Music News & Reviews

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason thriving with a travelogue of song

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason will perform a sold-out concert Friday at Faith Lutheran Church in Lexington as part of the Harstad Fine Arts Series.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason will perform a sold-out concert Friday at Faith Lutheran Church in Lexington as part of the Harstad Fine Arts Series.

Before they met, married and established a reputation as a comprehensive performance duo of tradition-rooted folk music, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason were as far apart geographically as they were stylistically.

Fiddler Ungar was a child of the Bronx, honing early instrumental skills with the sounds he experienced once he witnessed the world outside of New York City. Guitarist Mason grew up in Washington state, fascinated by fiddle tunes of all generations, especially when they veered into swing. Together, they have provided music that has graced the work of one especially notable documentary filmmaker, and they have created intimate folk atmospheres in live settings.

“Growing up in the Bronx, in New York, I became painfully aware that I didn’t belong there,” said Ungar, who performs with Mason on Friday night to close the Harstad Fine Arts Series. “I started traveling and spent parts of my teen years visiting eastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina, getting to play with traditional musicians. When I went to college in the Midwest, country music was happening. I lived for a little while on the West Coast, where other fiddle styles were being played. I eventually became interested in every style of music that’s played on the fiddle.”

“Growing up on the West Coast back in the ’60s, primarily, you heard all these fiddle styles with a lot of Northern, Western and Canadian music,” Mason said. “But in the fiddle contests, which I went to because my younger brother played fiddle, the Texas style was hugely popular. When I moved to the East Coast in 1980, I heard klezmer music and a lot of European folk music for the first time.”

There was another sound Mason absorbed. It came from Kentucky via Lily Mae Ledford, the Powell County-born banjo player and fiddler who led the groundbreaking all-female string band known as the Coon Creek Girls, beginning in 1937. It was Ledford’s inspiration that led Mason to her only previous Lexington visit in the late 1970s.

“When I was just out of college — I was very young, 20-something — I was in this band with two other women that played a variety of traditional types of music and a little cowboy music. But we also did some Southern Appalachian music and mountain music of sorts — traditional things. So as we studied to learn those songs and that history, we of course came across the Coon Creek Girls and were ridiculously excited by the fact that back that far there was a successful girl band that recorded and performed on the radio and traveled all around. It really was an inspiration to us.”

Ledford’s influence in Friday night’s concert will be echoed when her granddaughter Cari Norris — a guitar, banjo and mountain dulcimer player and an arts educator in Louisville — sits in.

“She is going to join us for a couple of tunes,” Mason said. “I’m really excited about meeting her.”

An altogether different artist played a substantial and initially unsuspecting role in Ungar’s career with Mason. In the early ’80s, Ungar composed a haunting fiddle tune titled “Ashokan Farewell” that found its way to a then-little-known filmmaker named Ken Burns. Ungar and Mason had been collaborating on some of Burns’ early short films when the tune was first recorded in 1984. But when Burns used it as the theme for the 1990 documentary series “The Civil War,” everything blew up. The series became the most-viewed program to air on PBS, and Ungar and Mason became, in a very folk-rooted way, rock stars.

“I have to say the first few months were really scary,” Ungar said. “The amount of publicity that this piece of music got was incredible, especially considering it was the only piece in the series that was not of the period. I was interviewed by every major newspaper in the country. Limos would arrive at 5 a.m. to take Molly and I to these New York morning talk shows. It was a wild ride.”

“Ashokan Farewell” and the nod to Ledford will just be two components of a program Ungar and Mason see as a journey from the roots of folk, swing and pre-bluegrass country music to original compositions based on those sounds.

“During the year, we receive letters and emails from people who have mentioned that our music has played an important role in some event in their lives,” Ungar said. “I think about those people when we’re playing in front of a live audience, knowing that some of them are out there to give me a feeling of being of some value to others.

Said Mason: “Playing a tune for them is like making them a meal or baking them a cake. There are numerous things you can do to make somebody happy, to give them some pleasure to where you know that they really liked what you did, that you provided for them. That’s such a wonderful, human thing to do.”

If you go

An Evening with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

What: Performing as part of the Harstad Fine Arts Series

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 Tates Creek Rd.

Admission: Free, but all tickets have been dispersed