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Gilleon plans to bring old-time music to today’s audiences with streaming website

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logo-northface2-distressedtext&bgIf you’ve ever heard a banjo and fiddle jamming, those musicians behind the instruments were probably playing some form of old-time music.

Even if it wasn’t strictly old-time music, it likely was one of the genres such as folk, bluegrass, and country — each which came from this important genre in major ways.

But, despite these direct links to this genre that’s based in Southern Appalachia, much of original old-time music has disappeared from the mainstream culture.

Part of that comes from how we consume music, and another comes from the fact that old-time musicians aren’t in it to get famous, or even recognized at all. For them it’s about preserving the music more than their own accomplishments within the genre.

However, in certain pockets of Southern Appalachia, this music still flows from mostly regular, everyday living rooms like a stream of impromptu conversation.

Imagine walking into a home on a typical Saturday night and after a few rounds of drinks and revelry, someone casually picks up a fiddle and starts playing. Another person finds a banjo and joins in as people soon start dancing along. As the sun sets around the blossoming willow trees, lily pads and quiet mud ponds, a wave of original, old-time sounds coming from talented musicians, who also happen to be everyday people, floats through the air.

This world of Old Time Music has gotten a lot smaller over the years, but Kristi Gilleon, daughter of Western Artist Tom Gilleon, wants to help make this genre more accessible to the rest of the world.

Gilleon recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for her Ma Belle Music Project, raising over $9,700.

On her Kickstarter page, Gilleon explains why she started this project, saying, “Today there is still an incredibly rich and wonderful old-time music scene in southern Appalachia, but those of us who live outside of the region have very little access to the music,”

She continues,

“Most old-time musicians never record their work or release an album, either because they don’t play professionally or because the cost of studio recording is too steep. The musicians who do make an album face two challenges. The first is trying to make a decent profit – selling physical copies and selling digital tracks on the big music distribution sites both have major downsides. The second is visibility: it’s ridiculously hard to find old-time bands and albums on large distribution sites.”

A group of old-time musicians jam in a cabin while Kristi Gilleon filmed them.
A group of old-time musicians jam in a cabin while Kristi Gilleon filmed them.

Her plan involves setting up a Website that brings modern conveniences to this somewhat secret genre and allow people to download songs, watch videos, and eventually chat with other fans, look for gigs or buy and sell old-time instruments.

Gilleon grew up in Montana. At age 15 she attended a boarding school in New England and once in college, she studied nearly every subject in the humanities, first at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and then at the University of Montana.

She later left the philosophy masters program at Georgia State University to, “spend (her) life working on projects,” according to her online Kickstarter bio.

Gilleon, a Cascade native, later this year will travel back to Appalachia this summer and staying through the autumn to start recording these musicians.

She was there last year to start finding the groups to record and to work on a film project. She said she has a collection of groups such as the Ohio River Minstrels, whom she will record in their home environments using mobile studio equipment.

As for the business model, Gilleon said while she hopes to make a profit, she doesn’t envision the site funding any kind of extravagance or be a means to make her wealthy.

“I’m not in it to get rich,” she said. “I’ll need a certain amount of money coming in to support myself and keep the site going, but if Ma Belle Music ends up doing really well financially, I’m not going to spend the surplus on spa treatments or trips to Paris – I’ll find a way to make good use of it, either by taking a smaller percentage of sales from the artists or by expanding on the project in a way that’s good for everyone.

Before that happens, though, she said she’s continuing to build the trust of the musicians in that area of the country , people who she says have been mistreated more than almost anyone else throughout the years.

“People in Appalachia can be a little hesitant to work with outsiders who claim to have their best interests at heart, and for good reason,” she said. “How many times have they heard that before only to be cheated out of their land, or poisoned by mine run-off, or misrepresented in the media as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies? But once they know you’re not out to take advantage of them, they’re some of the most decent, generous people you’ll ever meet. And far from ignorant.”

Gilleon also mentioned the fact that she’s visited with several old-time musicians in the area before and has enjoyed working with them. However, she said she’s still anticipating challenges when she begins later this year.

One of the biggest difficulties is working out the logistics to meet people, having time to set up her recording equipment and having the musicians all ready to play at the same time.

“I’ll have to roll with the punches and be flexible,” she said. “I won’t be able to operate like a professional recording studio where a group of musicians comes in at 11:40 sharp, ready to play through a polished repertoire. But that’s actually a good thing,” she adds. “Old-time music is more like an informal conversation than an on-stage monologue: if it sounds too scripted and rehearsed it loses its power. Some of my favorite old-time tracks are scratchy old field recordings where you can actually hear the musicians sneeze, or swear when they break a banjo string.”

Gilleon hopes to have her website up and running by August, and plans to give musicians complete control over their music. They can name their own price and sell their albums, or they can offer free streaming and downloads.

“I grew up in a family of artists and I have a real appreciation for people who produce creative work. More than anything, I want Ma Belle Music to be a good deal for the musicians: they get the lion’s share of the profits and maintain creative control over their work,” she said.

According to Gilleon, old-time music and its fans can be found outside of Southern Appalachia as well: “I know of festivals and groups in Montana, Washington, Oregon, and L.A., to name a few. And then there are hotspots here and there in places like Maryland, Ohio, Vermont, and the Ozarks.”

“I know there are lots of people out there who love this music,” she adds. “I can’t be the only one who wishes it had more of an online presence, especially people my age.” Part of that frustration comes from the fact that there are only a handful of distribution sites that cater specifically to old-time music, and they mostly sell physical CDs rather than offering digital downloads or streaming.

Old-time musicians perform at a recent jam session.
Old-time musicians perform at a recent jam session.

“There are one or two sites I know of that have a broad selection of old-time music for sale, but there usually aren’t digital samples to listen to so you won’t know what a new band or album sounds like until your CD comes in the mail. If you don’t like it and want to return it, that means paying shipping both ways and a lot of waiting. Since digital downloads are so convenient and widespread, most people aren’t willing to do that anymore. I’m not willing to do that and I love this stuff,” she said. Gilleon’s website, in contrast, will be entirely digital, offering quick MP3 downloads and streaming. “I think this is the single most effective thing I can do to make old-time music more accessible,” Gilleon adds.

As for the name Ma Belle Music, Gilleon drew her inspiration from a good friend she made while working on her film project in Appalachia several months ago. Her friend, Merita (also a musician), charmed Gilleon during her stay with stories of her spirited grandmother, Mahala Belle Partin – Ma Belle for short.

On Gilleon’s website she explains that, “Ma Belle embodied everything I’ve come to love about mountain music and culture.”
She continues, “In 1904, the 8-year-old Ma Belle learned to play a mean hard-driving clawhammer banjo and soon after began traveling on horseback along winding mountain paths to play at local dances. A young girl playing the banjo at dances was all but unheard of in those times, but Ma Belle was never afraid to go her own way.

“For the next eighty years, Ma Belle’s home was a gathering place for friends, family, and strangers who were drawn far and wide from the hills and hollows of southeastern Kentucky. Musicians came to play alongside Ma Belle’s famous banjo, guests flat footed and buck danced the night through, and everyone always found themselves eating far too much of her old-time country cooking.”
Gilleon said to her Ma Belle captures the spirit of Old-Time Music perfectly.

“Merita told me that Ma Belle never turned anyone away, but she would shoot at your feet if you got drunk and really started causing problems,” Gilleon said. “She’s a perfect representative of the free-spirited, independent, straight-shooting culture that old-time music grew out of.”

Gilleon said in her travels she’s met lots of friendly people who have carried the spirit of Ma Belle through the way they carry themselves and the way they play their music.

When asked for her opinion on race relations in the South and how that might have affected old-time music, Gilleon replied, “I haven’t done any research into racial tensions in the past few centuries between white mountain folk and the black musicians they shared the region with, so I’m really not sure about that. But the fact that old-time music exists at all means that black and white musicians were interacting in constructive ways at least part of the time. The genre was born when the Scots-Irish fiddle met the banjo, and the banjo is originally an African instrument played by black slaves and their descendants. So a full half of old-time music is black.”

She adds: “But there’s no denying that racism left its mark on old-time music. The majority of old-time musicians today are white and I think it’s because things like blackface minstrel shows (which were also popular in Northern cities like New York as well as Europe) made fun of rural black people and their music. The banjo in particular became a symbol of all that.

In an essay titled “Why Black Banjo,” Old-Time musician Tony Thomas talks about how racism did exist in the south during the 50s and 60s and continues today, even if it was consciously separated from this music itself.

“The old time South had a great racial mixture in music and culture as well as murderous terror against Black people,” he writes. “Youth influenced by cultural and political radicals revived old-time music in the late 1950s and early 1960s to embrace the culture and the struggles of poor and oppressed people, not to flee to the suburbs. The original Friends of Old Time Music had concerts not only for Tom Ashley and Dock Boggs, but also for Son House and Dock’s friend, Mississippi John Hurt. We cannot help but confront the fact, however, that not only was the South of the “old times” pervaded with racism, but that the society we live in, including the playing and discussion of old-time music, blues, and every other music, is pervaded with racism.”

Gilleon thinks there’s good reason to be optimistic. “There seems to be more and more interest in the banjo as an African and African American instrument, so I think people are beginning to see that part of old-time music differently – as both black and white, rather than just white. There are also some terrific black musicians who have cropped up in the past decade or so who play old-time music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops is one example. They’re one of my favorite bands. It seems like more and more black musicians are beginning to reclaim their musical history and approach old-time music again. I sure hope so.”

One of Gilleon’s long-term goals for her site is to explore and emphasize the important influence African Americans had on Appalachian old-time music.

At the end of the day, Gilleon said she hopes Ma Belle Music works toward helping old-time music return to music fans’ consciousness by opening it up to a new generation.

“I’m sure there are a lot of challenges ahead of me, but I never expected this to be easy,” she said. “I’m mainly motivated by frustration. It’s a real shame that those of us who don’t live in Appalachia have so little access to its music. I hope my site will help to improve that.”

While Gilleon has met her goal on Kickstarter, she’s still accepting donations, which will help her stay down in the area longer and make setting up some of the details of the website a little simpler. To donate, or to check out her Kickstarter, visit it online here.

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