Interview With David Bragger – Part 1
Mike Spears: Do you play with diverse groups of musicians?
David Bragger: As a band, I just thought, “Well, I don’t want to restrict myself just to straight North Carolina square dance music,” or something. I really, really love what the New Lost City Ramblers did. Mike Seger gave me one of my first banjo lessons. He gave me my first two and three finger old-time banjo lessons. That was very early on when I started playing. That really … He had a real huge impact on me. I wanted to model an old-time band after that with a little bit of the playfulness that you get from the early jug bands, but not be limited in its scope. I’m learning how to play the Cajun accordion, so we’re even sneaking in one or two early Cajun tunes into the repertoire.
Mike Spears: Wow, that’s cool.
David Bragger: Yeah.
Mike Spears: You teach a lot, don’t you, David?
David Bragger: Yeah, I teach every day.
Mike Spears: What’s the one thing you emphasize to your students, beginning or intermediate or advanced students that they have to work on, they have to get this down?
David Bragger: As you know, with the fiddle, the violin in general, everybody is always thinking about their intonation, right? That’s just a given. Yeah, you got to play notes in tune and later on, you have to redefine that that means, because in a lot of the playing that I love in old-time music, we don’t exactly play the notes that are on the piano.
Mike Spears: Yeah, exactly.
David Bragger: Again, that’s not something that I talk to students about in the beginning. That would just go right over their head. What I do talk about all of the time, no matter what level, no matter what level student it is, is rhythm and down beat-centric rhythm. This is the kind of thing that you’ll hear some people talk about it. Dan Gellert talks about it a lot. I’m totally on the same page with him. It’s not rock ‘n roll. It’s not bluegrass. There is a down beat-centric quality to old-time music that, for me, it’s central to whatever I play. On the fiddle, we might rock the bow, we might add drones, we might do some complicated things on the off beats, and all around the down beats. The down beat is the focus. It’s the center.
Mike Spears: So the down beat meaning … You’re talking about in a 4/4 beat…
David Bragger: Yeah, beats one and three.
Mike Spears: One and three, right.
David Bragger: Yeah. It’s not about beats two and four, so no matter what simple or complicated bow pattern I might be teaching, or no matter what kind of complicated bow rocking embellishment I’m teaching, you have to always be cognizant of the down beat. That is something that I think a lot of good players don’t even really notice or address.|
Mike Spears: You’re right.
David Bragger: To me it’s everything.
Mike Spears: Yeah, wow.
David Bragger: That’s something that can be taught from day one. Every time I teach … A lot of my students, especially nowadays, aren’t necessarily beginners. They’ve played for twenty years, thirty years, and they’re going, “You know what? I’m been faking it all this time. I’ve been telling myself I can do whatever I want, but I don’t sound anything like the people or the styles I want to sound like. Can you help me?” When that happens with a fiddle student or a banjo student … What did we talk about? The down beat, and they go, “No one has ever said that, and I’ve never thought that, ever.” It’s this huge revelation.
Mike Spears: Yeah. It’s almost not intuitive … Two and four is usually what’s we’re expecting.
David Bragger: Yeah, exactly. One of the basic bow rocking patterns I teach, we’re adding a drone on beats two and four. We’re adding more noise, more sound on the off beats. The trick is, how do you add more sound? How do you double the sound on the off beats, but accent the down beats? When I teach, I always demonstrate it, and everybody goes, “Oh my gosh, I can hear that. When you’re doing it the wrong way … That reminds me of a whole bunch of people at the local jam session that do that and I can never figure out why they don’t sound like Tommy Jarrell or Edden Hammons or Benny Thomasson.”
Mike Spears: I know you have some audio and video projects coming up. You’ve been working and filming Bruce Molsky and some other people. When are those projects going to be coming into fruition?
David Bragger: Yeah. The Bruce Molsky one, we are way beyond the middle point. The music and all of the filming and editing, all done. The music is mastered. Everything is ready to go. We are currently working on the artwork right now, and adding some more information to the liner notes. It might be considered bad business, but something that I take very serious with the Tiki parlor releases is a good package that’s very informative, and hopefully pretty looking. I really like using the artist type that I’ve been using. But information, tunings, history, that stuff is so, so important to me.
Mike Spears: It’s important to me, and I think it’s important to a lot of people. When I was a kid, we used to buy albums like Led Zeppelin and we would look through the albums in the liner notes. We couldn’t wait to open and see what kind of liner notes were in the album. That’s what we did. Now, when the advent of cassettes came out, all that was is gone, and then CDs and very limited stuff that you’re getting anything to associate with it to tell you how they did it, who were the players on it, how it was … Like the stuff you did. I’m looking at your insert here on your CD, and I’m going, “My gosh, that’s a lot of information.” Pictures and stuff like that … I like this picture of you and your buddy Christopher Berry by Howard Rains.
David Bragger: Oh yeah.
Mike Spears: Yeah, that’s a great picture, man. I know Howard and his wife. I went to a fiddle workshop with him last year. Those are two very talented people.
David Bragger: They’re great. I’m currently editing their project, and that’s going to be big. He’s going to be doing a whole bunch of original artwork for it, and we’re doing a lot of tunes … Of course a lot of these really old eccentric early Texas tunes, but we’re also doing a lot of tunes from her family and grandfather in particular, that no one has really ever heard before. It’s going to be a really special project.
Mike Spears: Oh, I’m sure it will be.
David Bragger: . I’m currently editing, that one and the Stuart Brothers, Trevor and Travis.
Mike Spears: Wow. Man, that’s phenomenal. That’s good. You’re doing good work, David. I’ll tell you.
David Bragger: The key is just hoping that it can sustain itself, because when you’re printing a twenty-four page booklet for a CD in a world of people downloading for free, or even for money, it’s tough, because it at least doubles the budget, just the print.
Mike Spears: I think that’s a phenomenon with more popular music. The kind of music that you’re doing, old-time music, and maybe even to a degree country music, I think it’s going to become a trend to do what you’re doing. I don’t know how to articulate this, but I think you’re on the right track, because I think all that stuff is going to shift in the next couple of years, I believe.
David Bragger: That’s what I’m hoping. I think a lot of us are realizing, “Wow, I have a hard drive full of six months of straight playing music. I don’t even know where to start. I’m going to go have a hamburger instead.” There’s something about holding an album or a booklet and being able just to have this tangible aspect with all this information.
Mike Spears: Yeah, absolutely.
David Bragger: That’s what I’m holding onto, but I also have my eyes on the digital realm as we’ll probably, not necessarily make a shift, but support the project that way, too. The original idea behind all of this was to get Dan Gellert recorded, because he rarely records. That immediately turned into, “Wow, there’s a lot of good musicians who we don’t have any real footage of, maybe some shaky iPhone videos on YouTube, but I want to make digital CDs, and I want the documents of the greatest musicians for the future.”
Mike Spears: Absolutely.
David Bragger: The one thing I like to tell people is, I’m recording all the dead guys before they die.
Mike Spears: Exactly, that’s a good point. Speaking of that, David, if you could play with anybody living or dead, who would you play with? Just to have one set with them?
David Bragger: Okay, living has been done. Through all the Tiki parlor exploits, I basically got to have sometimes week-long slumber parties with my favorite musicians.
Mike Spears: Wow, that’s so great, man. You’re a lucky guy.
David Bragger: So being able to jam in my living room with Dan Gellert and Bruce and Molsky and so many other musicians, Joe Newberry and Howard and Trish, that’s just been amazing. If I were to say dead guys, immediately what comes to mind would be Edden Hammons, and Riley Puckett, and Emmett Lundy. Those are definitely some musicians who I would love to play with, yeah.
Mike Spears: Wow, yeah absolutely. What do you think the difference is between talent and skill? This is just a random question here.
David Bragger: It’s something that I probably need to think more about, and I think … With that said, I think about it all the time. One thing I’ve learned … Well, I’ve heard weird things. A lot of people quote from book that says, “You do your ten thousand hours …”
Mike Spears: Right, right. Yeah.
David Bragger: Yeah, I don’t buy that at all.
Mike Spears: Me either.
David Bragger: I don’t buy it … I’ve taught over ten thousand lessons, so I’ve seen quite a bit now. When I get somebody who’s played for longer than I’ve been alive and they make more progress in two years than they did in thirty years, what does that say about talent?
Mike Spears: Right.
David Bragger: From personal experience, when I started studying this music with a musical background, I had no guidance the first year so. I was teaching myself how to read music. I was trying to read things out of the Fiddler’s Fakebook, and I was getting nowhere. When I start studying old-time fiddle with an emphasis on bowing with Tom Sauber, all of a sudden things changed, very, very rapidly. Without that bedrock of tradition and the guidance of a mentor, most people are going to be quite lost. There’s always exceptions to the rule, but they’re exceptions.
Mike Spears: Yeah, they’re not the rule.
David Bragger: They’re not the common occurrence. It’s really unfair to compare most of us to the old dead guys who were growing up at the feet of their daddy and granddaddy, playing fiddle music every single night, because they were absorbing, even if they couldn’t articulate what they were doing like I do. They were absorbing the sounds from day one.
Mike Spears: Right.
David Bragger: Did they have talent? Maybe.
Mike Spears: Yeah, maybe they did. Maybe they just absorbed a lot of stuff and it came out of them just by … I don’t know, maybe osmosis or something.
David Bragger: I think there is a lot of that. There were musicians who had a really unique style, and there’s a certain amount of talent in that, but … And genetics affect, they really do effect on what we do and what we like, and how well we do certain things. In teaching, I realized that everyone I’ve dealt with have strengths and weaknesses. I’ll have a student saying, “Wow, I heard so and so who you teach. I’m never going to be able to do that, what they’re doing.” Then I’ll say, “Well, guess what? They can’t do what we just did in our lesson. They have to work really hard to be able to do what you just did.”
Mike Spears: Down here in Texas there’s a lot of competition fiddling, and it’s all over… I’ve gone to some of them, and you’re listening to these people, and they’re roughly playing all the same tunes to see who’s playing the tune better. They’re all criticizing, whether to themselves or to somebody, and say, “Well, he’s doing this,” or, “He’s doing that.” I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I’m kind of for competition, but I’d rather go to a jam session and play with a lot of good musicians, or just musicians in general. They don’t have to be good.
David Bragger: The thing about … I’m not into competitions, but… It’s not the world I come from, but I believe if a competition gets you to set a goal and you really work really hard on something, in addition to your love for old-time music, and in addition to everything you’re doing musically, then sure, that’s a great thing. But when people get neurotic and caught up in the competitive aspect of it, that’s fine for them, but it’s definitely not my thing, and it’s something that I don’t advocate for students of mine.
Mike Spears: Sure, absolutely.
David Bragger: I’ve had a lot of kid students win first place advanced fiddle, and every time that’s happened, regardless of what perspective their parent’s coming from, I always choose really crooked, bizarre, strange tunes that I know the competition judges know nothing about. In other words, we pick tunes that should be getting them disqualified, just so they can go up and have fun and play a tune, and so often they would win.
Part 2 Next Month in iFiddle