Editor’s Notes: Everyone please welcome Brett. B.!! A fellow music loving friend & writer who was nice enough to contribute some wonderful musings to the Tiny Rager blog!
Resurrecting The Banjo
(by Brett B.)
1972. The year of DELIVERANCE. The year that a once proud American instrument was forever linked to hillbillies, Burt Reynolds in a canoe, and Ned Beatty squealing like a pig. In the 35 years since DELIVERANCE was released and it’s theme song, “Dueling Banjos” became a punchline for anything even remotely redneck related, just the mention of the word “banjo” or a few notes picked on one has caused a chuckle and the anticipation of a joke containing either roadkill, moonshine, incest or all three.
Well, not anymore. In the last few years, the music scene has re-embraced the banjo and begun to help it throw off the stigmata that has followed it for over three decades. A once proud and noble and truly AMERICAN instrument is getting the respect that it had taken away from it so callously, all those years ago. We can see in the last few years, the canonization and public recognition that this round cousin of the guitar so rightly deserves.
The mass appeal of the jam band scene and its constant desire to feverishly dig deeper and deeper into the music of our country’s past has certainly contributed greatly to this phenomenon. This younger generation of musicians has embraced, and brought to their audiences, both the songs and instrumentations of a bygone era. As technology heads into the digital future at warp speed, we are seeing the American music scene heading the other direction almost as fast. It is as if these artists are seeking something more real and sincere and organic. Something that is found in the simple picking of banjo strings.
Read almost any music site or magazine that covers the jam band scene, and chances are in at least one article, concert review or album review you will see the word “banjo”. Oh, sure you will see the occasional fiddle or washboard mentioned. But let’s face it: The banjo is the new “bad boy” of instruments. If you want your band or it’s music to simply scream authenticity? Get yourself a banjo.
Yonder Mountain String Band has been at the forefront of this scene and probably the best known of the jam bands who have brought bluegrass to a whole new generation of listeners. Thanks in no small part to Dave Johnston on banjo. Other names who you will always see mentioned in the same sentence with banjo? Danny Barnes, for one. The wunderkind of the banjo, Danny has been tearing up for years and is practically worshiped as one of the best players out there today. Otis Taylor’s most recent album, RECAPTURING THE BANJO pretty much says it all right there in the title. Put this album on and close your eyes. You will immediately feel as if you have been transported back in time and place to the Faulkner’s old South. You can almost smell the magnolia blossoms and hear the posse chasing the escaped chain gang prisoners through a Cypress choked swamp.
For years, Tony Trischka was the lone voice in the musical wilderness using the banjo to make himself heard. Album after quality album filled with fun songs, quick pickin’ and a real love of what he was doing. And after guesting on a Tony T. album, the one and only Steve Martin just released his first album of banjo music, THE CROW: NEW SONGS FOR THE 5-STRING BANJO. (I wonder if anyone has ever done a thesis on the symbolism of the crow and it’s occurrence in American banjo music?)
So, after reading a recent article on Eddie Van Halen’s new signature guitar that will cost upwards of $3,000, one has to wonder if the days of the flashy axe playing front man are about to be replaced. Could we someday witness the release of the Steve Johnston Flying V Banjo? Or even better: One day hear someone described as the “Jimi Hendrix of the Banjo”?
Only time and the banjo will tell.