Some bands are very eclectic, refusing to identify with any particular genre which can be interesting—or it can be a train wreck. The majority of bands establish a recognizable identity while still allowing themselves enough vagary to claim, “You can’t really put a label on what we do” in interviews, despite the fact that you clearly can. Then there are bands that have found a niche to which their commitment is complete. Their immersion is total. Their message is clear enough: “This is what we do, this ALL that we do and because of that we are the BEST at what we do,” and that, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely what you have with Matt Downer and Clark Williams, aka The Old Time Travelers.
Call them “old timey,” call them Appalachian, rural, folk, or just good old mountain music, The Old Time Travelers may be “old time” as their name suggests, but I have an alternate theory. I believe that the key words in their name might just as well be “time travelers,” because when the boys strike up the fiddle and start plucking the banjo, you’d swear they just stepped out of the Great Depression having recently played at Tom Joad’s funeral, stopping along the way to swap songs with some cat named Woody.
Their commitment to form is impeccable. I do not for a moment believe that they “chose” a style of music and then bought outfits to match. These fellows play a living, breathing style of music that is deeply ingrained in who they are as human beings. That they dress the part and talk the part is not an affectation—it’s just “how it is.” How else WOULD they dress? How else WOULD they talk? It isn’t all for the sake of appearance; they even learn their tunes the old-fashioned way, from scratchy 78s, field recordings, and many a night spent on the back porch and in the kitchens of elder musicians who learned the tunes the same way three-quarters of a century ago. Simply put, the Old Time Travelers are one of the last, best examples of the oral tradition of American folk music. They are the real deal. If their stage persona is an act, it is hands-down the best act I have ever seen, and I have seen a few.
The instrumentation is simple enough: fiddle, banjo and guitar with both fellows taking turns on each effortlessly. Vocally, they are well suited to one another, whether providing the essential chicken clucks for “All My Chicken is Gone,” or the plaintive cowboy yodels of “Way Out There.” If the latter tune doesn’t ring a bell, it should. It was the theme to the 1987 classic Coen brother’s film “Raising Arizona” and the Travelers certainly do justice to the old Bob Nolan “rail riding” tune. If there is a title to this album of theirs, I can’t find it, but there is a lovely picture of a chicken on the cover, so for the moment I’m just going to refer to it as “The Chicken Album.” (The Beatles have “The White Album” after all…) It is a collection of gems, from the classic gospel tune “I Shall Not Be Moved” to the “Darktown Strutters Ball,” which is far more Saturday night than Sunday morning.
If you want a copy of this album (and you DO want a copy of this album), you’ll just have to go see the boys performing, an easy enough task as they are currently in their fifth year of summertime performances at Rock City, playing 11-5 every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, as well as appearing at a variety of Chattanooga’s favorite music venues. See them live. The album actually does justice to the band, and their spirit of what they do is well represented in the tracks (the mark of a great engineer), but the full effect can only be achieved by actually seeing them on stage or on the street corner. If it doesn’t bring a smile to your face and a swing to your step, if your toes don’t start tapping involuntarily, check your pulse, because something is terribly wrong.
I’ll leave you with this parting thought/personal anecdote regarding the Old Time Travelers. Most of my people are from Kentucky and West Virginia, a fact I don’t think of often, a fact that doesn’t generally affect my world view in any significant way, but listening to the music of the Travelers I am reminded of my fairly rural heritage, and what’s more I am filled with a sense of pride regarding the same, and that’s a pretty fair trick for a couple of guys in suspenders and straw boater hats to pull off.