Born: December 15, 1975 Primary Instrument: Violin
Rayna Gellert plays her great-grandfather’s fiddle—the same one he was playing in 1917 when, as a Hungarian orchestral musician aboard an ocean liner, he wowed the U.S. Ambassador with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and earned an invitation to America.
Rayna’s father played that fiddle too. The honest inheritor of his family’s musical legacy, Dan Gellert took a job as a meter reader, immersed himself in the old, weird music of America, and became the greatest fiddler you’ve never heard of.
Then it was Rayna’s turn. She picked up the instrument when she was 10, recorded her first album of fiddle tunes at 24, joined the celebrated string band Uncle Earl, and played her great-grandfather’s fiddle on recordings she made with John Paul Jones, Robyn Hitchcock, and Loudon Wainwright III.
With all the weight of history attached to that fiddle, it’s no wonder Rayna needed to lay it down to find her own voice.
“I was raised in a household where traditional music was an obsession. I fell into being a full-time musician because I was obsessed too,” she says. “But while I was out touring I realized that it is my job to play music I love, which is bigger than protecting any one concept of tradition. I realized I was an artist, and I wanted to claim that.”
She makes that claim with authority on Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, an album showcasing her startlingly original talent as a songwriter and vocalist. A blend of new songs and fresh arrangements of traditional tunes, Old Light shows that deep immersion in our musical past can point the way toward the future of American music.
In the album’s soundscape, you can hear echoes of Rayna’s musical collaborations. The lush sonic palette reflects her experience touring and recording with Abigail Washburn. The straightforward treatment of those same songs points to the influence of Rayna’s recent collaborator, Scott Miller.
Washburn and Miller are featured on Old Light, as are other friends Rayna has made over a lifetime in music: Andrew Heller of Toubab Krewe; Nashvillians Jamie Dick, Jon Estes, and Kai Welch; and traditional music masters, including her father Dan Gellert and the esteemed vocalist Alice Gerrard.
Nathan Salsburg, a fiercely inventive finger-style guitarist, shares most of the arranging credits, and lends stirring musicality to the album.
Rayna is releasing Old Light on Dick Connette’s StorySound Records, where she joins a lineup that includes Loudon Wainwright III, Gabriel Kahane, and Rachelle Garniez. Rayna met Connette 14 years ago through a mutual friend, the musician, filmmaker, and photographer John Cohen, who did so much to document the traditional music of America.
Rayna owes a debt to that tradition, but making Old Light depended as much on forgetting as on remembering. Inspired by her college friend David Stuart MacLean, a writer who told the story of his struggle with amnesia in a segment on “This American Life,” Rayna wrote “The Platform.” When she sings, “Other than being no one I guess I feel fine,” Rayna offers a tribute to MacLean’s harrowing experience.
On the album’s opening track, “Nothing,” she speaks to the fragility of memory in general. When Rayna sings, “My memories are not my own / Just a flash of light that I call home,” she reveals the spirit of the album: The past always eludes our grasp, and the art of music—and of life—lies in the soulful embrace of misremembering.
Rayna learned “1845”—one of the album’s traditional songs—from her father, who learned it from a field recording. “When I was a kid I thought it was a sad song about a man searching for his lost son,” Rayna explains. “Only later did I realize the guy’s pissed because his son skipped work to go boozing.”
Whereas Rayna’s father sings it while playing the banjo, her arrangement features acoustic guitar, pedal steel, bass, drums, harmony vocal, and fiddle. It combines her childhood memory of a sad song with her adult understanding of the need to wander far from home, creating a version that, she says, “starts spare but builds into something festive.”
Spare and festive—good descriptions of Rayna Gellert’s Old Light, a bold new contribution to the music of old America.
I love Rayna's musical personality, which is deep, funky, and complex. Bela
“Rayna is one of the most empathic musicians I've played with.” Robyn Hitchcock
Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds
2012 StorySound Records
Rayna Gellert & Susie Goehring
Starch & Iron
2005 Heard Her Squeal Records
Rayna Gellert & Friends
Ways of the World
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