Kicked Up a Devil of a Row marks the 5th release by Georgia-based Old-Time, dynamic duo Hog-Eyed Man and the 29th release from Los Angeles based Old-Time Tiki Parlour Recordings. This powerhouse duo features North Carolina fiddler Jason Cade and Georgia multi-instrumentalist Rob McMaken on Appalachian lap dulcimer and mandolin. The duo is joined on this recording by California banjo players Maxine Gerber and Brendan Doyle and the Old-Time Tiki Parlour’s own David Bragger on guitar.
Kicked up a Devil of a Row is a treasure trove of rare, archaic, crooked and delightfully gritty Old-Time Appalachian fiddle tunes. Jason grew up in the small unincorporated community of Celo, Yancey County in the mountains of western North Carolina, not far from fiddler and tune collector Bruce Green who mentored Jason as a kid. As such, many of these tunes come by way of Bruce as well as old recordings of seminal North Carolina fiddlers Marcus Martin, Osey Helton and Byard Ray along with Kentucky fiddlers John Salyer and Isham Monday. Jason and Rob are no strangers to Irish Trad. so, rounding out the repertoire are a few classic Irish fiddle tunes given the Appalachian-treatment as well as the East Texas Serenaders’ Three-in-One Two Step.
Kicked up a Devil of a Row includes a 13 page insert with comprehensive liner notes covering the tune sources, anecdotal stories and tunings used for fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, and banjos. Like their previous recording Old World Music of the Southern Appalachians this latest recording is graced with the whimsical and stunning artwork of Texas fiddler Howard Rains.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Jason and Rob last month. Enjoy.
Pat Mac Swyney (PS): How did the two of you meet and begin playing together?
Rob McMaken (RM): Jason and I had both separately recorded and played shows with Jonathan Byrd in the early 2000s. Jonathan got us together in the studio in Carrboro, North Carolina. We spent about 3 days together, writing arrangements, working out parts, eating, drinking, and playing.
Jason Cade (JC): Yeah, I had lived in the Durham/Chapel Hill area for about ten years but had just moved to Brooklyn, so I flew back, and we made this deep album called “The Sea and the Sky,” which still has somewhat of cult following, at least regionally. Jonathan’s songwriting bridges old-time, bluegrass, Irish, and rock n’ roll, and he’s a terrific performer.
RM: Anyway, after that recording Jason flew back to NYC and I went back to Athens, Georgia. 10 years later, I ran into Jason at a park in Athens! Jason had just moved to town, and both of us had little kids and full-time teaching gigs. We got together and played, and I was blown away by how strong and musical Jason’s playing was. It didn’t take long for us to realize that our instruments and habits were blending really well and that we could easily do some kind of project together. One day I asked something like “okay so what kind of music do you want to focus on?” Jason then revealed a longstanding desire to get back to his Appalachian music roots.
JC: I think I was kind of sheepishly like, “would it be okay if we just played Appalachian old-time music?” Rob had played a fair amount of old-time tunes with his brother and street busking in New Orleans, and it’s what I was raised on, but I had never thought of it as something I would put out into the world, rather than just play it at home.
RM: The rest is history. Here we are, 5 albums later.
PS: What are your earliest musical memories?
RM: Ooh that’s a good one. I guess, lying in the backseat of our station wagon on the way up to the mountains at night, listening to my mother sing “All the pretty little horses.” Then flash forward to hearing Van Halen 1 and Michael Jackson’s Thriller at my neighbor’s house.
JC: For me, it’s group singing at Quaker Meeting in Celo, NC, where I grew up. I loved requesting songs. “Walk in the Light” (the George Fox song) was a particular favorite. Besides that, early musical memories include running wild at the now long-gone Black Mountain Music Festival and driving to Asheville to see the Nutcracker Suite each winter and occasional touring musicians like Itzhak Perlman and Stephen Grappelli.
PS: Jason and I share a background in Irish Trad and Rob and I share busking as street musicians. Can you both share a little about your musical backgrounds?
RM: I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. Like a lot of rootless suburban folks, my path to finding traditional music was a long and meandering one. I was really into rock & roll in high school, then moved to New Orleans for college and discovered a whole new approach to music as less of a commodity and more of an essential human need. I didn’t think of myself as a professional musician, and that gave me freedom to learn all kinds of music that interested me, from Irish to klezmer to jazz and Latin American music. After college, I formed and toured with a world music duo called Dromedary that played a hodge-podge of different traditional international music styles, and I got to play with lots of different kinds of musicians and performing artists while in that project. That was fun and fulfilling but ran its course. A few years later, after I had settled down in Athens and was teaching high school full time, Jason came along and re-ignited my interest in making music. We decided to stay hyper-focused on playing old, archaic Appalachian tunes, and it has been surprisingly gratifying and endlessly interesting.
JC: When I was 7 years old, I started learning the Suzuki method from a woman named Becky Morrisey who made the hour-plus trek from Asheville on Saturdays to teach violin in a church in Yancey County. About one year later, I think it was 1983, my parents moved us to Cork, Ireland for a year. At that time my mom had been learning fiddle from Byard Ray of Madison County, and in Ireland she took Irish trad lessons from a guy named Gerry Cronin. After we returned to NC I kept going with Suzuki and various youth ensembles. My mom had wanted Byard to teach me to fiddle, but he passed away before I was quite old enough. It turned out that Bruce Greene was just a couple miles down the road from us in Celo, so I started visiting him and learning tunes in “the Pentangle.” I traded blueberries and goat milk from my parents’ farm for his rare fiddle tunes. Of course, I didn’t actually know they were rare until much later or that Bruce was so well-known! From the very start of that experience, I was enamored with Bruce, with fiddle tunes, and with other fiddlers in the area who I often got to hear play in those days. When I needed my first glasses in sixth grade, I chose the round wire ones like Bruce and Red Wilson wore. Skipping ahead to about age 19, I discovered my mom’s cassettes from Ireland. There were her lessons with Gerry Cronin, and tapes he had dubbed for her of classic Irish fiddlers like Michael Coleman. My jaw was on the floor. When I was home in the summers, I started driving to Asheville for a weekly trad session, and that led to crashing the Swannanoa Gathering, and, eventually, to a year abroad at UC-Dublin where I spent much of my free time in pubs soaking up the music or practicing ornaments. Part of this story too is that in those years–the late 90s and early ‘00s–I had trouble finding people my age in the South who played old-time music and especially any who played the same tunes, which was pretty much exclusively a Bruce Greene repertoire. I think the old-time scene wasn’t as robust as it is now. As a result, my old-time music stayed private for a really long time. I thought of it as music for myself, or the occasional time that I’d run into Bruce and have a chance for a tune. Instead, the social musical communities I found in my 20s and 30s were mostly Irish trad, with ventures into bluegrass and country music. I haven’t played much Irish trad in the last decade, but all the tunes are still there when I run into friends from that world.
PS: It seems like a lot of Hog-Eyed Man tunes fall in the Scots-Irish side of the old-time repertoire.
JC: It’s fun to dig into the connections between old-time tunes played by the western NC and eastern KY source fiddlers we admire and tunes still played in Ireland or Scotland. And every once in a while, an Irish tune that I used to play will surface in my rewired brain, tweaked through the old-time prism, like “Isolation” and “Foxhunter’s Jug” on this new album, or “Spike Island Gals” on the last one.
PS: Which traditional musicians have influenced you most?
JC: Well, obviously Bruce Greene for me. I’ve known Bruce for almost four decades now, and the tunes I’ve learned from him or from the Kentucky old timers he brought to light comprise at least 82% of my repertoire and style. He’s just the best there is, in my opinion. Beyond that north star, I’ve learned a fair amount of Byard Ray’s music, primarily because he taught my mom and was encouraging of me when I first started out, and of course from the recorded legends of Blue Ridge Mountain fiddling, like Marcus Martin, Osey Helton, Manco Sneed, Allen Sisson, and Bill Hensley. Regarding modern traditional fiddlers, it’s dangerous to start naming names because I know I’ll inadvertently leave someone out. I always love to hear music from Rhys Jones, Rayna Gellert, Tati Hargreaves, Sonya Badigian, Nokosee Fields… and of course Molsky, Leftwich, and Rafe. The Onlies are super fun. But in terms of other current fiddlers with similar sensibilities who I enjoy playing with and have learned some tunes from, that’d be primarily Scott Prouty, Mitch Depew, and Jimmy Triplett.
PS: Do you take any inspiration from outside of old-time music?
JC: Is Jake Loew outside of old-time music?
RM: Oh man, well I really have no idea where to start and end. Beyond traditional Appalachian music, I can’t imagine Hog-Eyed Man’s music without the specific influence of Irish players Caoimhin o Raghallaigh and Mick O Brien.
JC: Yeah, the way they interact musically as a duo is definitely something we’ve strived for.
PS: And beyond traditional music, what other musicians do you hold in high regard?
RM: I can’t imagine my life without Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Douglas, Ali Farka Toure, Sonic Youth, the Edge, J.S. Bach, Nina Simone, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Anais Mitchell, Jonathan Byrd, Jeff Buckley, Herbie Hancock, Martin Hayes … I literally don’t know where to stop.
JC: I’ve got a 13 year old guitar playing son who is soaking up everything rock right now, so my headspace outside of trad music at the moment is rediscovering and sharing all my favorite punk and alternative bands of the 80s and 90s. Archers of Loaf, Bad Brains, the Descendants, the Dead Milkmen, the Cure, the Clash, Polvo, Superdrag, Fugazi, Siouxsie… The soundtrack of my teen years.
PS: Huge fan of Texas fiddler and artist Howard Rains who created the cover art. How did you decide on that imagery and is there meaning behind it?
RM: Yeah, I love Howard’s work so much, independent of his great album covers for the Tiki Parlour. During the pandemic, I would frequently watch his live streams and follow his evolution as a visual artist. I teach art history in a public high school right now, and I’ve even put some of Howard’s work into my PowerPoint’s for kids to look at and talk about. Since David Bragger is also a big fan of Howard’s aesthetics it just made sense to involve Howard again.
JC: Plus, Howard is so easy to work with. Rob’s experience with old-time music, and I guess music generally, is so much more visual than mine, if that makes sense. So I generally hand the initial development of graphics and design aesthetics for our work over to him.
RM: When I first communicated with Howard about what we wanted for a visual concept for “Kicked Up a Devil of a Row,” it made sense to translate that title into modern language, which is basically something like “start a riot” or “# some # up.” Not to get too deep, but both Howard and I had been lately attracted to images in Hinduism depicting Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, who destroys, and in the same movement, mysteriously creates anew. Ultimately, I was led back to some of Howard’s previous work depicting a noble rainbow dragon whose presence portends a mysterious nobility and hopefulness amidst a chaotic and embattled modern landscape. Then we took it from there. I’m not gonna get too much more into what the imagery means to me personally, but I’m very happy with it, and I very much enjoyed working on it with Howard.
JC: I love it so much, and also that Howard hand paints everything. For those who get the physical CD, there’s more of Howard’s art in the package, including some fabulous drawings of instruments that fit perfectly.
PS: You’ve had different guest musicians on each of the last three studio albums you made. How do you decide who to play with for each recording and what’s your approach to performing the tunes when you play live if you don’t have the same personnel available?
JC: It’s just been a matter of who’s in our orbit in the years leading up to the recording. The seeds for “Kicked Up a Devil” were planted both from a couple years of jams at Clifftop with Max and Brendan, and the 2019 fiddler’s convention in Santa Barbara, CA, where we hung out and played tunes with them at the campsite, and they both joined parts of our set.
RM: When playing with someone feels and sounds good and unique, it just all falls together. Brendan and Max each have very deliberate and distinctive styles, and they have been pursuing and playing this music for so long that it was frankly an honor that they were excited to meet us in LA and spend some days playing with us. The fact that it all worked out was a testament to David Bragger’s (and his family’s) commitment to keeping this music alive and evolving against the odds. Tune by tune, I think Jason and I usually start trying to see if we can make something interesting as a duo. We’ll spend time finding just the right instrumentation and tuning until it feels both faithful to the source and that it brings out the unique qualities of the tune. If it works, we often just leave it as a duo recording. But some tunes don’t feel quite right yet and get put on the back burner. On “Kicked,” this happened with Brad Walters–we needed Max’s banjo to complete the vision we had for the tune. Actually, I took myself off of some tunes on this album because “Isolation” and “Sweet ‘Bama” sounded best with just fiddle and banjo and “Glory in the Meetinghouse” needed to be just that haunting lone fiddle. When I’m listening back to this stuff, I don’t even really think about who is playing what. I just hear whether it grooves and works, and in this collection, I think we made good decisions about personnel and arrangement, because it all blends well. David has such a great vibe and always fits in on whatever he plays, and so he ended up getting roped in on guitar to sessions that he was otherwise filming, tracking, mixing, and editing! He’s incredible.
JC: I don’t think many people know how good David is on old-time guitar, so it’s nice to feature that too.
PS: Although the mountain or lap dulcimer is widely played by folks just doing it for fun, it doesn’t show up much in old-time performances or on modern old-time recordings. Why do you think that’s the case, and who are your influences for the dulcimer?
RM: It’s a great question. It could be a really long answer I suppose, or a really short one. Either way, it’s a beautiful instrument, and it’s clearly underutilized. I remember the first time I heard it as a teenager in the North Georgia mountains and I was blown away by its meditative, droning quality. Somehow, I got my hands on one and got some cassette tapes by a great dulcimer player and luthier named Bob Thomason who lived about an hour away from me up in Sautee-Nacoochee. Over the years, while playing guitar and mandolin more seriously, I would keep coming back to the dulcimer and would even try to fit it into all kinds of international music I was playing at the time.
JC: When I first started playing Old Time music with Rob, I was most drawn to his lap dulcimer playing. Still am. Part of it has to be how much I’ve heard Bruce Greene and Don Pedi playing duets and I love that sound. But Rob’s dulcimer approach is really unique for bringing out the rhythmic and expressive qualities of each tune.
RM: I just try to complement and support Jason’s approach to Appalachian fiddling on whatever instrument makes the most sense. The more I’ve gotten to play dulcimer with other players, the more I have been asked the question you are asking. I do think that dulcimer rarely sounds that interesting in any ensemble larger than three instruments. It is often best paired with just fiddle in old-time music, because the dulcimer functions like Irish uilleann pipe, providing a drone and locking in with the fiddle rhythmically and tonally. The result is a bunch of colliding harmonics and intertwining melody lines that make it sound like more than two people are playing. When that happens, it’s magical.
PS: Anything else you’d like to share?
RM: Just that it’s been a joy to discover and hear and meet and play with so many people that are deep in the tradition that we draw from. And it’s an honor that people dig it and seemingly keep wanting us to record more of it.
JC: Or at least they have no legal way to stop us.
Pat Mac Swyney is a Los Angeles-based musician and teacher who plays Traditional Jazz with The SWING RIOTS Quirktette; Balkan with NEVENKA & Orkestar PEČURKA; Old-Time with SAUSAGE GRINDER; & Irish+ with The DIRTY MICKEYS.
Interview with Rob McMaken & Jason Cade of Hog-Eyed Man
Kicked Up a Devil of a Row
Tiki Parlour Recordings