The Reeltime Travelers are transporting a timeless old-time sound and story to 21st-century audiences of all generations.
“I like that our music appeals across all walks of life,” says banjo player Roy Andrade. “It’s a joy to feel comfortable playing in front of anyone, and to be well received. We’ve played for just about anybody.”
“We play for cloggers in East Tennessee and kids freak-dancing in Northern California,” adds mandolin player Thomas Sneed. “The best part is taking this music to different audiences and sharing this great story with people.”
The Reeltime Travelers are not merely young jammers with a hipped-up version of old-time. The band members, most of them in their early 30s, also spend time with musicians such as 83-year-old fiddler Ralph Blizard, and they’re welcomed by Jeannette Carter to perform twice a year at the Carter Family Fold in Virginia.
The five-piece string band released its second CD, Livin’ Reeltime, Thinkin’ Old-Time, this year. They played at the Bean Blossom and Grand Targhee festivals this summer and are scheduled for an International Bluegrass Music Association showcase in Louisville, Kentucky, in October. Their energetic performances are a real-time experience with an enriching connection to the past.
Sneed and Martha Scanlan came to Tennessee in 1997, and Sneed got a job working at the Center for Appalachian Studies. Sneed grew up in Oklahoma and Scanlan in Minnesota; they met at the University of Montana about the same time they started to get interested in old-time and roots music. Scanlan started playing guitar when someone left one at her house. “Old-time grabbed me in a way that other kinds of music didn’t,” she says.
Roy and Heidi Andrade met in Nashville and lived for a while in California before moving near East Tennessee State University for the school’s country music program in 1999. They met Scanlan and Sneed the first week they were in town. Heidi didn’t decide to play old-time until she was in her late teens, although she started playing the fiddle at age 7. Roy grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, learning accordion from his father at age 4 and later piano and guitar, but he found old-time through other kinds of folk music. “The big irony is this music was under my nose my whole life,” he says. “But it took me until in my early 20s to clue into it and start absorbing it.”
Brandon Story, the youngest and newest member of the Travelers at age 25, met Sneed and Andrade through folklore work at ETSU and joined the band in December 2001. The son of a southern gospel musician, Story grew up with music. Originally from Michigan, his family moved to Bristol, and he got his first guitar at 15. The ’50s style of southern gospel “was a great prep course for playing this kind of music,” he says, adding, “It’s nice to be in a band my dad likes, finally.”
In its third year, the band has gone full-time. Story, Sneed and Roy Andrade continue some folklore work at the center; Sneed and Andrade have received grants from the state of Tennessee to record oral histories of the state’s aging musicians. Heidi Andrade is taking a sabbatical from teaching elementary school but will continue to work with the school’s string band and give private lessons.
Traveling the hollers in East Tennessee to interview a dying generation of musicians about their interpretations of songs, verses and variations “has gone hand-in-hand with the music,” says Roy. “It’s been amazing as far as helping me to understand some of the rural origins of this music, what life was like 80-100 years ago and even further back than that. I can’t separate the field work, the folklore work, and music.
“It’s all part of the same thing. We’re building musical relationships and friendships with older people, and dealing with a lifestyle that’s vanishing.”
Though Roy acknowledges that “a lot of creativity is about reinterpreting old tunes,” band also writes original material in a similar vein. “We’re young and excited about music,” he explains. “We could keep satisfied reinterpreting old tunes, but something about original songs opens up another dimension in the music.”
At the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest in North Carolina this spring, Scanlan won first place in the bluegrass category and second place in country. Story also writes songs, while others in the group have contributed instrumentals and lyrics.
“Because I’m playing and listening to old-time, my songs tend to come out that way,” Scanlan says. “I’m attracted to old songs; there’s so much beauty and simplicity to them.”
“What we play is American music. It reaches everybody,” says Heidi Andrade. “Even if they don’t know what it is, people connect with it.”