Old-time banjo finds home in new music
For a long time, the banjo was treated like the proverbial embarrassing country cousin, if not ignored completely. It was just a little too rustic, old-timey, hillbilly, whatever. Even commercial country music, while largely holding on to the fiddle and mandolin, just sort of let the banjo fade away.
Then, that started to change. Formerly tiny niches for bluegrass and old-school country began growing again. Indie rock bands, looking for a more-rooted sound, began to throw the banjo into the mix. Younger string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and Greensky Bluegrass started taking banjo-driven music to new places.
Now, mainstream bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons are putting the banjo front-and-center, and even pop icon Taylor Swift has been known to pick at a banjo on occasion.
“It's a sweet time for the banjo right now,” says Bela Fleck, one of the modern masters of the instrument, who will be performing Oct. 2 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall. “A lot of the stereotypes have eased back, and the idea that it's a really special piece of Americana has emerged and strengthened. Now that ‘Dueling Banjos' and ‘Hee-Haw' and ‘Beverly Hillbillies' are less current, the banjo is showing up in rock, indie and even country music sometimes.
“For the longest time, banjo was actually too country-sounding to be in country music, which was trying to upgrade its image.”
Steve Miklas runs Acoustic Music Works in Squirrel Hill, one of the country's premier retailers for high-end, hand-crafted, professional banjos, mandolins and guitars.
“We're seeing a blip in sales, sure,” Miklas says. “This happens every 10 years. I've been doing this since the '70s, and I remember the ‘Deliverance' (1972) blip, with ‘Dueling Banjos.' I remember the ‘Bonnie and Clyde' (1967) blip, with ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown' by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.”
The banjo got a bit of a similar boost from Joel and Ethan Coen's screwball Depression-era comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) and its soundtrack. Interest in the rustic authenticity of musical styles like bluegrass has only grown since then.
Those pop-culture blips didn't go unnoticed by a young Bela Fleck, growing up in the decidedly un-Appalachian environment of New York City.
“I first heard it on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies' sitcom when I was a kid of indeterminate age,” he says. “I always remembered that sound. I heard it again when ‘Dueling Banjos' became a hit. My grandfather finally bought me a banjo when I was 15, and I was completely hooked.”
Now, Fleck is touring with Eric Weissberg, who performed “Dueling Banjos” in “Deliverance,” and a host of other banjo giants. Fleck's New York Banjo Summit tour also includes Bill Keith (Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys), Noam Pikelny (Leftover Salmon, Punch Brothers), Richie Stearns (Donna the Buffalo, The Horseflies), Tony Trischka, and clawhammer banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn.
Miklas says that two people have helped get the banjo taken seriously, more than anyone else. The first is Fleck, whose experimentation has taken him deep into jazz, classical music, bluegrass, even African music, and whose willingness to collaborate with other instrumental virtuosos has pushed the possibilities of the instrument forward.
“I often say that the expectations are so low, that it's not hard for me to exceed them,” Fleck says. “People are so surprised when the banjo is played in slow beautiful way, or when jazz or classical music is played on it. I want the music I play to be more than just a surprise but to evoke feelings and moods for the listener.”
The other main banjo proponent is the comedian Steve Martin (who just played in Pittsburgh a few months ago with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell). Martin, in addition to his exceptional playing — and, of course, sense of humor — has sponsored the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, given out every year. The Banjo Summit's Noam Pikelny won in 2010.
Origins and offshoots
For an instrument associated so strongly with Appalachia, the beginnings of the banjo may come as a surprise.
“Banjo comes from West Africa and came to the Americas with the slaves,” Fleck says. “There are still a family of instruments in West Africa that are related — the akonting, the xallum and the ngoni are three I can think of.”
Somewhere along the way, the bluegrass-folk-country emphasis seemed to crowd out other uses for the banjo, at least in the popular mind.
“Those stereotypes were so strong, that they cast a dark shadow on the fine art of banjo playing,” Fleck says. “Plus, they were not fair, because the southern rural part of the banjo's history is only a small piece of it. There's all the plantation music, played by slaves; there's the classic period, where the banjo became immensely popular; don't forget the banjo-orchestra era and banjo's roots in jazz — in Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton's groups. I love the southern white side of the banjo and, in fact, would not be playing the instrument if it weren't for Earl Scruggs and bluegrass, but there's so much more to appreciate, as well.”
In Pittsburgh, a completely different style of banjo and banjo-playing has held on, largely outside the folk-country-bluegrass continuum. The Pittsburgh Banjo Society keeps the banjo music of the '20s and '30s alive, playing every Wednesday night at the Elks Lodge No. 339 on the North Side.
The club has always been a hit with retirees. But over the past few years, it has begun drawing lots of music fans in their 20s and 30s. The free admission and cheap beer don't hurt.
“It's happy, enthusiastic music,” says Frank Rossi, who leads the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, which has about 80 members. “If they like loud music, it's one of the loudest acoustic instruments around. In the days of speakeasies in the 1920s, everybody was dancing the Charleston to these songs.”
Their banjos have a key difference.
“Younger kids know the five-string banjo, used in bluegrass, country and folk music,” Rossi says. “We play the four-string banjo, the jazz banjo. They've never heard it before. The four-string banjo kind of died out in the '30s and '40s, and in the '50s, the five-string bluegrass banjo made a comeback, thanks to Earl Scruggs.”
The banjo club features lots of singing, and horn players, as well as clarinet whiz Lou Schreiber for the Dixieland tunes.
“It's Americana music,” Rossi says. “Stephen Foster songs, popular songs from the '40s and '50s, Broadway show tunes from ‘Hello Dolly,' ‘The Music Man,' songs from World War II like ‘Beer Barrel Polka,' songs from World War I like ‘Lili Marlene.' We don't do rock 'n' roll. We do a few country Hank Williams tunes, but we don't do bluegrass or folk tunes.”
When the banjo club winds it up at 11 p.m., those who still need more banjo have options.
“The Park House (in Deutschtown) has bluegrass night,” Rossi says. “A lot of the younger people come see us and go up to the Park House.”
Lawrenceville of Appalachia
As the largest city in Appalachia, it shouldn't be a surprise that plenty of bluegrass and “mountain music” has filtered into Pittsburgh over the years. Roots music, from country to folk and blues have long found a home here.
Yet, for Molly Alphabet, 28, who grew up in Lawrence-ville, it took going away for awhile to open her mind to the possibilities of old-school country.
“I went to college in D.C. — everything is transient, young, everyone's there for five or six years in their 20s,” she says. “Every time I went back to Pittsburgh, I realized how much we experience older people, older sounds, older music. Plus, my brother had gotten into it. He was always into whatever other people weren't.
“These days, with the Internet, you can get access to the whole database (of music). In Pittsburgh, you can hear excellent roots-bluegrass music most nights of the week.”
Alphabet sings in a warm, lonesome croon in the manner of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells. Zach Schmidt plays the banjo in her self-titled band. They'll be performing at “Twangathon” Oct. 4 at the Lawrenceville Moose, along with like-minded bands like Slim Forsythe and His New Payday Loners, The Stillhouse Pickers and The Mavens. There will be lots of banjo.
The banjo's sudden ubiquity is as much of a surprise to Alphabet as anybody.
“That's the thing I can't put my finger on — I don't know enough about current pop music,” Alphabet says. “Zach is a big fan of the Avett Brothers. ... I do think people want a more organic music, who are tired of more electronic stuff.”
Acoustic Music Works sees these younger customers all the time.
“Teenagers, college kids, come in saying, ‘I'm a big fan of Mumford and Sons,'” Miklas says. “The least expensive banjo is $300. But these are the people who will come back in 10 years and buy really good banjos.
“If we sell 70 this year, that'll be good. We have a worldwide Internet business, selling $4,000 to $6,000 handcrafted professional banjos. I've shipped to 38 states and 13 countries. I think the industry trade magazines are saying they're up 12 percent, which is pretty great in a depressed economy. That's a big spike for an instrument. But ukeleles are up 50 percent — they're out of control.”
Could a banjo backlash be far behind?
“Banjo is something people react viscerally to,” Alphabet says. “You hear a lot of very negative comments. I just heard people making fun of it at work. You either love it or hate it.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.