Bruce Molsky

Contented Must Be

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Bruce Molsky's calm and reverent approach to the traditional banjo and fiddle tunes of the southern Appalachians pulls off a difficult hat trick: he manages to take the old melodies and make them sound fresh and new, even as he retains the feel, tone, and context of the original source material, creating the illusion of an unbroken line between then and now. That he does this without making albums that feel like dusty museum exercises or ridiculous parodies is a true achievement. On Contented Must Be, his fourth album for Rounder Records, Molsky follows the template of his previous releases, mixing in banjo, fiddle, and guitar instrumentals with a handful of well-chosen vocal tracks, all done up in an easy, back-porch style. A fine player on any instrument he picks up, Molsky's everyman baritone voice is the real secret ingredient here, and the reason his albums seem so approachable and timeless. There are plenty of high points to choose from, including Molsky's reconstruction of "Hills of Mexico," which draws and expands on Roscoe Holcomb's version, and the fiddle and vocal take on "Diamond Joe," best known in the wonderful 1937 field recording by Big Charlie Butler. Molsky grafts the North Carolina traditional fiddle tune "Green River" on as a coda, giving the song a swelling, emotional upswing at its tail. The real centerpieces on Contented Must Be, though, are two fiddle instrumentals. The duel-fiddle attack on "Blackberry Blossom" (with Darol Anger on baritone fiddle) makes for an edgy masterpiece, while Molsky comes close to equaling the soaring, eerie energy of Kentucky fiddler Luther Strong's original version of "Glory in the Meeting House," collected by Alan Lomax in the late '30s. Molsky doesn't step into radically new territory with this release, which is really the point. He doesn't need to. Making the old sound new, while retaining what makes it feel old in the first place, is a difficult line to walk. Bruce Molsky seems to do it effortlessly.

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