I was barely root-high to a sassafras tree when I got my feet wet on the square dance floor at the feet of the F&W String Band in Plymouth, Vt. Ah yes, I remember fondly the innocence and excitement of those square dance days. Who would have thought that the path I started walking then would lead me between the gyrating millstones of the Boardroom? Can’t you see the beauty of it all: once set in motion, the Fates quickly find minds of their own. Looking back on your roots, you wonder ,“How in the hell did I get from there to here?” Is it true that you can never go home?
I call your attention to Exhibit A, The Reeltime Travelers, a rootsy string band from Johnson City, Tenn. Based on their acoustimony you will clearly see that you can indeed go home, even if you weren’t born there. But first of all, let me unpack their name. The spelling “Reel” invokes the tune and dance step of the same name, recalling my favorite dance from my dance hall days, “the Virginia Reel.” Or, if you allow the misspelled “Reel” to also mean “real,” then you arrive at five musicians traveling through time to bring us that Appalachian groove.
I should note that there are two common pronunciations of the word “Appalachian.” In northern parts of the Appalachians, the third “A” of “Appalachian” is pronounced like the “A” in “lay,” rather than like the “A” in “Apple.” In the south, both the first and third “A”s are pronounced like in “apple.” I reckon the southern pronunciation is correct, since all five members of the Reeltime Travelers independently migrated to East Tennessee from as far away as California and Montana in search of the roots of bluegrass and old time Appalachian string music.
They found it, and each other too. Thus began the journey, in 1999, of the Reeltime Travelers. Their self-titled genre of “pre-post-modern” old time string band music leaves plenty of room to dig at both ends of time. Roy Andrade, who plays clawhammer banjo and sings, is a graduate student in Appalachian Studies at Eastern Tennessee State University, where he also works in the Archives of Appalachia. At work, Andrade is constantly on the lookout for forgotten tunes the band can resurrect. A glimpse at the liner notes of their self-titled debut album reveals that many of their songs are credited “traditional,” or to those who taught them the old tunes, such as “the Poplin Family.”
While the dusted-off nuggets of musical Appalachiana form the core of their rootsy sound, The Reeltime Travelers leave room for contemporary influences as well as old time sources, extending their inspiration from the Skillet Lickers to Bob Dylan. Indeed, their album also contains three songs written by their own Martha Scanlon (guitar, vocals). Her upbeat melancholy tunes and “hard times” subject matter keep Scanlon’s work firmly within the boundaries of their musical roots. In one song, she even articulates, “take me down where roots begin.” Meanwhile, my sources tell me that Heidi Andrade has been known on occasion to clog during performances. The band also includes Thomas Sneed, an Oklahoma native, on mandolin and vocals. David Havas from Niwot, Colo. on bass and vocals rounds out this geographically diverse group of musicians who came to Eastern Tennessee to pursue a common love for the old-time Appalachian sound. It’s just like that old expression, “All roads lead to Rome... he came from the grind, and he’s always coming home.”