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On The 'Big Road' Of Life And Music, David Bromberg Never Stayed In A Lane

Joe Del Tufo

In the repertoire and the freedom and the spaces between the notes on David Bromberg’s new album Big Road, we hear signifiers of his whole story. There’s big band with electric guitar and pianistic ragtime solo acoustic guitar. Bromberg croons country and shouts the blues. We hear the bluegrass work song “Take This Hammer,” the gospel classic “Standing In The Need of Prayer” and an eleven-minute slow jam on the original “Diamond Lil.” No corner or tradition of Americana music goes untouched, and it has been thus for more than 50 years.

“When I started the variety of genres that I perform, there wasn’t anybody else doing that. And it was commercial suicide,” Bromberg says in Episode 133 of The String. “The record stores didn’t know what bin to put my records in. The record companies didn’t know what magazines to advertise me in or what radio stations might play me, aside from the freeform FM stations, which did play me. So I was Mr. Miscellaneous. But it’s all the same to me. And the reason there’s such a wide breadth of music that I continue to record is I never heard anybody play anything on the guitar that I didn’t want to play.”

Bromberg got interested in the guitar and every other stringed instrument growing up in Tarrytown, NY. He headed to New York City to attend Columbia University when the folk revival was in full swing. He took guitar lessons from the regal bluesman Rev. Gary Davis and became a ubiquitous sideman and support player.

“At the time in the Village there were a number of clubs. Some of them were typical night clubs like The Bitter End and The Village Gate. And some of them were little coffee houses that were referred to as “basket houses” and that’s where I started playing. At the time I didn’t even try to sing. I just played guitar. So I accompanied an awful lot of people. Some of them were really good. I used to play guitar for Emmylou (Harris) and Richie Havens. It was my pleasure to play for Paul Siebel. Somehow, Tom Paxton heard about me and for a while I was his guitar player. Then for many years I was Jerry Jeff Walker’s entire band. The two of us traveled around. People would come listen to us and occasionally they’d ask me to play for them.”

Bromberg was recruited to the front of the stage more and more. In our talk, he describes getting invited to do an unplanned set at the Isle of Wight Festival in the 70s to an audience of about a half a million people and how that led in part to a recording contract with Columbia Records. Through that decade he brought his “kitchen sink” approach to songwriting, recording and touring, becoming one of roots music most intriguing journeymen and iconoclasts. Then in 1980 he put the whole thing on pause for a new direction.

“I didn’t want to be one of these guys who drags himself on the stage and does a bitter imitation of what he used to love. So I decided I had to find another way to live my life. What was I interested in? And by that time I’d gotten interested in the violin as an instrument, not just for what it could do but for what it was. They’re beautiful instruments. And although they all look the same to somebody who is not used to looking at them, they’re all different. And what fascinated me was how someone could look at a violin and without referring to the label on the inside, he could look at the outside and tell you when and where it was made and sometimes by whom. I wanted to do that.”

And Bromberg didn’t do that halfway. He became a pre-eminent expert on American violins and their history while building a definitive collection that’s currently up for sale. Simultaneously, he built David Bromberg And Associates Fine Violins in Wilmington, DE, where he lives and works. And that’s where he connected with us for a conversation that covers all this and more, including the fine new album.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org