More from the series
World of Bluegrass 2018
The International Bluegrass Music Association conference, awards ceremony, Bluegrass Ramble and World of Bluegrass is in Raleigh, NC, Sept. 25-29, 2018. Find our stories here.
The first song on fiddler Bobby Britt’s new album “Alaya” is a bouncy little hoe-down instrumental called “Tar Heal,” and it sounds like it’s right out of a square-dance. That title is more than just a play on words — it could almost be this record’s statement of purpose, to serve as anodyne.
Britt, a 34-year-old Chapel Hill native, hasn’t lived in the Triangle for about six years. But you’d never know it based on how often he turns up on local stages and how embedded he is in various North Carolina bands.
Britt is all over World of Bluegrass in various capacities this week, including his regular steady gig as fiddler in the Asheville band Town Mountain. He’ll also be part of “Chatham County Line & Friends” Saturday evening at Red Hat Amphitheater.
When he’s off the road, Britt is also first-call fiddler for local acts in the Hiss Golden Messenger/Mandolin Orange orbit. His peers all swear by him.
“I don’t think people around here realize just how good Bobby Britt is,” said Hiss Golden Messenger’s Phil Cook, who enlisted Britt to play on his latest solo album. “He’s one of the best. Just so, so pure.”
Because he has been so busy working as a sideman in other bands, “Alaya” is the first album that Britt has done under his own name.
But working up to his own project involved healing, too.
From classical to bluegrass
Britt began playing at age 5, when his parents got him into classical violin. Then he changed direction when he was 12, when the long-lived Apple Chill Cloggers needed a fiddler for a square-dance. A band-member who knew the Britt family drafted him, and so began his study of old-time and bluegrass.
After a teenage stretch when he was into the Violent Femmes and hip-hop, the 18-year-old Britt was asked to join another traditional group. Open Road, based in Colorado, was signed to Rounder Records and needed a new fiddler.
“They wore cowboy hats, old suits, ties, the whole thing,” Britt said. “Everybody else was 40 and I was fresh out of Chapel Hill High School. It was an amazing learning experience.”
The learning experience continued after Britt returned to the Triangle and joined Big Fat Gap, becoming a regular on the local folk/bluegrass-old-time circuit. But starting about a decade ago, health issues caught up with him.
Britt was born with a cleft palate, and he had to have a grueling series of major corrective surgeries. Some of them involved being fitted with headgear or a splint, or having his jaw wired shut.
Undeterred, he didn’t let it stop him from touring — or applying to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Britt was wearing a jaw splint when he played for his Berklee audition, which was successful.
“That was some of the richest musical time of my life,” Britt said. “I learned so much about structure and organization, in music as well as life. Up to that point, I’d played pretty much exclusively by ear and didn’t even really know what a chord was. I was a little resistant to learning the terms, names and symbols for all the sounds. Eventually I did realize the value of it, which was huge.”
Dawn after a dark night
At the same time, Britt’s surgical regimen was difficult and discouraging. He reached a low point in 2014, when he spent a month in the hospital recovering from the surgeries. It was a time he describes as “a dark night of the soul.”
But his friends came through, including the Mandolin Orange duo of Emily Franz (who he has known since high school) and Andrew Marlin. Britt cites their support and encouragement as the reason why he’s still alive and playing music.
“After so many falls and stumbles, I felt out of the game,” Britt said. “Just done, tired of fighting, and it was awful. If not for them coming to see me, being encouraging and just there...I don’t think I’d still be playing. It was something to live for, to keep going.”
Part of that encouragement was Britt’s own album. Marlin was instrumental in making it happen, starting with the ultimatum he delivered: “It’s now or never.”
Marlin served as co-producer and gathered together a collection of like-minded players for “Alaya.” It’s a lovely 11-song album that shows off the Irish influence that Britt picked up at Berklee.
“Bobby has such a fluid bow technique, I think that Irish sound is an extension of what you already hear with him,” Marlin said. “There’s a lot of awkward bowing out there. But with him, it’s just air, which really lends itself to Irish music. Something about it feels light and bouncy.”
Marlin and Franz are both part of the supporting cast. So is their compatriot Josh Oliver, whose raw gospel take on “When I Die, I’ll Live Again” is a highlight.
But Britt’s loping fiddle is the true star, top dead center in every song with just the right flourishes and accents. Every detail is pretty much perfect, even the album title. “Alaya” is a Sanskrit word with multiple meanings, all of which seem appropriate.
“It means resting place, as well as storehouse of consciousness, which is a Buddhist concept,” Britt said. “Cautiousness is a state prior to any craving or aversion, a state of peace and contentment where you’re not staying away from or grasping at something. Just where you’re at.”
It’s a good place to be.
When: Bobby Britt will perform with Town Mountain during the free Wide Open Bluegrass street festival, 9:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, on the Hargett Street Stage.
He also will play at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, with “Chatham County Line & Friends” as part of Wide Open Bluegrass at Red Amphitheater.
The Wide Open Bluegrass lineup Saturday starts at 2 p.m. and also features Volume Five, Laurie Lewis & Friends, The Gibson Brothers, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder with Patty Loveless and Leftover Salmon featuring Sam Bush and John Cowan.
Tickets: The Red Hat set is part of the ticketed Wide Open Bluegrass. Shows are Friday and Saturday. Single-day tickets start at $50 for IBMA members, $60 for the general public. Two-day passes start at $80 for IBMA members and $100 for nonmembers. Children 12 and younger free with paying adults (general admission.)