Old-time Fiddling Is Waking Up to a Brand New Day

With the help of accidental musician Stephanie Prausnitz of the Crooked Jades . . .

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If Stephanie Prausnitz' fiddling career is a little accident of fate, as she claims, then her membership in the Crooked Jades—a California-based string band with an edgy, newfangled attitude—is nothing less than a miracle. Founded ten years ago by Jeff Kazor, the Jades mix masterful musicianship with a first-rate sense of stage presence, taking old-time music where few thought it could go: to hardcore-rock venues, as well as more traditional old-time music fests.

Prausnitz has been with the band ever since she met Kazor and Co. at the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival in 1997, and her fiddling style and musical attitude have made her a vital part of the up-and-coming ensemble (which also employs the talents of fiddler Adam Tanner). A dedicated old-time fiddler, she found early on that her ability to translate the licks and tricks of vintage recordings was right in line with the Jades' tendency to take inspiration from great old, largely forgotten records.

"I'm sitting here right now working on a really great version of 'Sally Johnson,'" Prausnitz says, after answering the phone at her Berkeley home, before breaking off with a quick, "Hold on a second," as she runs to get the CD she's been practicing with. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," she says upon her return, "this is a Texas version of 'Sally Johnson,' by the Lewis Brothers, and I know the reason Jeff picked it for the group. It's crooked, like the Crooked Jades. It has extra beats in it, so it's kind of squirrelly."

That whimsical, half-serious adjective—defined by Webster's as "extremely odd," or "crazy"—is an apt description of the Crooked Jades. Experimental, energetic, and socially conscious, the Jades manage to treat the music they love in a way that is at once stripped down and lushly rich and powerful. As Prausnitz puts it, "We do weird stuff with the music. We're the only old-time band I know that uses a harmonium in some its tunes."

There are plenty of people who enjoy the Jades' experimental approach. The band has released two collections of new and classic tunes, The Unfortunate Rake, Volumes 1 and 2 (both on the Copper Creek label), and contributed to the soundtrack of the documentary film Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait.

But despite the group's popularity, Prausnitz admits there are at least a few purists who "just don't get it."

"Like I said, we do some pretty weird stuff with this music," she explains. "For me though, it's really fun to play this kind of music and to play it this way."

Prausnitz started out as a cellist, way back in fourth grade, when she took lessons as part of her public elementary school music education. "I thought the cello was the most beautiful instrument in the world," she recalls, "but it turns out, as the seventh of eight cellos in the program, playing from sheets of music, I really didn't do all that well playing classical. I kept at it till ninth grade and then I quit."

At 29, Prausnitz moved to Atlanta, and began attending contradances, where she heard live fiddle-and-banjo music for the first time. She fell instantly in love.

"That," she says, "is when my involvement with music was reborn."

Her unplanned return to music took place when a friend offered her a fiddle—for free. The timing was fateful, as she'd made up her mind to take up . . . the banjo.

"The fiddle had been under my friend's sofa, in Arizona, for seven or eight years," Prausnitz says. "She never played it, she didn't want it, so she gave it to me."

Transformed, the cellist-turned-slacker-turned-fiddler spent the next few years playing for local dances. By the time she met Kazor, Prausnitz was ready to push her amazing skill to the edge. "People have said that we have a punk-rock attitude," she says, "but I'm never sure what that means, honestly. I never listened to punk rock, 'cause it all sounds sort of loud, electric, and angry."

She has become accustomed to the comparison, however, and has even come to see it as a compliment. "When people say we're a lot like punk rockers," she laughs, "they usually just mean we have a stripped-down sound, stripped back to the basic, purest elements of the music. I can deal with that, 'cause that's a lot of what we do."

*This article appeared in Strings May 2004
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