String Theory


Greenville’s Delta String Band resurrects forgotten old-time Americana and Mississippi fiddle tunes on their debut, Songs of Late Vol. 1

     Musicians tend to leave a trail of clues from the songs they play to the music and artists who inspired them. Lyrical turns of phrase or vocal inflections, musical patterns and motifs, and the sounds of the instruments themselves can be traced backward in time, as each generation adds their own signatures along the way.

     It’s why once-obscure bands like Big Star and the Velvet Underground, who influenced future chart-toppers R.E.M. and countless others, can find new fans decades after their heydays. The same goes for many Delta blues singers and guitar pickers, who only achieved recognition late in life or posthumously after rock and roll became a cross-cultural phenomenon.

     And it’s why Delta String Band, an old-time American music group based in Greenville, wasn’t content to play “Man of Constant Sorrow” or “Rocky Top,” songs even non-bluegrass fans recognize, when the roots of those songs led further back into time and history.

Ruth and Sullivan at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia. (Photo: MARK FRYE)

     Cody Ruth and Charles Sullivan, the two constants of the Delta String Band’s lineup to date, find a deep well of inspiration in those sepia and tintype tones of yesteryear. And since adding fiddle player Amanda Mayo-Saalwaechter to round out the trio, the mostly forgotten fiddle tunes predating many bluegrass and old-time American music standards have become their latest obsession.

     “We’re not so much a bluegrass band— we’re more of an old-time band,” Ruth says. “When we first started, I guess we were on the edge of bluegrass and the whole new-grass movement. But we’re focused on Mississippi songs, playing stuff that’s 100 years old.”

     Over the past year, their setlist has transitioned from the songs of John Prine, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, as well as more recent Americana bands like Drive-By Truckers, to vintage fare such as “Tupelo Blues,” “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” and “Poor Mary Sitting in the Corner.” And, they’re playing a lot of songs residing in the public domain—their new EP, Songs of Late Vol. 1, released in April, features “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Who Broke the Lock,” a pair of nineteenth-century Appalachian tunes.

     “There’s so many fiddle songs, it was getting overwhelming trying to pick what to play,” Ruth says. “Listening to the Soundwagon CD [Give the Fiddler a Dram, 2009], with Jack Magee, and then researching the artists that originally did those songs is what gave me a little bit of focus instead of just learning any old song.”

Ruth, Sullivan and Amanda Mayo-Saalwaechter performing at the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville 2023. (Photo: FAITH BARNETT)

     The music Delta String Band plays is 180 degrees from Nirvana, Tool and the nineties alternative-rock and metal bands Ruth and Sullivan grew up cranking. But the transition from modern music played on electric instruments through massive amplifiers to the traditional sounds of an acoustic guitar, fiddle and viol—a bowed, Revolutionary War-era stringed instrument sized between a cello and an upright bass, which allows Ruth to play bass parts and higher fiddle parts as the gig requires—was gradual. Ruth owned an upright bass as far back as high school, for example, but didn’t apply it to his music for several years.

     After finishing high school in Greenville, Ruth studied bass and jazz at the University of Southern Mississippi under Dr. Marcos Machado and Larry Panella, and then moved to New Orleans, where he spent evenings playing music around the city. “I’ve played in so many venues in New Orleans,” Ruth says. “I used to play at Siberia every other Thursday with a Klezmer European folk band. I used to play at the Spotted Cat occasionally. I had a residency at the Carousel Lounge in Hotel Monteleone. I mean, I did everything.”

Clockwise from top left: Sullivan, Ruth, Brown, Slayton and Morgan (Photo: EUPHUS RUTH)

     His day job—working for a construction crew on renovations of historical buildings—brought him home after a few years, though, when he returned to work on the restoration of The Belmont 1857 mansion in Wayside in 2016.

     Sullivan spent a short time in Pennsylvania before returning, too, and never stopped playing music. Back in Greenville, he formed a loud, distorted-guitar-driven duo with his brother on drums, and strummed country and folk songs on his acoustic guitar at open mic nights across the Delta. It wasn’t a huge leap, then, to transition to playing bluegrass and old-time music.

     “I got my first guitar for my 14th birthday, and I was really into Kurt Cobain,” Sullivan says. “But I think the core of the country side of it came from being raised listening to classic country music, like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson—all the outlaw stuff. I was around it constantly, and as I got older, I circled back to that aspect of nostalgia, and I enjoyed it a lot.” 

Ruth, David Morgan, Will Coppage and Sullivan performing at Bluegrass Mass, Dockery Farms in 2023. (Photo: FAITH BARNETT)

     The group’s origin dates to the 2018 Belmont Bluegrass and Barbecue Festival, which they helped create alongside the late Delta historian Hank Burdine and Camille Collins. In fact, they formed the Delta String Band explicitly to perform there. “It was up to us to come up with enough bluegrass bands, or at least bluegrass-adjacent bands, to make a festival together,” Ruth says. With a month to put it together, they pulled in friends Spike Brown on plectrum banjo, David Morgan on mandolin and Sarah Taylor on lead vocals.

     “When I decided to put the band together for the festival, I’d already been playing in a duo with Charles,” Ruth says. “We got everybody together and pulled from everybody—mainly Charles, any songs he knew—and some songs I knew how to sing, some songs Spike knew how to sing. Whatever somebody happened to know, we just threw it in. There wasn’t really a grand plan.”

David Morgan, Ruth, Sullivan and Mayo-Saalawechter at Mighty Roots Music Festival in Stovall in 2023. (Photo: TOP ROVE LIFE PHOTOGRAPHY)

     Eventually, as band members and collaborators like Craig Adams, Mike Slaton and Will Coppage came and went, Ruth and Sullivan began to specialize in more obscure numbers, becoming record-crate diggers and chasing song leads down internet rabbit holes as they researched fiddle songs associated with musicians from Mississippi. Ruth also read Harry Bolick’s Mississippi Fiddle Book, which gave him the history of old-time songs, as well as transcriptions so the band could learn them.

     “I think it gives us focus but also represents where we’re from,” says Ruth. “We could learn a bunch of Virginia songs, but those aren’t really our songs. I felt it was most appropriate to learn songs that originated close to where we’re from, and then bring those to other places.”

     Branching out from the Delta bar and festival circuit, the Delta String Band will play its first Memphis gig this summer, as well as festivals in Louisiana and gigs down to Hattiesburg and over to Arkansas. The band is fielding performance requests at, and Songs of Late Vol. 1 is available for streaming from Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and other services.


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