‘Mountain Minstrelsy’: Forgotten folk songs inspire Millheim’s Marah to record

For the CDTFebruary 14, 2014 

  • if you go

    What: Marah’s “Mountain Minstrelsy" album release

    When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15

    Where: Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, 100 W. Main St., Millheim

    Info: www.elkcreekcafe.net, 349-8850

Old mountain ballads, folk songs, waltzes and rafting chants, forgotten more than a century ago, have been resurrected by a group of musicians who have gone against the grain of the music business. On Feb. 15, Marah will debut the unconventional recording with an album-release show at the Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks in Millheim. The album, titled “Mountain Minstrelsy,” is a labor of love for the band and will officially be released Feb. 25.

The American country-rock band formed in 1993 with musicians based in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y. Formed by singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Bielanko, bass guitarist Danny Metz and drummer Ronnie Vance, Marah is known for its intense live performances, classic rock production style, and professional association with authors Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell and musicians Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle.

After making their first record in 1998, Marah took to the road for the next 10 to 12 years, recording albums and touring through the United States, Canada and Europe. But with every musical journey, the band made albums in a non-commercial fashion, preferring to record in more obscure places such as Frank’s Auto Body, an auto repair garage in south Philadelphia.

“It was very much a lyrical-driven rock ’n’ roll band,” Bielanko said. “We played to people that knew what we were doing, and (we) took songwriting way more seriously than we took other elements, like self-promotion and things like that.”

Marah’s lineup changed several times, but Bielanko has been able to keep the band together.

“I guess because at the heart of it all it was me, and I just didn’t feel it was time to kill it,” he said.

“Mountain Minstrelsy” was recorded in St. Luke’s Church in Millheim, a half block from the Elk Creek Cafe. Bielanko said the band looked at the album as an experiment, wondering what it would be like to record in a small town where everyone knows each other’s business.

Marah’s journey with their new album began with an obscure book that was published almost a century ago. Shortly after they relocated from Brooklyn to rural central Pennsylvania, Bielanko and keyboardist/vocalist Christine Smith discovered the piece of history and decided to create a new and relevant album based on the lost writings. “Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania” was a collection of song lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania by Henry Shoemaker, a folklorist and “song catcher.”

“It was a book of old mountain songs — a book that just happened into our hands after we moved here, and the sense of place of the whole thing just blew us away,” Bielanko said. “We took it on as a project, but it also became like an obsession.”

In addition to reworking the more than a century-old song lyrics that were fragmented and/or inaccurate, Bielanko and Smith shared in writing new original music as well. After putting together an analog studio in the Millheim church, they assembled a band to tackle the recordings, even bringing in an 8-year-old fiddle player named Gus Tritsch.

“It was very much different than anything I’ve ever done before — playing in rock bands, touring, rehearsing to go on the road and making recordings in what would be professional studios,” Bielanko said. “Christine and I had gotten to the point where we were tired of what is called a professional studio today. We turned away from computers and we wanted to record on tape recorders and do it together and play together.”

While the album was being recorded on a Studer eight-track tape machine and mastered directly to a vinyl lathe, the church doors were left open so curious music fans and neighbors could join in on the one-of-a-kind musical event. Visitors and guests included tuba players, bagpipers, tap dancers, whistlers, barbershop singers, and even a chorus of 100 townspeople singing along on the song “Ten Cents at the Gate.”

“It’s absolutely the most insane record I’ve ever made, and the most fabulously different record,” Bielanko said. “It has purpose beyond a singer-songwriter and his feelings. It speaks volumes about who we are and how much it was a labor of love; a love that led to some old songwriters who never got credit. They were some old songs that were too good to let vanish completely.”

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