Marah Members Modernize Mountain Minstrelsy

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Songwriters often draw on literature for inspiration, but two members of Marah have taken that notion a step further on an upcoming album, Mountain Minstrelsy.

Last winter, Christine Smith and David Bielanko happened upon an old book with that same title, filled with lyrics and fragments gathered by Henry W. Shoemaker in the hills of Central Pennsylvania. Its author drew from the music heard in backwoods settlements, hunting cabins and lumber camps, narrowing down his discoveries to the years between 1840 and 1923.

Struck by the vivid imagery, Smith and Bielanko wondered if they could modernize the songs. In time, it became an obsession. After a couple of cold months spent writing and rehearsing, they moved all of their recording equipment into an old church in Millheim, Pa., to capture their creation.

With the distant ahhhh weaving in and out of the narrative, “A Melody of Rain” is an intriguing highlight of the collection. It’s also fun to imagine Gus Tritsch — 8 years old at the time — tearing through the sessions on fiddle and vocals. Kai Schafft (banjo), James Baughman (standup bass) and Chris Rattie (drums, guitar, harmony) round out the ensemble. The duo kept the church doors open, so anybody who wandered in was welcome to participate as well.

“We wish to breathe life into these songs so that they don’t continue to go unread and sleeping inside a dusty, closed book,” Bielanko says. “With all due respect for the past, we are allowing ourselves every liberty in rewriting, reimagining and reinterpreting this music for current and future generations to consider and enjoy.”

In other words, Smith and Bielanko didn’t shy away from the rock ‘n’ roll energy that Marah fans have come to know over the last two decades. Listen to “A Melody of Rain” from Mountain Minstrelsy, set for a Feb. 25 release.

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