“The Black Twigs come from the tradition more akin to the previous generation of masters than from many of those plying the trade today … wild and wooly playing, full out. What a refreshing sound, nothing fancy here! … The Black Twigs recapture the golden age of old-time music with all the spirit intact.”
—Sing Out! Magazine
Banjos and fiddles, boards and bones in hand, the Black Twig Pickers dove into a living tradition of old-time music that surrounds their homes in Southwest Virginia and never looked back. Both scholars of the regional sounds and advocates of an ecstatic and highly personal approach to the music, the Twigs hold down local dance and bar gigs, play all manner of celebrations and every so often, hit the road. Along the way, Isak Howell, Nathan Bowles and Mike Gangloff kept company with some of underground America’s heavyweights and haunted the doorsteps of Appalachian fiddle and banjo masters. They’ve played for the National Council for the Traditional Arts and for audiences overseas. And they’ve put out a string of acclaimed albums, including 2008’s Hobo Handshake and last year’s Jack Rose & the Black Twig Pickers.
Ironto Special is an album of traditional Appalachian old-time tunes (and two originals) that they’ve learned through study of both local old-time musicians and old-time records and field recordings. The instrumentation is all-acoustic and features some of the old-time usuals – fiddle, banjo, guitar – and some less-routinely-heard-in-today’s-old-time-scene implements like washboard, bones, fiddlesticks, mouth harp and jaw harp. Plus (on one song) a one-of-a-kind baritone resonator 12-string guitar. Old-time music served, and continues to serve, a variety of functions in Appalachian life – from dance music to somber solo performance to raggier blues and everything in between. Ironto Special is an attempt to celebrate this variety in the old-time tradition through the band’s process of learning and growth as they explore the music’s many facets.
As a result, the band is in a constant state of evolution as they gleefully tackle this music that fascinates and enraptures them. Mike Gangloff’s fiddle playing is driven by often-frenzied bow rhythms and a steadily improving technique, which combine with his near-religious fervor of gathering tune variations, giving him a large range of expression on the instrument. Isak’s guitar is as chugging and powerful as ever, but this record is really his standout harmonica showcase. Perhaps the biggest change from Hobo Handshake to Ironto Special is Nathan’s move to the clawhammer banjo. The washboard attack of Hobo Handshake is still present on a few tracks (and bones and fiddlesticks make welcome appearances), but the majority of the cuts are a snapshot of Nathan’s growth on clawhammer banjo, further allowing Mike (previously the band’s primary banjoist) to soar above it all with his idiosyncratic fiddle style.
Recorded throughout 2009 in the Shred Shed in Ironto, Virginia, Ironto Special is entirely recorded in single takes. There are no overdubs on the record in any form. Although Ironto Special is their Thrill Jockey debut, the Black Twig Pickers have recorded several releases for VHF, The Great Pop Supplement, and Klang. Mike continues to play in Pelt and the Spiral Joy Band with Nathan. Isak has also recorded and played with both bands. At some point, these three musicians realized that old-time music is a living, breathing art form, not just music that was recorded in the 1920s or 30s, and it managed to bring them all together. Old-time music is not something that needs to be re-enacted or revived – it’s doing just fine and all they did was to step in and take part. They are not pretending to have grown up in the music or in the part of Virginia they now call home, but like the many who have come before them and passed on their knowledge, they consider themselves to be a part of the music as much as anyone else, and Ironto Special is their contribution to the continuously flowing tradition that will eventually be passed on to the next generation of players.