Fiddler on the Shed: An Interview With David Bragger

Music is one of the greatest gifts that we have on this earth. Whether you write it, play it, mix it, or simply listen – everyone can feel it. It’s a means of expression that isn’t bound by language or education level, and since the dawn of time, people and cultures across the globe have utilized music to connect, share stories, and pass traditions down to generations to come.

Like many traditions, music continues to evolve throughout the years resulting in more genres and sub-genres to explore than humanly possible. While many musicians are looking to the future and working to create sounds and styles that have never been heard before, it’s important to look back and recognize the unsung heroes who are doing their part to keep true traditional music alive and thriving. Today we’re taking a moment to recognize one of those not-so-unsung heroes who has played an integral role in preserving the traditions of old-time American folk music – who also happens to be a Studio Shed customer!

David Bragger is a Los Angeles-based old-time musician and instructor, director of the UCLA Old-Time String Band Ensemble (where he teaches fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar), and co-founder of Tiki Parlour Recordings – an independent label devoted solely to hardcore traditional music where every release is 100% produced by traditional musicians. In 2009, David founded The Old-Time Tiki Parlour, the online headquarters of Tiki Parlour Recordings, as a space for the greatest living traditional masters to bring concerts, workshops, jam-sessions, film, and recordings to Los Angeles and beyond.

David has devoted his life to playing, documenting, and celebrating American folk music and is passionate about passing down the old-time music traditions to new generations, worldwide. He is a wildly popular workshop instructor at music festivals and camps across the nation and abroad, but mostly teaches traditional American music on the fiddle and banjo from his Studio Shed in Los Angeles!

We caught up with David to learn more about his journey to becoming one of the greatest old-time American musicians of our time and to hear what he and the Old-Time Tiki Parlour have been up to lately.

When did you first become interested in old-time American/folk music? What was it about this genre that you first fell in love with?

I inherited my great uncle’s fiddle when I was in my mid-20s. Soon after, I encountered my aunt’s banjo while visiting her in Pennsylvania. Those were pivotal moments for me. I was hooked on the sound instantly. I was also a fan of Doc Watson and early country blues pickers. This all occurred just before I left for India to study street magic and collect folktales. However, while in India I couldn’t stop thinking about the banjo! When I returned home three months later, I purchased a cheap banjo and started studying old-time fiddle and banjo. I was especially obsessed with the old sounds from old recordings made in the 20s and 30s, as well as a handful of living musicians who retained those magical sounds in their playing. Artists like Edden Hammons, Tommy Jarrell, Louie Bluie, Bruce Molsky, Dan Gellert, Jim Bowles, Dink Roberts, Joe Thompson and the list goes on.

 

How did you get started with your music? Are you self-taught or did you take banjo/fiddle lessons?

I was lucky to study under two masters from two generations: Tom Sauber and Mel Durham. Like several great old-time musicians from different parts of the country, Mel moved to SoCal from Illinois just after World War II. He and Tom Sauber had a huge impact on the old-time scene in these parts. Since this is traditional music, it makes a huge difference to learn from somebody who knows the old secrets and teaches by ear. It’s not really a sheet music or a DIY genre. It’s a traditional art best learned master-apprentice style. Multi-instrumentalist and old-time god Tom Sauber taught me so much.

 

Have you noticed any changes in the old-time/folk genre since you first started playing?

There are many more people playing old-time music now compared to when I started. Especially younger folks. It’s really become a thriving genre, but it isn’t exactly the same as bluegrass. Bluegrass is a commercial offshoot of the old-time traditions that were happening in people’s homes for many generations way before Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs came along. There were also African American fiddle and banjo players that had a huge impact on traditional old-time players like myself. The African American and indigenous influences in this music are undeniable and basically absent from modern-day bluegrass music. These influences are heavily cherished in old-time music and many of the younger musicians today are representing the diverse side of our tradition. This is a wonderful thing.

How has your style/music evolved over time?

The rhythmic nuances of fiddle bowing and clawhammer banjo are a lifetime devotion. I’m constantly working on rhythmic expression and digging up old melodies and recordings that give me new obsessions to work on. As time moves forward, I keep reaching back further to develop the old sounds. Ironically, while many contemporary Americana musicians are trying to be new and innovative, musicians like myself are reaching into the depths of history and repeatedly re-discovering that past musicians were doing more interesting and awe-inspiring things, by and large. Old is the “new” new.

 

Which recording from your discography are you most proud of? I know this is a difficult question, so feel free to pick a few!

Impossible! My solo CD “Big Fancy” was a major feat. It reflects the music that I’ve been obsessed with since I started playing. It also features two tunes from the once enslaved fiddler Alonzo Janes who taught these tunes to my mentor Mel Durham. I’ve also connected with his descendants and am currently teaching two Janes family members the music of their great patriarch. It’s an amazing story and I’m honored to be part of this lineage.

My second CD “King’s Lament” I recorded with Susan Platz. It’s the first double fiddle CD in the old-time genre. That album is groundbreaking, and it’s even embraced by the electronic music crowd of all things!

“Holy Smoke” was my third CD that I recorded with one of my fiddle idols Rafe Stefanini, the great Italian old-time fiddler. Those three releases are a big deal to me. I also recorded fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar on Greg Graffin’s solo CD “Millport.” Greg Graffin is the front man of the punk group Bad Religion. It’s a very different album than my others and I’m quite proud of that one too.

Speaking of your discography, I read that you are the co-founder of the label that has released much (if not all) of your music! Is there a story behind the Old-Time Tiki Parlour’s name?

My mid-century style home has been nicknamed the Old-Time Tiki Parlour. It’s chock full of traditional American instruments, velvet paintings and weird curious. I’ve hosted countless jams, workshops and house concerts here. So the label is aptly named Tiki Parlour Recordings. I love old music and cheesy Tiki culture! I take great pride in releasing non-commercial traditional music from my “parlour.” In fact, I edit all of our films right here in my Studio Shed! I even have students who purchased a Studio Shed after they visited mine!

 

Between recording your own music, teaching lessons, directing the UCLA ensemble, co-founding a record label, directing music festivals, and recording documentaries, you have quite the extensive resume! What do you enjoy doing most out of all your work?

It all boils down to my love for keeping the music alive. Especially the old sounds. I don’t want them forgotten. So I help to preserve them with my label and one of the best ways to preserve these sounds is by keeping the tradition alive through teaching.

 

What (or who) inspired you to teach music?

I’ve had many great teachers and musical idols in my life. Tom Sauber, Mel Durham, Bruce Molsky, Brad Leftwich, Greg Graffin and the legendary Mike Seeger had a profound impact on how I teach.

When did you decide that you needed to create a dedicated space for your music lessons and purchase your Studio Shed? What influenced this decision?

I was visiting some folk musicians who had a Tuff Shed set up for playing music. That’s where the initial idea came from. But it was still a Tuff Shed. When my mother found out that I was considering this, she frantically called me and told me about this amazing article in Sunset magazine that did a feature on this company called Studio Shed. The moment I saw the article, there was no going back. The Studio Sheds featured in the article were beautiful, functional and affordable! The company seemed top notch. And now I can vouch for them. A super American company.

 

How has your Studio Shed space impacted your music/career?

I teach private lessons daily from my Studio Shed and edit all of my music and DVD releases from within its walls. It is my home outside my home. It is my musical and creative kingdom.

 

What’s next for you and the Old-Time Tiki Parlour? Any big projects in the works you can tell us about?

We’re about to release our 25th album on February 25th, 2022. It’s by one of the greatest old-time fiddlers in our genre, Bruce Molsky. However, this CD features his guitar playing! Musicians in the folk, rock and bluegrass worlds like John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Sarah Jarosz, Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage have already deemed it a masterpiece. We’re also about to release a CD & DVD Set of banjo master Bill Evans where he plays just about every banjo stye imaginable on a variety of different banjos. It’s called “Banjo in America.” We’re also finishing up an album featuring the Japanese old-time musician Bosco Takaki, as well as a Peruvian fiddle/harp CD by the great late El Cholo Victor. We’ve done a lot in only seven years. It might be time to think about a Tiki Parlour “Best of” album!

WOW – so many amazing projects in the works! Thanks so much, David, for taking time out of your busy schedule to pass on a bit of knowledge about the Old-Time traditions to us. We’ll be sure to check out your latest album on the 25th and maybe even sign up for a fiddle lesson or two!

To learn more about David Bragger and the Old-Time Tiki Parlour, check out his website at oldtimetikiparlour.com or jump right in and stream his music and fiddle lessons on YouTube! You can also find his music on the major streaming platforms, such as Spotify or Apple Music, and start your own old-time American folk playlist.

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