Album Review – The Onlies (Self-Titled)

Maybe you got a whiff of the latest Tyler Childers record Long Violent History full of elementary old-time fiddle tunes, and found it awakening a musical appetite in you that perhaps you never new existed before. But you don’t really know where to go from there. The latest self-titled record from The Onlies is just about a perfect next step in your fiddle tune journey as a testament to the vitality and appeal that old-time music and fiddle tunes can still hold to the modern ear, articulated by artists master skilled in the discipline, and full of passion to share it.

There is an entire world of old-time music out there just waiting to be discovered, flying under-the-radar of the popular trends and zeitgeist, with gatherings and festivals, bonafides and amateurs alike all doing what they can to keep these archaic songs alive. Just like music is its own language, so is old-time, where it’s not just knowing how to play, but how versed your vocabulary is in the seemingly endless catalog of old-time fiddle tunes that measures your worth. Simple hitches and variations from different versions of songs to adapt and share is where a specific performer or outfit adds their own originality and flair to the art form.

As The Onlies attest, this is not just an old man’s game either. With all the members in their 20’s, these wickedly proficient players bring a power, potency, and a cool factor to the oldest incarnation of country music. Old-time music is interwoven in the very fiber of these players. A “young group of old friends” as they call it, Sami Braman, Leo Shannon, and Riley Calcagno initially formed the group in 2006 when they were still very young children growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Just single digits in age, they learned to play the fiddle and string music together.

Those familiar with old-time music will also be familiar with Vivian Leva, who grew up in the Lexington, VA area, also playing old-time music beginning at a very young age. Along with her original music and solo work, she regularly tours and collaborates with Riley Calcagno. Vivian officially joined The Onlies in 2016 as a fourth member. It was like adding Neil Young to Crosby, Still, and Nash, and now they’re one of the most pioneering and respected young groups in old-time music.

Collaborating with The Onlies for what is now their fourth record is Nokosee Fields on upright bass, who is known for being the backbone of another supergroup in Western Centuries, while Caleb Klauder of the Foghorn Stringband produced the effort. What you get is 16 traditional tunes expertly articulated, perfect for listen to in the foreground or background. It’s music that moves you on a very elemental level in a way the modern music of today just can’t accomplish.

Multi-instrumentalism is on full display as these four maestros take anything with strings and make it sing, while their multi-layered harmonies bring vintage stories to life. With the foundational experience these four players have with both this music and each other, there’s a seamlessness here usually only achieved by well-rehearsed family bands. Whether it’s telling a story or sawing out an instrumental, there’s a commitment to carry these songs forward with conviction.

Old-time fiddle music is not for everyone, and some of the obsolete language may make some discount it straight off. But there’s a warmth to the simplicity, and a rhythm to the modes of this music that touches nerves otherwise rendered dormant. The Onlies help awaken those synapses and emotions, while doing the important work of shepherding old-time music into the next century.

8/10

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The Onlies is currently only available On Bandcamp.

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