The Black Twig Pickers keep old-time music fresh

Written by: Dan Radmacher
February 1, 2012

This is the first in an occasional series of articles and videos highlighting the people and culture of Appalachia.

Before he went to law school, Appalachian Mountain Advocates attorney Isak Howell was a reporter at The Roanoke Times. While there, he got together with two other reporters – Mike Gangloff and Ralph Berrier Jr. – to form the Black Twig Pickers, an old-time music trio.

Nearly twelve years later, the Twigs are still together, though the lineup has changed. The core trio includes Howell on guitar, Gangloff on fiddle and banjo and Nathan Bowles on banjo and percussion. Fiddler Sally Morgan often joins them in performances as does bass player Sam Linkous.

The Twigs are regulars at the Floyd County Store, which hosts a Friday Jamboree every week. They also play regularly at The Cellar and Gillie’s in Blacksburg. (For upcoming performances, click here.)

Old-time music exists everywhere, but Howell thinks the Appalachian region has done better at keeping the music alive. Gangloff and Howell both believe the geography of Appalachia infuses the music, though neither seem to think that the oft-noted isolation of the Appalachian people has much to do with that.

“I, and probably we, can’t subscribe to the idea that this region was just a preservative pickle jar for old sounds,” said Howell.  ”We can’t subscribe to it because we see too much variation and too many personal contributions, to believe that this is just Scottish/Irish stuff that was preserved through infrastructure isolation.”

But the geography comes through, Howell said, as it does in music everywhere. “Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence plays with the rhythm of the sea, gangsta rappers sound like pavement and gunfire, and old-time sounds like mountains and creeks and trains and horse hooves (sometimes overtly and cheesily, sometimes more subtly).  So, whether or not ‘Yew Piney Mountain’ was originally rooted in a family story or a Civil War battle, it can and does work today as an impression of the place itself.”

“It’s a traditional music that’s part of the landscape around here,” Gangloff said. “The songs are tied very directly to physical features and to events, and it just resonates particularly well.”

Gangloff has gotten into the habit of seeking out older players, such as fiddler Richard Bowman, to learn their songs – though imitation is not the goal.

“I think we feel like we’re creating something not just preserving something,” said Howell. “We feel like we are making music, not playing someone else’s music.

The Twigs have recorded about seven albums, including full-length collaborations with other artists. The most recent releases were “Ironto Special” in 2010; “Glory in the Meeting House,” a gospel collaboration with singer-guitarist Charlie Parr, also in 2010; and “Eastmont Syrup/Even to Win is to Fail,” a split LP with songs from the Twigs, Parr and guitarist Glenn Jones, which was released in 2011.

Currently, they’re working on several recording projects, including a a 7-inch vinyl record of “Yellow Cat” backed with “You’ll Never Miss Your Mama,” which is coming out on the Thrill Jockey label in April.

For more about the Black Twig Pickers, check out the band’s Facebook page and blacktwigpickers.org.

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