If you haven’t been paying close enough attention you may have missed the fact that the absolute cutting edge of American roots music these days — some of the most exciting art to be born out of this latest renaissance in Americana, bluegrass, and folk — is old-time. Artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, Victor Furtado, Amythyst Kiah, Jontavious Willis, Dom Flemons, and so many more are utilizing this moment to demonstrate that old-time music is expansive. It has relatively low barriers to entry, it’s representative, it’s queer, it’s Black, it’s Indigenous, it demands egalitarianism, it’s woven into the fabric of all genres downstream of it, and most importantly, it’s ceaselessly relevant. In our attention economy, which requires all of this and more from any pastime worth its merit, old-time delivers.
A new album from fiddler, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Laurel Premo perfectly reinforces these points, in content, intention, and certainly execution. The Iron Trios is a collection of nine more or less traditional old-time fiddle tunes and two Premo originals, the majority of which are played by a trio: fiddle, upright bass, and electric guitar. For an album demonstrably unconcerned with even the basic premise of the construct of “authenticity,” it accomplishes that squishy term impeccably and effortlessly.
Yes, with electric guitar. Tunes such as “Old Time Sally Goodin” and “The Original Grey Eagle” nod to string band settings that beg us to play these games surrounding legitimacy and “authenticity” while turning them all on their ears. With bassist Evan Premo, guitarists Owen Marshall and Joshua Davis, and an appearance here and there by fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis, Premo takes old-time fiddle, melodies, and rhythms into spaces usually dominated by electronics.
It’s trance, it’s dreamscape, it’s meditative, it code switches with ease, sometimes sounding like a film score, or a square dance, or public radio at one in the morning (“Echoes” with John Diliberto, anyone?), or modern chamber strings, or the soundbed for an abandoned-warehouse-turned-cooperative-art-space. At the same time, it refuses to be any more complicated than good, old-time fiddle music. And that simple fact is another compelling reason why old-time is truly the most exciting space in the Americana, folk, and bluegrass realms today.