Playing some Hobart Smith’s Last Chance on fretless with Becky Hill on feet at the Hamlin Street Diner House Concert in Washington DC – Friday April 22, 2022
Last fall, I was invited to attend a live musical performance at the Jalopy Theater and School of Music and write about it for Big City Folks. It was the release show for “Sidetrack My Engine”, the second album by 16-year-old Brooklyn-based banjo virtuoso Nora Brown. I gladly accepted. Below is my account of Brown’s 25-song, two-set show, with some added bits of information that I researched after the fact and included here for context. Plus, a bonus interview I conducted with Brown after the show.
By Ben Bar
On September 25th at 8:30pm, I arrived at the Jalopy, which I’d never been to, admittedly. The venue—a small, cozy space with an exposed brick interior and stringed instruments on the walls—occupies the ground floor of a 90-year-old building tucked away in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, right by the border of Carroll Gardens (though some old-school Brooklynites consider this to be part of Red Hook). Founded in 2006, the nonprofit theater-school-bar-café even has its own label, Jalopy Records, with a roster of 28 artists, including, of course, Nora Brown.
The album itself is a 7-track LP clocking in at just shy of 20 minutes, containing the kinds of old-time (a type of American folk music) traditional songs played in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee that Brown is known for. It also features Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton on bones, and Jackson Lynch on fiddle, the latter of whom would later accompany Brown on some songs during her release show, as would fiddler Stephanie Coleman. Though Paxton was originally scheduled to accompany Brown during the show, he unfortunately could not make it.
Image courtesy of Norabrownmusic.com
Dressed in a light blue, short-sleeved, button-down collared shirt, and tall brown boots under dark blue slacks, Nora Brown took a seat on stage. Her light brown, balayage hair, which she wore up, caught an extra blondish tint from the strong stage lights. Eli Smith, a singer-songwriter who runs Jalopy Records, gave a brief introduction while an animated Brown emphatically expressed her approval in real-time, using comical gesticulations. After a hearty applause from the audience, Brown plucked a nearby banjo string to get in tune, and got things started with an a cappella performance of the Nimrod Workman ballad “Oh Death”. Free from the distractions of other sounds, we were able to take in the pure sound of her earthy, quasi-whispery voice as it hit, and sustained, satisfyingly low-pitched notes punctuated by delicate high ones. Continue reading
Nora Brown is a poised and talented teenager from Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Not the usual bio from a solo banjo and unaccompanied ballad singer specializing in the music of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Her sound is amazingly authentic having gone to sit and learn from the masters of old-time music like the late Lee Sexton. Her latest EP, “Sidetrack My Engine”, released recently on Jalopy Records was recorded in her basement; not your average basement mind you. Her parents distribute cheese that they age in the century-old lagering tunnels beneath their building. This cave-like structure is the setting for the latest recording. Recorded on an ancient Ampex reel to reel with old RCA ribbon mics, the songs sound timeless. Our segment begins with the old time tune, “Wedding Dress” which she learned from one of her mentors, John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Our conversation touches on many subjects including her love for the mournful ballads of the South, her collaboration with Alice Gerrard, pioneering bluegrass performer, who produced her first release, “Cinnamon Tree”. We talk about the unusual sonic qualities of the cheese/beer lagering tunnel, her work with Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton who plays the bones on a few tracks.
Of course, we ask Nora to tell us about her trio of banjos and their unique styles they give her music. The release is only seven cuts because of the tunnel/analog equipment used there is another release in the works recorded in St Ann’s church, the site of the Brooklyn Folk Festival.
Nora Brown will be appearing at Northampton’s newly-reopened Parlor Room on January 30th. Tickets are on sale.