Old tunes, new time

2008-01-17T00:00:00Z Old tunes, new timeEMILY DONAHOE - Independent Record - 01/17/08 Helena Independent Record

When Helena viola player Michael Willing and guitarist-singer Adam Nordell traveled to Sidney to perform some old-time string music, they didn't expect anybody to show up.

But the place was packed, says Nordell, mostly with older folks who came to hear the familiar tunes they know and love.

Nordell and Willing, along with Zack Davis, Johanna Davis and Nate Pope, are hoping to bring that music to an audience as young as they are with their new collaboration, the AM String Band.

The group has been granted a monthlong residency at the Montana Artists Refuge and also awarded a grant from the Montana Arts Council.

As many bands do, the AM String Band evolved naturally from a collaboration between two Helena musicians, who, along with Will Boland and Andrea Cross-Guns, were performing locally for a while as The Third Wheels.

The group disbanded, but Willing says playing with Nordell was "too much fun to quit." Instead, the duo decided to take its music to another level by applying for the MAR residency and bringing in a few more collaborators (and friends of Nordell): fiddle, banjo and mandolin player Zack Davis; fiddle and five-string banjo player Johanna Davis and five-string banjo and guitar player Pope.

"We're not folks who grew up in the same place in the same musical tradition," said Pope, whose own musical history revolves around early blues music and ragtime.

Neither Willing nor Nordell started out playing old-time string music, either.

A stand-up bass player to begin with, Nordell graduated to electric bass and guitar as a young musician and was into jazz and reggae, among other things. But when he arrived in Maine to attend college, there was no music scene like that for him to become a part of, so he began playing with folk musicians Zack Davis and Pope instead.

When he returned to Montana and started The Third Wheels, Nordell found himself playing with another unlikely folk-music convert. Viola player Willing, who also performs with the Great Falls and Glacier Symphonies, as well as Bozeman's Brandhout Ensemble, is steeped in a classical music tradition.

Although he sees similarities between the baroque music he loves and folk music, Willing says old-time fiddle tunes require a whole different approach.

"I had never played any kind of folk music at all," says Willing. "I had to totally untwist my mind from the rigidities of music formality."

Originally from Maine, brother and sister Zack and Johanna grew up with old time music and the contra dance tradition. Contra dance is just simple line dancing that's led by a caller -- you know, swing your partner, do-si-do.

"There's a lot of fiddle music in Maine," said Zack. "The contra dance itself is very much New England."

For all five of the group's members, this is the first time they've had the luxury of getting to sit around and play music all day long. One of their main projects is to integrate Nordell's original songs with traditional tunes.

"It's incredibly productive," said Nordell. "Just within a single day, we make an incredible amount of progress."

Overall, the musicians say they're simply enjoying learning from each other's playing styles and sensibilities.

"There's huge room for musical exchange," said Nordell.

In addition, the group has a jam-packed calendar of concerts and contra dances to perfom in the next month. Nordell hopes the younger set in Helena will catch on to contra dance the way he hears it has in Bozeman.

"People just don't realize that it's happening," says Nordell. "It's a great time."

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