"In sort of a strange way the pandemic and time away from playing with my bands presented an opportunity to work on solo material."
Baltimore, Maryland banjo player Brad Kolodner has kept himself busy over the years playing with his dad, hammered dulcimer musician Ken, in a duo, and as a member of the innovative bluegrass band, Charm City Junction. The release of Chimney Swifts gives him a chance to step into the spotlight and, more importantly, shine a light on the clawhammer banjo.
"Clawhammer has a long history going all the way back to its West African heritage", he says. "There's so many different approaches to playing clawhammer but I think often it's used sort of 'in the mix' with other instruments in the context of an old-time string band. The fiddle is the lead melodic voice, then you have guitar and bass playing rhythm and banjo kind of fills in the gaps."
Listening to influential banjo players like Adam Hurt and Richie Stearns, Brad realized there could be a broader palette of sounds and applications for clawhammer banjo.
"It really dawned on me when I was first picking up clawhammer that the instrument has this possibility of being a melodic instrument as well", he explains. "You don't have to just play the back-up rhythm that blends in with the other instruments. You can take solos and improvise and play different styles of music. On (Chimney Swifts) I play a Scottish tune, a Greek tune and certainly plenty of old-time (which is) where my heart is with playing the banjo. Over the years my inspiration with the instrument comes from, 'How do I present clawhammer banjo as a lead instrument? (How do I) find a way to elevate the instrument's melodic capabilities so it can be just like a mandolin, a fiddle or (how) a lead guitar sounds or mimic a voice?'"
Helping Brad along in that search has been his dad.
"We sort of share those melodic duties", he says of Ken. "I've played in a band with him where the fiddle is not the primary melodic instrument, so we've learned over the years how to trade the rhythmic and melodic duties and that sort of helped to build that approach."
Another important aspect of Chimney Swifts is being able to highlight the differing moods a clawhammer banjo can create.
"I think most folks, when they hear clawhammer, do think of that back porch, up tempo, square dance kind of vibe, and that's not false! That is a big part of the instrument and I love playing for square dances, digging into the instrument and playing the bum ditty, the basic picking pattern for clawhammer", Brad says. "But as you dive deeper into it there are so many different textures. The first clawhammer tune I heard played live was from Richie Stearns, who played with The Horseflies for many years. I remember him playing a cover of a song Johnny Cash recorded, the Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt. It's a very dark and sad song. It's not one you would associate with clawhammer but I heard him playing it at a music camp when I was 17 and I was thinking, 'What is that texture? What is that clawhammer sound?' I was so hypnotized by that groove. It was very spooky and haunting the way Richie was playing it. So I took a workshop with him and that's where it all started. Over the years I've really been attracted to the players who find all kinds of ways of playing up the neck, improvising and using clawhammer well beyond just the basic bum ditty stroke."
One of the methods Brad uses on Chimney Swifts to expand the sound of clawhammer banjo is by playing a fretless gourd banjo, which has a loose, exotic sound and is highlighted on tunes such as Mr. Pantaleish.
"It's a tune my father recorded with his band, Helicon, who were relatively big in the World Music scene back in the late 80s and early 90s. I grew up around this music. As a little kid I would fall asleep to my father practicing his hammered dulcimer. I really enjoyed listening to the soft sounds of the dulcimer as a kid. (For the album) I was looking for a tune that my father recorded with Helicon as a nod to those younger days. So many of those melodies I already had in my head because I heard them so much as a kid. It felt like the right match to bring the gourd banjo into it. There's a lot of cultural crossing with this album and with that tune in particular, playing an African gourd, playing a Greek tune and I'm playing old-time clawhammer style banjo! It's a bit slow and something you really have to focus on. I think it almost feels like a classical piece in some ways. It stands out for sure."
In an effort to sustain the old-time music scene, every year Brad and Ken organize the Baltimore Old-Time Music Festival.
"We bring in about a half dozen bands from around the country. It's a super fun gathering of bands, singers, songwriters, square dancing, jamming and workshops. It's kind of our marquee event here in Baltimore."
Besides being busy as a member of Charm City Junction, Brad is a broadcaster with shows on Folk Alley.com, Bluegrass Country in Washington, D.C. and Radio Bristol in Bristol, Tennessee. He was recently nominated as Broadcaster of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
"Besides playing music, one of my favourite things is to be able to share music from other artists and bands who I really appreciate and feel deserve to be out there and heard. It's really rewarding to be acknowledged for the work that goes on behind the scenes. It's fun to wear multiple hats, and to be acknowledged for that is a huge honour."
For more information on Brad and Chimney Swifts, go to bradkolodner.com.