published Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Curtain Call: Matt Downer is preserving traditional music

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    Matt Downer plays with The New Binkley Brothers. A decade ago, he did some field recordings of traditional musicians in North Alabama.
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MATT DOWNER

Hometown: Ider, Ala.

Age: 37.

Vocation: Tennessee Aquarium, group reservations. Musician.

FAVORITES

Movie: "King of Kong"

Book: "Mule Trader" by Ray Lum (Wm. Ferris).

Play: "My daughter's homemade originals"

Performer: Skillet Lickers, Doc Scantlin,

Quote: "It ain't what you got, it's what you put out." — Uncle Dave Macon.

Matt Downer spent the first dozen years of his life in Ider, Ala. There, he was introduced to old-time, traditional music from his grandfather and his great-uncle.

Moving to Chattanooga gave him a new perspective on the music and the people who played it, however. So almost 15 years ago, he determined to return to the area in hopes of recording the stories and sounds of the players for posterity.

Downer said that from about 1998 to 2004, he recorded a dozen or so artists and archived hundreds of hours of songs and interviews.

Among the musicians Downer recorded were Wayne Heard, his Dobro-playing grandfather; Jess Moore, a fiddle player; Gene Ivey, a luthier and fiddler; and Stanley Baker, a preacher and songster.

Along with Clark Williams and Daniel Binkley, Downer also performs what they call modern old-time string music as part of The New Binkley Brothers. They will begin their fourth year of weekend performances at Rock City on May 26.

Q: When did you start playing music?

A: I've been playing guitar since I was about 16. I picked up the banjo and the fiddle in my late 20s. I was playing with my grandfather on Dobro and backing him up on guitar.

Q: Was it always traditional music, or did you try other things?

A: I'd grown up around that kind of music but when I was in my late teens, I played in some bands around here. One was called Paranarians. Then I got into kind of ambient noise stuff. Experimental stuff.

Q: What caused you to do the field recordings?

A: Moving away gave me a different perspective on the music and the musicians out there [on Sand Mountain]. I realized a lot of them had not been documented.

Q: What did you learn or experience from doing those recordings?

A: It was neat to spend time with those guys. It kind of impressed on me the different roles that music played for them. Growing up without the access to music and media that we have now, they see it differently. They didn't think of it as a commodity or a product. It was part of their lives. I've tried to ingrain that in my approach.

Q: It's an oral history for them, isn't it?

A: Exactly. That's how it is for me. I don't read music. Jess Moore, an old fiddle player I played with, he didn't read music. He learned directly from watching people.

Q: How many did you record?

A: Overall, I recorded maybe 12 or 15 different guys and hundreds of hours. I got them to tell their stories.

Q: Where can people hear them?

A: I put a little bit of it on SlowTime Field Recordings [slowtimerecordings.com] last year.

Q: It must give you a sense of pride knowing this stuff has been preserved.

A: Yeah, it does. That's the neatest thing. It's out there for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to experience it. It's like sitting on their porch with them and hearing their stories and music.

Q: What about your own playing? What do you guys have coming up?

A: We are about to kick off our fourth year at Rock City and their summer music series.

Q: What is that like, playing traditional music for people who come from all over the world?

A: It's cool. We've got a guest book and it's really cool to look back and see where people have come from and to be able to play music where it originated and to share that with other people from around the world is special.

Q: Any new recordings in the works?

A: We are working on another CD and we've got a bunch of videos too.

Q: What was your first CD called and where can people get it?

A: "The New Binkley Brothers." People can buy it at shows.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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