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Roots-Rocking ILM

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band
Mar. 7th, 8 p.m. • $20
Scottish Rite Temple
1415 S 17th St. • 910-777-8889

BOUND BY MUSIC: The Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band tour irregularly but Wilmington will have the opportunity to catch them live in a once-in-a-lifetime show. Courtesy photo from band

BOUND BY MUSIC: The Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band tour irregularly but Wilmington will have the opportunity to catch them live in a once-in-a-lifetime show. Courtesy photo from band

The Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band will add its own joyful noise to the Wilmington area resurgence in roots music with a performance at the Scottish Rite Temple on March 7th at 8 p.m. To add extra icing to the cake, Ungar’s daughter, Ruthy, and her husband Mike Merenda, acclaimed as one of acoustic America’s most revered musical duos, will round out the band’s eclectic sound.

Four local master musicians, P.D. Midgett (Southport Jam), Julia and Kelly Jewell (Port City Trio) and Susan Savia (Stone Soup Concerts), are sponsors for the show. They call Ungar and Mason the “heart and soul of American roots music.”

Playing fiddle from the time he was a child, Ungar hung out in Greenwich Village coffee houses and traveled through Tennessee and North Carolina in search of traditional musicians. He listened to Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest,” and was further inspired by Bob Dylan’s singing of old roots classics. “They called it ‘folk’ in those days,” Ungar says.

In 1980 he and Mason opened the Ashokan Center in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York. The Ashokan (Lenape Indian for “where waters converge”) Center offers arts and musical education curricula and continues to upgrade programs like their popular fiddle and dance camps. Frequently, 25 instructors teach acoustic music and a wide spectrum of dance styles, including folk, waltz, swing, clogging, country western, square dancing, Swedish, Norwegian and Cajun.

Sponsor Julia and Kelly’s family, including Julia, Carter, Annie and Isabelle, had a wonderful experience at the Ashokan Center. “We each took different independent classes,” Julia tells, “and all felt very fulfilled. The family atmosphere at their camp is so important, regardless of degree of musicianship. We felt completely safe to let our girls go their own way to experience the beauty of the Catskills, the people and the music. This music represents such a big slice of American life.”

“Fiddle music has its roots in dancing,” Ungar explains, “regardless of the style of music. Having mastered certain musical skills, these accomplished people become links in the chain that pass the legacy of folk music from the people who came before to the people who will follow.”

One night, at the close of a particularly moving camp session, Ungar poured out a haunting melody that became known as “The Ashokan Farewell.” Ken Burns, of PBS documentary fame, heard the beautiful waltz in 1990 and asked to use it as the signature song for his series on The Civil War. “The Ashokan Farewell” was nominated for an Emmy and the entire soundtrack won a Grammy. Since, Ungar and Mason have contributed music for a number of Burns’ docs, including those on baseball, Thomas Jefferson and The Dust Bowl.

In 2014, Meryl Streep will perform in the latest Burns’ doc, “The Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor,” in which the tunes of Ungar and Mason will be heard yet again. Another favorite supporter and fellow performer is Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Mason played in the company house band from the late ‘70s, and the Ungar and Mason Family Band was featured in several shows.

‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ in 2000 built on what had been started by all that came before,” Ungar explains, “and introduced an even larger segment of the American public to bluegrass and old-time Southern Appalachian music.”

“My favorite part of all this is how many people are playing music with one another,” he adds. “It builds friendships and community. It helps people transcend their differences and meet on common ground to have fun, be moved and enjoy each other’s company. Today, thousands upon thousands of young people are falling in love with the music and becoming remarkable singers and players.”

Two of these young folks are Ungar’s daughter, Ruthy, and her husband, Mike Merenda. With two guitars, a fiddle, banjo, ukulele and a couple harmonicas, the duo prefers honest grit to pretentious glitz, and delights in putting heads together around a microphone.

In 2010 Ruthy and Mike’s fan-funded album “Million to One” rose to the top 20 on the Americana music charts. Their 2012 Woody Guthrie collaboration “My New York City” is “being hailed as one of the most gorgeous pieces ever to have come out of the archive (according to Time Out NY).”

“This [Wilmington] concert will be a rare moment for us,” Ungar notes. “We only tour a few times a year and look forward to playing together.”

Their sponsors and hosts are equally excited and expect a sell-out. “Together they blend to create a rhythmic energy of magic,” Savia exclaims. “There is nothing like hearing double fiddles and lush four-part harmony. The Scottish Rite Temple is incredibly beautiful and the acoustics are impeccable.”

“This is the kind of concert that doesn’t come along very often,” Midgett says. “It’s an opportunity for people to hear and participate in a level and quality of Americana/roots music, that’s off the charts!”

Folks can buy tickets to the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band at Ted’s Fun on the River and Gravity Records, and in Southport at Ricky Evans Gallery. For more information, call 910-777-8889 or email

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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