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Josesph Decosimo, Cleek Schrey, Luke Richardson

Joseph Decosimo, Luke Richardson, Cleek Schrey - Joseph DeCosimo, Luke Richardson, Cleek S

photo courtesy of the artist

In April 2021, Joseph Decosimo, Luke Richardson, and Cleek Schrey—three of the most compelling interpreters in the American traditional music scene—gathered at a cabin in Tennessee to explore their collective repertoire of Old-time fiddle and banjo tunes, gleaned from visits with older players, field recordings, and vintage 78s. In between roaming the surrounding limestone bluffs, hunting morels, and foraging ramps, they nestled into their music and recorded themselves in the cabin-turned-studio. Working with fiddle, hardanger d’amore (a fiddle with sympathetic strings), banjos, and a 19th-century pump organ, the trio captured both the sonic details of their instruments and a generous musical interplay rooted in a dozen years of collaboration. Their debut album, Beehive Cathedral, presents resonant, thoughtful, and expansive explorations of Appalachian and American music. The results showcase deep study and enveloping, exhilarating performances.

A rich vein of stories and relationships to people and places underpin Beehive Cathedral. Much of the album draws on Decosimo’s experiences learning the music of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, where he grew up and worked as a folklorist. A key source of inspiration was fiddler Clyde Davenport (1921-2020), “Clyde was a social and musical trickster who knew hundreds of old tunes and had an uncanny ability to recall each piece in exquisite detail,” says Decosimo. “During my visits, he’d play breathtaking local pieces from his father Will, who was born in 1868. His father had learned some of them from a neighbor who was born in 1829.” These brushes with deep time and place inspire the trio’s flowing renditions of Davenport’s “Betty Baker'' and “Drunken Hiccups”, as well as his driving “Lost Girl” (wherein a fierce storm can be heard in background). The whistling of Davenport’s neighbor Evelyn Sharp gave rise to Schrey and Decosimo’s careening pizzicato-filled version of “Red Bird.” “Chimes'' came from Richardson’s tuning explorations on a custom-built 6-string banjo inherited from the late Thomas Jackson, who had used it to accompany the great guitarist Norman Blake. Luke unearthed “Can’t Jump Josie” from a field recording from just over the Alabama line from his home in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Other pieces reference an Alan Lomax field recording, crackly 78 recordings, a shape note hymnal, and a 1782 Glaswegian tune book.

“This record expresses some of what we hear in Southern traditional music: the ring of the strings, the buzz of the tunings, the hum of the organ,” explains Schrey. Spending time listening to old recordings and imagining how those sounds were made has made the trio keenly interested in the relationship between physical motion and sound in their source material. “Recording together allowed us to explore these relationships, to capture our interplay, and to place microphones in places that would foreground these details—the minute shifts in bow pressure, organ clacks, and banjo overtones,” says Decosimo. The result is a dense layering of sounds and interaction. Of this sonic interplay, Irish fiddle luminary Martin Hayes observes, “The sound of a beehive conveys the idea of a unified harmonious soundscape which is how this recording sounds. Beehive Cathedral is a sonic delight, a beautiful blend of Old-time soundscapes and more. This is a hypnotic recording that is grounded, subtle and refined.”

The members of the trio are veteran performers in the Old-time scene, where they’ve worked with renowned string bands The Bucking Mules and Bigfoot. Beehive Cathedral draws on the group’s experiences making music together at Southern fiddlers’ conventions, in the back of NYC pubs, on stages, and in their homes. It also sources energy from their broader musical lives, including Cleek’s participation in NYC’s experimental sound community and Joseph’s collaborations with Durham, NC indie and folk projects Wye Oak, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Jake Xerxes Fussell. With this recording, the trio departs from the string band format that has defined the genre, especially since the Old-time music revival of the 1970s made guitar, bass, and chordal accompaniment features of the music. Untethering the music from chord patterns and guitars, they reimagine older approaches to the music filled with tonal ambiguity, drone, and bittersweet dissonance. “You can’t step in the same river twice,” Richardson notes, hinting at the vast interpretive possibilities that these tunes present. 

Releases on Dear Life:

DLR 053: Beehive Cathedral

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