Duo devoted to magic of old-time music

May 09, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

JODY Stecher and Kate Brislin have found the epicenter of old-time music, admirers say. They speak of the duet's ability to conjure the form's eerie "high lonesome" sound without note-for-note replication of old 78s, recorded once upon a time in a primitive, Southern studio.

Scholars of the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar, and possessed of voices that blend seamlessly into traditional ballads and blues and jazzy early country sounds, Stecher and Brislin appear to have been made for each other -- as musicians and as mates.

The couple performs at 8 p.m. tomorrow night at Catonsville Community College Theatre, in the second concert of the 1991 TrueVine series.

Brislin and Stecher, speaking over the phone from their San Francisco home, try to explain their knack for striking the spine-tingling, goose-bump harmonies that characterize old-time music -- the stuff that prefigured bluegrass -- at its most visceral. "Part of it is being very focused on the sounds we're making," Brislin says. That focus "magically translates to the audience. They in turn get focused. When the whole room is that locked in to what sounds are being made, when something like that happens, it's hair raising," she says.

Stecher looks to the Old World for a partial answer.

"There's something in the old music -- I hear it in old Gallic singing and certainly in piping -- that makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up. It happens in all ancient music, all around the world," he says.

Stecher and Brislin's work together reflects an unwavering devotion to traditional Appalachian music, which has only been strengthened by their study of other musical forms.

Stecher, Brooklyn-born, grew up in a musical home, listening to the distant signals of old-time radio stations. By his early teens, Stecher was recognized as something of a prodigy who could hold his own in old-time and bluegrass bands formed during the '50s and early '60s, a seminal era for American folk music.

Later, Stecher's interest in ethnic music took him to Mexico and the Bahamas where he and colleagues produced important field recordings of local folk music. Transplanted to San Francisco, he played with the likes of Jerry Garcia and David Bromberg and recorded several old-time music albums. Stecher also pursued his fascination with Indian music as a student of the sarod, a stringed instrument. With sitarist Krishna Bhatt and Brislin, he recorded "Rasa," (Roots), perhaps the only record to combine Indian and bluegrass music.

Brislin, born in Ohio, also grew up in a musically gifted family. Inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers and others folk groups, she played guitar and sang with her sisters. In San Francisco, a computer programming job gradually gave way to a career in music. Brislin became a mainstay of the local old-time music scene as a founding member of the all-female Any Old Time Stringband, and a number of other groups.

Stecher and Brislin met in 1974 at the World Expo in Spokane. In their combined voices, they found a happy chemistry. "She was always my favorite harmony singer," Stecher says. Later, their musical union and friendship led to marriage. Together, they have just produced a second album, "Blue Lightning." Their first recording, "A Song That Will Linger," released in 1989, received bravos all around from folk enthusiasts.

Stecher dismisses any role he might have played as a major contributor to American folk music's historical and cultural significance. "I'm interested in the music, because of the music, its emotional and spiritual value and spiritual nourishment," he says, simply.

Tickets for tomorrow's concert are available at Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville and Baltimore Bluegrass on Belair Road. Admission: $10 in advance and for students and children, anytime; $12.50 for adults at the door. Call 235-2522.

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