Ken and Brad Kolodner, a father/son duo, will be performing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church’s Parish Hall in Walkersville at 7 p.m. Thursday. The former is one of the most distinguished hammered dulcimer players around while the latter is a “rising star in the clawhammer banjo world” (or so says their website). We caught up with them recently to talk about what it’s like keeping the music in the family, what their goals are, and, of course, what we can expect from their performance Thursday night.
Your website says that Ken is regarded as one of “the most influential hammered dulcimer players and old-time fiddlers in the U.S.” How did you earn that title? What do you think sets you apart from other players?
Ken: I would not say that it is a “title” so much as a perception among players and fans of the hammered dulcimer! An enthnomusicality student did her master’s thesis on the playing of the hammered dulcimer and I was rated as the most influential player in the U.S. A hammered dulcimer trade magazine did a poll where I was ranked second. Not that anyone should ever believe one’s press clippings, but here are a few. Sing Out! magazine wrote in 2011 that “Kolodner is a world-class multi-instrumentalist.” The Irish Times said, “Ken Kolodner single-handedly rekindled my love for the instrument. He really understands its possibilities and never holds back. There really is beauty, diversity, and movement and he brings it out to the full.” Folk Tales Magazine said, “Without a doubt, Ken Kolodner is one of the hammered dulcimer’s top exponents, playing with a dexterity which would stun many a would-be hammerer.” And there are many similar reviews from The New York Times (“outstanding … soulfully beautiful”) and elsewhere. I suppose that I have made it my mission as a hammered dulcimer player to focus on playing “musically” and precision and to surprise the listener in terms of chord choices, syncopations, improvisation and the interpretations of the music. I am very willing to take chances.
For Brad — what’s it like playing with your father? Was music always something you knew you’d want to pursue because of the family or was it something that took time to warm up to?
Brad: Playing with my father is incredible! I’ve always had a warm relationship with him, but it is particularly fun to collaborate musically. We have very similar musical tastes and sensibilities, which makes playing together feel very natural. I didn’t always aspire to play the music my father played growing up. When I was 17, I finally realized how much fun old-time music was when I picked up the banjo at a music camp. Over the past few years, I’ve pursued music professionally.
What would be the ultimate achievement at this point in your careers?
Brad: It’s hard to quantify our “ultimate” musical achievements in words. Our primary goals are to make good music and have fun. Perhaps our ultimate achievement is to continue developing musically as long as possible and spread our music as far as we can.
Ken: Achievements can be measured in terms of awards, CD sales, the number of recordings produced, concerts played and so on. But I am with Brad on this. I look at success as continuing to develop your craft, sharing the music as performers and teachers, and building the music community around us. As part of that, I have the amazing pleasure of watching my son develop as a musician and a person. What more could I ask for than to play music professionally with my son?!
Who are some of your major influences and why?
Brad: On the banjo, my primary influences are Richie Stearns and Adam Hurt. Both players stretch the boundaries of the old-time tradition by infusing their own creative and musical sensibilities. Richie was my first teacher.
Ken: Every player with whom I have partnered over the years has significantly influenced my playing. Certainly, the guys in Helicon – Chris Norman and Robin Bullock – fiddlers Laura Risk and Elke Baker – and now my son! Brad, did you forget about me?! We would be here a long time trying to identify all that I learned and continue to learn from while sharing the stage with these folks. If I had to distill it down to one major concept, it is how to listen better. I am still working on it.
You’ve played some pretty impressive venues. Where are some of your favorite places to play (cities/venues) and why?
Brad: The Creative Alliance in Baltimore is always one of our favorite places to play. It’s in our hometown of Baltimore and the house is frequently packed for our shows. I’m also particularly fond of the backyard concert we do every summer in my parents’ backyard in Baltimore. Over 175 people cram into their backyard for a glorified “house show.” Outside of Baltimore, I’ve had the opportunity to play at the Kennedy Center, the Birchmere, and Strathmore. All three of those venues are top-notch.
Ken: Some of my favorite concerts been some of the more casual and small venues. In Maryland, certainly the Creative Alliance and the Avalon Theater come to mind. A few years ago, we played in a small church in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. It was so packed that half the audience had to sit outside of the church to hear us. The “backyard concert” is the shortest commute for me and so much fun. On the bigger side are shows such as Helicon’s Winter Solstice every late December. We have our 30th anniversary concert coming up this year and hope for 2,000 people to attend. I love performing at festivals as well (like Old Songs in New York). The diversity of type of venue really makes things interesting.
Could you give us some names of some great lesser-known original artists we might not already know? Who are you a fan of and who should we keep an eye on?
Brad: I’m a DJ for WAMU’s Bluegrass Country every Wednesday from 12 to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 9 p.m. to midnight. In the Frederick/Hagerstown area, you can tune in on 93.5 FM. I mention this because lesser-known yet wonderfully talented artists come to my attention on a weekly basis. Currently, I’m a big fan of Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, The Stray Birds, and I Draw Slow.
What does the rest of 2015 hold for both Ken and Brad Kolodner?
Ken and Brad: We have a busy fall so I’ll just mention the highlights. We play an Appalachian Festival in Frostburg on Saturday. Locally, we have a big concert the day after Thanksgiving with Brad’s new band, Charm City Junction, which fuses old-time, bluegrass and Irish music. The biggest concert of the year is on December 19 at Goucher College in Towson. This will be the 30th Anniversary of Helicon’s Winter Solstice and Ken & Brad will play a few tunes with Charm City Junction. Outside of the area, we’re playing the Savannah Folk Festival in early October, a concert series in Williamsburg, Virginia, in late November, and a mini-tour to the Phoenix area in December. We’re also working on piecing together music for our third studio album. We hope to begin recording in early 2016. Ken is also teaching – for three weeks – master classes for hammered dulcimer in Sandbridge Virginia. About 60 players attend, coming from 25 states, Russia and Canada. Our full calendar for 2015 and beyond can be found online at www.kenandbrad.com.
And finally what can we expect from your show at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church? Do you have any surprises in store?
Ken and Brad: Expect to hear some things you’ve probably never heard before. The banjo and hammered dulcimer are at the core of our show. We like to do a variety of textures just with those two instruments, but we also mix in a few songs, twin fiddles, guitar, the banjola, gourd banjo, and the hammered mbira. Don’t know what some of those things are? Well, I guess you should come and find out! You won’t be disappointed. We’re always looking to stretch the boundaries of traditional music while keeping your feet tapping and head bobbing.