“Old Grimes” was an obscure fiddle tune before guitarists Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge included it on their Grammy-nominated 2017 album, Mount Royal. Other than appearing on a few scant recordings, it was one of those tunes you could usually only hear by coming across another musician who had learned it elsewhere. That is exactly how Eldridge found it—he picked it up from mandolinist Jesse Cobb while they were on tour in the Infamous Stringdusters, and Cobb had learned it previously from other folks he had played with. It is likely generations old; however, like most enduring fiddle tunes, its specific origins are unknown.
Lage and Eldridge’s arrangement highlights the versatility of this simple melody. Repeating the melody four times, the guitarists first play it in perfect unison, then Eldridge adds an arpeggiated backup under Lage’s lead, followed by Lage playing a more traditional rhythm under Eldridge’s solo. The tune ends with a final repeat of the melody. Instead of the typical approach of trading improvised solos over a repeated rhythm pattern, the arrangement holds the melody mostly constant while altering the backup. This technique continually pushes the song forward, resulting in an intoxicating melody line that never feels repetitive.
Example 1 (below) shows the melody and the accompanying chords. To get the most mileage, let each note ring out until the next note is played, helping create a sense of ease and fluidity. While Lage and Eldridge’s recording is astonishing, “Old Grimes” needn’t only be played in that exact arrangement—it also is a good jam tune, can be worked up as a solo arrangement, or, if nothing else, is a nice exercise to get the fingers moving in the key of D.
That being said, much of the magic on the recording comes from Eldridge’s backup the second time through. The guitarist told me his approach was to arpeggiate over open-position triads while replacing some fretted notes of each chord with open strings, resulting in airy ringing chords like Dsus2, A7sus4, and Bm(b6). When paired with Lage’s melody, this backup gives off a stunning and shimmering effect.
Example 2 shows the chord voicings and an approximation of the first four bars of the arpeggiation. Eldridge explained that his accompaniment is loosely improvised and that he does not play the exact same thing every time, so instead of trying to master this note for note, just use it as an example for your own arpeggiated iterations. Eldridge also incorporates some runs that add a sense of forward momentum to the backup. Example 3 approximates a lengthy descending move, making good use of the open strings, that he uses near the end of the second time through.
Following Eldridge’s open and airy backup, Lage employs a more a straightforward but no less effective accompaniment approach, a sample of which is shown in Example 4. Lage is known as a jazz guitarist with an incredible command of harmony, but he opts for simpler chord shapes and a boom-chuck pattern here, firmly grounding the rhythm and harmony of the tune and clearly defining this section as separate from the ones that precede it.
Eldridge and Lage’s choice to play “Old Grimes” simply and cleanly speaks not only to the power of the tune’s melody but also to the duo’s keen musical insight. Mount Royal is full of dazzling, technical guitar work, but when these two world-class musicians come across a hidden gem of a fiddle tune, they let the melody speak for itself.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.