When Mile Twelve fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes moved to Nashville two years ago, she rented a room from one of her former instructors at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, banjo picker Wes Corbett.
During her time as Corbett’s tenant, the two got into a routine when Keith-Hynes was not on the road with her band. Each morning they’d get up, eat breakfast, then jam for an hour or so on old banjo-fiddle tunes. Now that collaboration has grown into Keith-Hynes’ first solo album. Recorded in Nashville pre-covid in January, “Fiddler’s Pastime,” was released during the first week of September through all the major online music services.
The album, which features a star-studded list of collaborators, was produced by Corbett, who also shares songwriting credits with Keith-Hynes on four original instrumental numbers. Keith-Hynes credits Corbett, who recently signed on as Sam Bush’s new banjo player, with helping her to refine the “mostly finished” songs she would bring to him.
The seven other songs, with one exception, came from sort of a playlist Keith-Hynes had been curating in her head the past few years. Some, like the Bill Monroe-Vassar Clements tune the album takes it’s name from, she picked because she thought they would showcase the talents of her collaborators. In the case of “Fiddler’s Pastime,” that meant picking a song her and Laura Orshaw, of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, could both play fiddle on throughout, mixing solos and twin fiddles as the rest of the band holds down the rhythm.
“Fiddler’s Pastime,” the song, is more traditional than the style of bluegrass Keith-Hynes plays with Mile Twelve.”Fiddler’s Pastime,” the album, is too. Living in Nashville inspired her to want to record music that was more traditional sounding.
Keith-Hynes’ four original tunes all reflect that sensibility. The album opens with her own “Hendersonville Hop,” and also includes “Open Water,” which features Keith-Hynes’ college friend Sierra Hull on mandolin, “North Garden,” and the beautifully mournful “Michele’s Waltz,” an ode to a lost cousin.
The four songs showcase a versatility in Keith-Hynes’s songwriting. Each has a unique style, from the upbeat opener, which was written in a van while on tour, to the rip-roaring, pedal to the floor roar of “Open Water,” written in a stairwell in Raleigh during the 2019 IBMA gathering, to the slower two.
What they share in common is fine picking. Nashville luminaries Jake Stargel (Missy Raines, Sierra Hull) on guitar, Harry Clark (The Wooks) on mandolin, and bass player Jeff Picker (Ricky Skaggs, Sarah Jarosz), and Corbett are outstanding throughout.
The one other instrumental is Happy Hollow, a Nora Evans tune Keith-Hynes says she first learned at bluegrass jams in Boston while in college. Here it is rendered the way it was played in the living room during those morning jams, with just Corbett on banjo and Keith-Hynes on fiddle.
Keith-Hynes’ decision to have Tim O’Brien sing harmony to James Kee’s lead on “Hello Trouble” is a highlight of the album. Keith-Hynes had thought of suggesting the old Orville Couch classic for Mile Twelve to cover but decided to use it on her album instead. It’s a fine bluegrass rendition, with Kee also turning in a nice mandolin solo.
The Kee-O’Brien vocal combination is also featured on “I Don’t Know Why,” a Delmore Brothers song done here more in the style of the old Red Allen album version where Keith-Hynes heard it, though revved up to party tune speed.It’s another highlight.
The one song Keith-Hynes did not bring to the project herself is “The Minstrel Boy,” which Tim O’Brien brought to her after she asked what he would like to sing. It’s a Thomas Moore poem put to music, a more somber version of which is popular among Irish tenors and the like. This is O’Brien’s arrangement, a beautiful combination of bluegrass and Celtic, perfect for the collaboration of two musicians with roots in both Irish ancestry and Irish music.
There are two other guest vocalists on the album. Neither disappoint. Sarah Jarosz’s soulful version of Peter Rowan’s “Last Train” and Chris Eldridge’s sparse guitar, fiddle, and bass arrangement of John Hartford’s “Natchez Whistle” are both brilliantly done.
The plan when this started was to have a CD ready to sell at the merchandise table while on tour with Mile Twelve. Covid changed those plans. That is unfortunate. This is an album that merits attention. But with no Mile Twelve tour to promote it on, and no band to pull together even for a livestream show, marketing it could be a challenge.
That would be a shame, because this is definitely music that should be listened to. Keith-Hynes is one of a host of artists nominated along with Becky Buller for an IBMA Collaborative Recording of the Year Award for Buller’s “The Barber’s Fiddle” project. If the IBMA voters get to hear “Fiddler’s Pastime,” Keith-Hynes might find herself up for the same award again next year.
“Fiddler’s Pastime” is available at www.bronwynkeithhynes.com and on all major online music services.
This review originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the British Bluegrass News