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Charleston native Mike Collins Jr. still follows his pre-war muse

The Bygone Banjoman

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It's not difficult to get the sense that Mike Collins Jr. feels like he belongs in another era. He's spent some time as a true vagabond after his stints in the punk-blues band Mercy Mercy Me and shambolic country-rock act Say Brother in Columbia, traveling the country as a busker and garage-folk one-man-band while briefly settling in San Francisco and then New Orleans. He's been living in Virginia for the last few years though, digging deep into the roots of the music he loves.

"When I moved to Virginia two and half years ago, I got more turned on to old-time fiddle music, which is a genre unto itself," he explains, adopting the enthusiastic tone of a music history preservationist. "It gets confused with bluegrass a lot, but it's not [the same]. It's a big part of what influences bluegrass and a lot of bluegrass comes from it — but it's got a completely different banjo style and it's more everybody banging out the melody together."

Collins' affection for folk music and early rock 'n' roll dates back to his early days in South Carolina where he began cultivating his ragged-but-energetic solo act that balanced choice covers with his own originals, but in his mind his education really began on the streets of New Orleans.

"I tried as much as I could to branch out and play in these pickup bands that would meet on Royal Street. I'd just go down there with a banjo and harmonica and walk around and wait for someone to meet," he recalls. "That's kind of how I got into blues and jug band stuff. I was playing with other people again and engaging more intimately with the folk traditions that I supposedly espoused in my own music. Learning those tunes, learning the melodies and words, and playing with other people and really just participating in it more [was important]."

Collins notes a distinct difference between the New Orleans stint and his current focus on old-time fiddle music, which existed primarily in the 1920s and '30s and is a specific tradition that existed mostly along the North Carolina/Virginia border.

"Everybody in the '20s and '30s was playing blues and jazz in New Orleans, and here a lot of the younger musicians around here still play this kind of music," he points out. "[And] all of the reference recordings are from the same time, the 1920s and '30s."

That music is what Collins lives and breathes day in and day out. He considers himself a sort of student of history, embracing more than just old-timey music but rather the entire culture and time period from which it comes from.

"It's fun to engage with something bigger than myself, learning more about the history of American music, the history of the banjo. I'm totally fascinated by all of it," he admits. "It's what I put on in the car every day, it's what I listen to all the time. It takes you back there in an even more intimate way. It kind of helps me understand on a different level what it was like back then."

While Collins' show, like his last few return performances to Charleston, will be as a solo act, lately his energies have been poured into The Old Time Snake Milkers, a four-piece outfit that allows him to indulge in his particular fixations.

"We're billed as an old-time fiddle band, mainly, but just the fact that I play a plectrum banjo is kind of breaking the rules," says Collins. "We're blending our own understanding of old-time and what I brought with me from New Orleans about blues and jazz to make something a little different than bands who stick religiously to either side."

The group will perform at Tin Roof on Jan. 14, three weeks following Collins' solo show Dec. 23. "What I'm doing with the one-band show, it's going to be a bit more traditional, but it's not really traditional," he explains. "With that suitcase, it's still rock 'n' roll. The energy is just different."

More than anything, though, the sense of Collins sticking to his creative guns during the conversation is steadfast.

"Mainly it's dance music and party music," he says of what he plays. "Imagine living through World War One or the Great Depression and feeling the urge to play ragtime piano in the face of all that. It's kinda beautiful, and awesome, that people still insisted on having fun when and where they could."

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