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Where have all the folkies gone?

Bad Livers veteran Mark Rubin celebrates a small circle of friends with his Atomic Duo


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Most musicians would be flooded with disappointment if a member of their audience stood up and stormed out. For Mark Rubin and Silas Lowe, the troubadours that comprise the Atomic Duo, nothing is more satisfying.

"We wrote a song called 'We Need a New New Deal,'" explains Rubin. "It's a song in praise of Roosevelt and the social changes that happened during the New Deal. We have found that it enrages certain members of the audience to the point that they get up and leave. To me there's no higher compliment than the ability to move people that way."

The Austin, Texas duo's name was partly inspired by the fact that Rubin's grandfather worked on the team that helped put the first nuclear bomb aboard the Enola Gay. He also hints that the name was inspired by another "atomic" duo, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American communist couple who were executed for espionage back in the '50s.

Rubin previously earned a name for himself in the Bad Livers, an Austin-based bluegrass outfit that exposed the Texas capitol to bluegrass via punk rock venues. While Bad Livers avoided topical or political tunes, this current project is inspired by the protest songs of singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

"It seems to me that some of the greatest artists we think about were people who at one time or another took a position, took a stand, made a statement, but did so in an artistic and natural way," Rubin offers. "I can't think of a single contemporary artist that is actually making any kind of commentary on the world we find ourselves in right now."

Rubin sees the current roots revival as a response to the lack of meaningful social connections in modern life.

"If you go to a coffee shop, you see a bunch of people staring at laptops or smartphones. For a lot of people who grew up with Internet and social media, they feel disconnected from other people."

On the other hand, he says, "if you go to a bar that has an old-time jam session once a week, you'll see a bunch of people who haven't been introduced start playing music with one another. If you can start playing music with someone, you can have a conversation with them musically, and then you can have a conversation with them afterwards. That changes your brain chemistry, man."

Lowe, the Atomic Duo's mandolin player and junior member, came to Austin after playing in the Massachusetts string band, Northern Aggression. Self-described as "ethnically hippie and culturally Yankee," he bonded with Rubin over a shared love of Texas string bands and traditional music.

"It's the best work that Silas and I have ever been involved in," says Rubin. "It follows a very long tradition of having mandolin and guitar duets with harmony singing. Traditional music songsters were storytellers, and the stories they told were about simple truths and the problems they saw around them."

For Rubin, there could be no more practical way to confront the problems of the world.

"I don't want to be a Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchist. I'd like to, but I'm not going to because that's not productive," Rubin confesses. "What can I do? Well, I've been gifted with an ability to play music and tell stories. So, I'm a folk musician."


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