Presented by FolkWorks: September 7, 2013

By Jonathan Shifflett

SAUSAGE GRINDERHad you walked by the Santa Monica History Museum last Saturday night, the tall glass windows would have revealed an unusual sight - four musicians surrounded by guitars, mandolins and banjos (to name a few) and an audience of kazoos playing along to Howard Armstrong's Vine Street Drag. If this didn't entice you to stay, or if you were turned off by the fact that it was, by that point, standing room only, I can say that you missed out on a program of American (and Ukrainian) string band music, performed with all of the integrity of Depression era ramblers and gamblers.

David Bragger (fiddle, banjo, mandolin), Chris Berry (guitar, banjo, vocals), Susan Platz (fiddle, washboard, vocals) and Tim Riley (jug, washboard, bones, jaw harp, harmonica, guitar, mandolin, bagpipes, musical saw… you get the point) comprise the folk phantasmagoria that is Sausage Grinder. Playing with all the humor and good spirit of an Old Time band on a corn likker diet, the members of Sausage Grinder pride themselves on resuscitating the subtleties and performance practices of the early folk music greats, distancing themselves from the watered down festival and fusion folk styles.

Many of the tunes invited dancer Rebecca Stout to flat-foot atop her wooden dance board, letting the toe-tapping audience live vicariously through her shuffles and stomps. When Stout wasn't dancing you were either entranced by Bragger's arcing bow motions or counting how many time Riley switched percussion instruments (I think I counted five during the performance of the Skillet Lickers tune Liberty Off the Corn Likker Still.)

The museum had planned for an air conditioned performance, but a mechanical failure occurred. It was as if the gods of Old Time authenticity intervened, shaking their fists and reminding us that there was no AC at the Bristol recording sessions. The crowd unstuck themselves from their chairs more than once, but the band seemed indifferent, claiming to be more concerned about burning in hell for an unworthy rendition of the Carter Family's You've Got to Righten that Wrong.

Saturday's program consisted of mostly new material for Sausage Grinder, but to the individual members, each selection and instrument had special significance. Bragger shared a brief reverence for his Vega Whyte Laydie mandolin-banjo and its ability to defy Western tuning before counting off the Dallas String Band's Sugar Blues. After playing the Ukrainian melody Ganzia Polka on the saw, Riley laid it lovingly aside, claiming it was used to build the house in which he was born. No one seemed sure if he was joking or not.

Flannery's Dream, a modal fiddle tune Bragger learned after hearing a mesmerizing performance by Gerry Milnes, was a highlight of the evening. Berry contributed a resonator guitar accompaniment in the style of Rev. Edward W. Clayborn, creating a visceral arrangement that Tom Waits only wishes he could do.

Sausage Grinder knows how to have fun - donning deadpan stares, they interrupted Milk 'Em in the Evening Blues to turn over Cow in a Can toys - however, in the case of Flannery's Dream and Berry's clawhammer banjo arrangement of Peg Leg Howell's Skin Game Blues, they chose a more serious angle in an effort to expand the emotional range of Old Time music beyond the moonshiner and hillbilly stereotypes.

The band's combined knowledge of Old Time music would take months if not years to uncover. However, Saturday's program, presented by FolkWorks, provided a concise musical odyssey through their collective mind, traversing the musical cultures of the rural South (ok, ok and the Ukraine) and blending classic Country and Blues at just the right temperature.

Jonathan Shifflett is a recent graduate of USC's classical guitar program, who has since seen the light and traded the guitar for a banjo. When not tracking down train car murals or searching for hobo hieroglyphics, he enjoys pretending to play the fiddle and thinking about the folk music world at large.