one night to hear Evil City String Band with my banjo in tow. I asked Richie if I could sit in with them for a tune or two. I requested “Down on My Knees,” naturally. They obliged and I kicked off the tune with Richie, trying my best to keep up. I’ll never forget that night, sharing the stage (albeit a tiny stage in a noisy bar) with one of my musical heroes.

After college, I signed on with Bluegrass Country Radio in 2013 as host of a weekly bluegrass, old-time, and Americana program. The very first song I played on my very first broadcast was…you guessed it, Evil City String Band’s “Down on My Knees.” I’ve since crossed paths with Richie and Steve on a number of occasions. Indeed, Richie recently played a house concert in my living room with Rosie Newton. Steve and I have shared tunes a number of times at Clifftop. While it’s been nearly 10 years since those “Chicken-Fried Tuesdays” at Maxie’s, the influence of Evil City String Band and their album is present every time I pick up my banjo or open my mic on the Old Time Jam!

Baltimore-based clawhammer banjoist Brad Kolodner represents the next generation of Old-Time musicians pushing the boundaries of the tradition into uncharted territory. Awarded the 2016 IBMA Momentum Award for Industry Involvement, Kolodner is helping to lead the charge as a performer, teacher, radio host, jam leader, community builder and ambassador for Old-Time and Bluegrass music. He regularly performs across the country in a duo with his father Ken Kolodner, a world renowned hammered dulcimer player and with the acoustic roots quartet Charm City Junction.

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