Burlington, Ky. —Daniel Martin Moore is in a light touring year, and he planned it that way. In the run up to his appearance at Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival in July, he's been engineering and producing records for his nascent Ol' Kentuck label.
“There’s a new record out on the label by Daniel Joseph Dorff and Ronnie Kuller. Dan’s been my drummer forever and Ronnie is this wonderful musician-composer from Chicago. They met in a band called Mucca Pazza – they’re both members of this Chicago-based punk marching band. Dan and Ronnie are kindred musical spirits," Moore said. "Truly beautiful stuff – piano, accordion, drums, violin – it’s just the two of them playing everything.”
In addition to working on a record, Dorff has been touring with Jim James' backing band, leaving Moore's own backing group down a percussion section and DMM with time on his hands for taking stock of his catalogue.
“[I've been] working on a couple releases from the archives, some studio outtakes," he added. "I think we’re going to do a collection of [DMM music] that we’ve recorded over the years, that have never come out for one reason or another, and we might do a couple of live collection releases.”
Though the name of his company would indicate a desire to showcase his fellow artists in the Commonwealth, Moore doesn't envision Ol' Kentuck as an exclusively Kentucky outlet. Rather, Kentucky's music scene provides the right, rich and fertile soil for growing.
"The name of the label is, obviously, also the name of the state, but it comes from an old folk song," Moore explained. "Specifically, it comes from one of my favorite songs, that starts with the line, 'Up in the hills of ol' Kentuck.' In a way, it was two birds with one stone to call it that. It does originate from here and a lot of the work is done here. Most of the artists on the label are from Kentucky – not that that's a necessity or something that's going to be preserved as we move forward – but [for now] it's small potatoes, and they're pretty local potatoes."
Moore's grounding in the folk and gospel traditions of the Bluegrass is evident in his recordings; as one who grew up among the pinewood pews of Southern churches, quietly pronounced joy and major chords are woven into his artistic fabric. Give a listen to his late Sub Pop recordings of "It Is Well with My Soul" or "Up Above My Head" and you may find yourself wondering if, after the sermon, you might look forward to Missus Stephens' famous fried chicken and some green beans 'n' ham at the Sunday night potluck. Not that Moore's music is specifically for the religious – it is not – but he admits the vein runs deep.
"My family was a church-going family, so that was most of my musical exposure – to hymns and to choirs and to great old tunes. It's one place that people still sing old folk songs all the time, in church. Maybe you don't hear it as much in other areas of our lives anymore. But you used to go to any church in the South and hear some 200-year old song being sung, or a song that's even older. I don't think I was thinking about it when I was a kid, but looking back on it, it was an extraordinary thing," he said.
This preservative aspect of folk gospel seems to be of more immediate importance to DMM than any particular theology. In acoustic customs, Moore sees the meta-conservation of heritage; it is the repetition, and passing along, of traditional music in churches and small town gatherings, from grandparents and parents to young'ins, that serves as a biological analogue to cloud-based data storage.
"You're hearing a cultural position in time. If you're listening to one of the ballads that's about a sea voyage 300 years old, you're hearing something that [came about] before the idea of music as something that is bought and sold as an object. If you fast-forward [from 300 years ago] to now, most of the music we experience is in that commercial context one way or another, whether you're buying a record, or you're streaming a record from a service that's pretending to pay artists online, it's some type of commodities exchange." His laugh was light and good-natured, if wry.
Moore doesn't see his role as that of an archivist, inasmuch as conservator. He doesn't try to replicate the performances of the artists who came before him, but he ensures their techniques are not lost to ephemera.
"I think it's OK to mess with stuff. It can't stay exactly the same," he asserted. "The only thing that can play a song the same way twice is a recording. No matter how good you are, or how technically brilliant you are, you're not going to be able to play the song exactly the same way two times. I think preservation is an interesting idea in music, but also it's kind of impossible. When I learn a song, I'm going to do it slightly different than the person before me, and the person before them. Even if I'm listening to a record that's a hundred years old, and I learn a song, the person singing on that record is doing it slightly different than the person they learned it from."
The fight against the commoditization of art, then, seems in Moore's view to be left to an aggregation of individuals' choices, in what they consume and what they teach to those who come after them.
"In terms of preservation, my hope would be that we don't lose that tradition of handing things down in a way that isn't monetarily based," Moore said. "I can't imagine when our generation are grandparents that we're going to be singing Taylor Swift songs to our grandbabies and hoping that they preserve them for future generations. It's a ridiculous idea. Not to slight her in any way, but culturally, that's not where the value lies."
Moore is quick to acknowledge that many of the traditional songs became so simply because they were catchy enough to stick in folks' minds.
"There are old folk songs that aren't Shakespeare," Moore offered. "There are folk songs that are just simply fun little dance songs or the pop songs of their age. It's hard to imagine Rod Stewart's greatest hits being painstakingly transcribed in a mountain holler someday, but you never know."
There's a truth here. John Cougar's family must certainly have passed down its musical values to Mellencamp, and when my father repeatedly played his tapes on family car trips, its stamp was left indelibly on me. If I had a son, I could easily see myself teaching him how to harmonize "Rain on the Scarecrow," even though I didn't grow up on a farm and have no visceral connection to the land. I'm not sure if I'll be able to reconcile and pass along my dad's love of Foreigner, but as Moore said, you never know. Even having grown up Wonderbread and suburban in the Eighties, I share with my dad, through his favorite music, a sense of grounding and place – my father's father grew up on the farm, passed along his values to my father, and so on. I feel a sense of ownership of a particular slice of Highland County, Ohio, in spite of having spent less than a fourth of a percent of my life within its bounds. Moore must sense my wheels turning.
"In general, in rural places and not even necessarily the South, there’s this keen sense of cultural history and legacy. I don’t think it’s limited to any one cultural influence," he said. "If given the choice between living in a place that has a strong character of its own, or living in a place that’s like, ‘We could go to O’Charley’s or Longhorn for dinner,’ I think I would go with the strong local flavor, even if that means I have to miss out on a Texas-style steakhouse. I think that it’s that same shift toward commodity – I do see it as an erosion and a decay."
He paused and chuckled.
"Not that it’s all doom and gloom.”
It may seem ironic, especially coming from a man who runs his own label and makes his living as a musician – Moore puts food on his table because his music is a commodity. But there are inevitably degrees and shades of selling out, and in this respect, Moore seems earnest. This is not a guy who sees his music simply as a commercial avenue; this is simply an artist doing what he was born to do. When he does it at Bunbury this summer, I'll be in the front row, remembering the smell of folks' Sunday morning best, and the somehow comforting hardness of pews.