Hear It First: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, ‘Fiddler’s Pastime’
Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ solo debut album has the perfect title: Fiddler’s Pastime, out September 4, is both a loving tribute to tradition as well as an embrace of the moments every day when she pulls her fiddle out of its case to practice or to write. Keith-Hynes showcases not only fiery playing but also her tune writing on four of the instrumentals on the album. Banjoist Wes Corbett of the Sam Bush Band produced the album, joining her on a couple of tunes, and she’s joined on the album by guests Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Laura Orshaw, and Chris Eldridge. The result is a high-energy paean to the fiddle and Keith-Hynes’ vision of the limitless musical paths it can travel in bluegrass. She calls the album a celebration of her first year in living in Nashville: “I moved here in 2018 and it’s been a really inspiring time in my life, being surrounded by this incredible music scene. I felt like I had to make an album to capture some things I’m excited about right now.”
The album kicks off in high-style with the animated “Hendersonville Hop.” Living up to its name, the tune scampers and hops, led by Keith-Hynes’ spirited bowing and scrapping, chased around by spry mandolin and guitar picking. The merry rambler spirals ever higher and higher, lifting us out of our seats with its romping, rollicking rhythms. Keith-Hynes started writing while she was on tour with Mile Twelve in 2019. As she recalls, “We had played a show at a house concert series the night before and spent the night at the house, and the next morning I was trying to use our parked minivan as a practice space before we got on the road for the day and it wasn’t working very well, my bow kept hitting the ceiling.” Frenetic fiddling opens Keith-Hynes’ take on Peter Rowan’s “Last Train,” mimicking the frantic attempt by the singer to reach the train carrying her lover away. The song skitters along on Sarah Jarosz’s soaring bluesy vocals, which are tinged with sorrow and regret; the minor chord song captures the lament of the singer, but the darting and scurrying music belie the song’s sadness. Keith-Hynes “wanted something vibey but still bluegrass to record with her, so this Peter Rowan song seemed like a perfect fit.” She says it brings to mind “some of those epic Boston bluegrass picking parties where we met.”
The title track lives up to its name: it’s a twin fiddle extravaganza featuring Laura Orshaw, fiddler with the Po Ramblin Boys, and it captures perfectly the beauty of fiddles and the joy of playing the fiddle and hearing it. The two stretch out on the Bill Monroe and Vassar Clements- penned tune, weaving over and around and under each other in a high-spirited, yet somber, celebration. The track is a match made in fiddler’s heaven, for we can feel the intimacy in music, the ways that one player intuitively anticipates the other’s direction, and the spontaneity that flows out of this intimacy. Keith-Hynes and Orshaw have been playing on stage together for years, but this is the first time they’ve recorded together. “She’s a fiddle hero to me,” says Keith-Hynes.
Dashing off in in a mad rush, “Open Water” hurtles along, with Sierra Hull’s blazing mandolin runs chasing Keith-Hynes’ soaring fiddle flights. Mandolin and fiddle dart and dash, flying along the open expanse of a lake, revealing new musical vistas at every turn. Keith-Hynes recalls, “This was the first tune I wrote for the album and also the first one we recorded. I started writing it in Raleigh, North Carolina during the 2019 IBMA World Of Bluegrass; there’s a week that will inspire you to write a bluegrass tune if anything will! Sierra’s amazingly creative playing helped it come to life in the studio and when we were done it was so exciting to hear the finished track and know that this tune is where the whole album started.”
“North Garden” opens with a leisurely fiddle run and blooms into serene ramble in which mandolin, guitar, banjo, and fiddle all follow one another down various garden paths. Recalls Keith-Hynes, “I grew up about 10 miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia in an area of Albemarle County called North Garden. It was beautiful out there, we had a little farm and I had some pretty highly trained pet chickens. This tune reminded me of the peacefulness of that childhood and the time and space I was given back then to explore my passion for music.” The stately “Michelle’s Waltz,” which Keith-Hynes wrote for her cousin Michelle Szetela, who passed away last spring, evokes the sorrow and melancholy of loss in slowly unfolding and gently circling melodies and harmonies.
Producer Wes Corbett joins Keith-Hynes for a joyous, foot-stomping banjo and fiddle breakdown on “Happy Hollow.” As she says, “Wes has been a great friend and mentor for years and he’s one of my favorite people to play music with. I rented a room in his house when I first moved to Nashville and we would play fiddle and banjo tunes almost every day, which was a huge source of inspiration for this album.”
Chris Eldridge vocals on John Hartford’s “Natchez Whistle” float over the cascading arpeggios of his sparkling finger-picked guitar and the crystalline runs of Keith-Hyne’s mournful fiddle. The sonic sparseness of the song creates an ethereal spaciousness in which we can dwell momentarily, hearing with Eldridge the haunting sound of the steamboat whistle. “I love the imagery in this spooky John Hartford song,” says Keith-Hynes. Chris came up with a really cool way of playing it and we recorded into the evening on the last day. I was so excited when Chris agreed to play on this album, he’s a huge musical hero to me and it was really cool to get a little peek into his creative process while arranging and recording.”
The album closes with an electrifying version of the Delmore Brothers’ “I Don’t Know Why.” Tim O’Brien lends his vocals to this scampering, dance-across-the-floor version, which kicks off with Keith-Hynes’ propulsive bowing and never lets up in its high-energy, kick-up-our-heels vibe. Keith-Hynes recalls, “I heard this song on a Red Allen recording and thought it was really catchy. I like the tenor part on the choruses, and I thought that melody would sound cool on fiddle. We sped it up a bit from that version and it turned into kind of a party tune – the rhythm section is grooving like crazy and I think you can hear we’re having a good time.”
Fiddler’s Pastime delivers a good time and illustrates Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ ability to stretch out and follow her fiddle where it leads her as she travels brilliantly down various creative paths, illuminating our ways as we accompany her.
‘Fiddler’s Pastime’ is available for pre-order now – HERE.