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Hillbilly Music

Kristi Kates - November 8th, 2010
Hillbilly Music: Old Sledge brings the music of the mountains
By Kristi Kates
The sound of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia comes to Northern Michigan this week, with the arrival of Old Sledge.
“This winter is going to be a busy one for Old Sledge,” begins the band’s Sabra Guzmán. “we wrapped up a great summer with festivals and new venues, and for this fall, we’re getting to visit four new towns in Michigan. We’re really excited to be treading into new territory, and hope to make some new friends and fans!”
If you’re a fan of traditional “old-timey” music, whether fiddle tunes, Appalachian classics, or revitalized blues, chances are you’ll quickly become a fan of Guzmán and her bandmate, aptly named Chance McCoy. The pair of friends, who often round out their duo sound by adding frequent live collaborators Ben Townsend or Jake Hopping, will be performing in Petoskey this Saturday at the Crooked Tree Arts Center.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains - a beautiful rural area reminiscent of Northern Michigan, Old Sledge have made it their musical mission to hold true to the “mountain aesthetic” that they find so identifiable to themselves.
“I think we find this music appealing because, well, because it allows us to really take part,” Guzmán says. “We get to connect with others who we might not have if we didn’t play this style of music.
This kind of music is like a common language - there is a canon of standard tunes and songs in Old Time music that allows everyone, who has spent time to learn this canon, to sit down and play, unrehearsed
and without knowing each other.”
Pop or rock music, Guzmán feels, is a “whole different creature,” one that doesn’t necessarily have points of interest that she and her bandmates can connect to.
“You can’t just sit down and start playing with others as easily as you can with Old Time music,” she says, “and playing this music isn’t like a broken record or a mimicking parrot. We learn tunes and songs from recordings or other people that may have been played for over a couple of centuries, and we’ll try and emulate who we’ve learned from, but add our own character, our own personal twist. And when you add in other instruments, other people’s take on a tune or a song, a certain type of magic can occur that really makes playing that particular piece special or unique. This is folk music.”

Guzmán, referred to as the “gypsy” of the band, has traveled frequently back and forth across the U.S. She says that meeting
people and learning their stories has helped her feel connected to the land and the music that Old Sledge play.
While it took her a while to settle in West Virginia, her bandmate McCoy was early on steeped in the tunes of the mountains he grew up in; his fiddling and banjo playing winning him accolades throughout his home region.
Together, they’re a formidable folk-music force, “blowing the dust off the old tunes,” as they put it, and impressing audiences with their singing and instrumentals as they “carry the torch” for this brand of traditional mountain music. Guzmán explains that audiences are often surprised by the variety of music that Old Sledge plays, having been pre-programmed to expect, for instance, dueling banjos, or “Man of Constant Sorrow” run on repeat.
“The one comment we keep hearing from audiences is that they love our wide breadth of songs and tunes,” she says, “when the larger public hears the words old time, string band, southern music, they might instantly think of barn burning fiddle tunes, or kitschy vaudevillian type bands that dress and speak as if they’re from the 1930s. But we don’t really fall into any of those categories. We do like to play some barn-burning fiddle tunes that are great for dancing - but we also like to play the sweet love songs, or haunting murder ballads from the early country acts like the Carter Family or the Monroe Brothers.
“We like to play the syrupy old time blues from Georgia and Mississippi, and we like to play the ballads that were carried over from Ireland and England,” she continues. “a show with Old Sledge not only entertains, but we also try to add a little bit of history to the mix; some of these songs and tunes we play are quite old, and they have great stories that go along with them. We think that adding a little more color to the mix helps people to understand just how rich the southern Appalachians are with American history and culture.”

That’s not to say that Old Sledge are completely ignoring the rest of today’s popular music, though. Since both of the main band members arrived to Old Sledge from varied musical backgrounds, their road trips with the band are accompanied by an equally wide range of music to drive by.
“Traveling so much by car, we’ve taken up listening to Pandora, the Internet music site where you can search one musician or band and create a station that will feature that same artist you’ve entered and other artists like them,” Guzmán explains. “So a person riding with Old Sledge might find themselves listening to swing music and honky tonk, Cajun and Zydeco, Toots and the Maytals, Fiona Apple, The Band, The Roots, Nirvana, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lady GaGa or Lil’ Wayne,” she laughs.
“But even though we like all kinds of music, we still find ourselves spending a lot of time listening to old bands from the early
hillbilly days.”
Yes, it’s true - even given options as diverse as Lady GaGa and The Roots, Old Sledge return to their own roots far more often than not.
“Old Time music is pretty catchy and invigorating to play,” Guzmán says, “and I think as musicians, we felt an instant draw to learn more about this style of music, and we wanted to be a part of this unique and special genre of American culture. The teachers or mentors that we had to teach us this kind of music were also instrumental in developing our interest, love and musicality with Old Time. Each of these people offered us stories of the older generation we were not able to meet, and in return, have helped pass on this old time tradition.”

Old Sledge perform at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey as part of the Blissfest Fall Concert Series on November 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets at For more info on Old Sledge, please visit

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