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Bill Keith -- an appreciation

Posted by corcoran on Monday, December 19, 2011

Bill Keith turns 72 on 20 December 2011.  It is remarkable to recognize that he has been sharing great music and revolutionary banjo with us for close to 50 years now.  Speaking personally, I have had two quasi-religious experiences on the banjo.  The first was around 1961, when somebody gave me a tape of one of those old Flatt and Scruggs compilation albums on Harmony Records.  As soon as I heard Scruggs’s playing, my perception of the banjo, music, life, the Universe, and everything shifted, and I knew I had to learn to play like him.  The second was when I heard Bill Monroe’s recording of Salt Creek, featuring Keith on banjo.  There was something subtly different about Keith’s playing that told me a new world had opened up on the banjo.  Keith had mastered the tone, rhythm, and punch of Scruggs’s style, but he had taken it a step further with unexpected rhythmic twists and right-hand patterns.  I knew I also had to learn to play like him, especially after I heard his other recordings with Monroe and with Jim Rooney, in which he brandished his new approach to the banjo, the “melodic” style, such as in Devil’s Dream and Sailor’s Hornpipe.  

Note that I had heard of Keith before I actually heard his playing on Monroe’s and subsequent recordings.  Even in provincial old Chicago in the early 1960s, word had trickled out that a guy from Boston was playing stuff on the 5-string banjo that most of us had never dreamed of.  Much later, of course, we learned that melodic style had probably been independently created by Carroll Best, an obscure banjo player from North Carolina, in the 1940s, and to an extent by the great Bobby Thompson, who acknowledged that in the early days he had never taken the style as far as Keith had.  There is also reason to think that Thompson knew Best and was greatly influenced by his playing long before Keith had heard of Best.  But that is a topic for another day.

In addition to his exciting interpretation of Scruggs style (which I prefer to call “North Carolina three-finger style,” but “Scruggs style” is shorter, simpler, and easier to write) and pioneering exploration and popularization of melodics, Keith has written or arranged for banjo a bunch of interesting tunes through the years, some melodic and some of a jazzy chordal style.  Consider: Caravan, Phlebitis, Jitterbug Waltz, Would You Believe It, Beating Around the Bush, Crab Waltz, Night in Tunisia, Pentachrome, Mood Indigo, Bay State Bounce, Step Lively, and Hornswoggled.  And who can forget his rich and incredibly complex version of Nola?  And wait, I haven’t even mentioned his development of Keith tuners, which he employs to great effect on Auld Lang Syne among other tunes.

Bill Keith is also a master teacher.  In 2003, for example, he taught the advanced banjo class at the British Columbia Bluegrass Workshop, in Sorrento BC.  For 4 and a half days he kept a group of us enthralled with nonstop banjo pyrotechnics, ideas, theory, stories, and just great music.  As I recall it, the class attendees did not break out their banjos even once – it was all a magnificent one-man show.

So here’s to you, Bill Keith!  May you continue to enlighten, entertain, and surprise us for another 50 years.  And by the way, isn’t it time you released another album?

3 comments on “Bill Keith -- an appreciation”

Jack Baker Says:
Saturday, February 25, 2012 @5:38:16 PM

Hi Michael,
Wonderful blog and I agree with all of it...There has never been such commanding authority and inventiveness brought to Banjo as Bill Keith well...Jack

corcoran Says:
Sunday, February 26, 2012 @3:58:34 PM

Thanks for the comment, Jack. I absolutely agree with you about Bill Keith's authority and inventiveness. Along with Earl Scruggs, he was and remains the major influence on my playing. And, wonder of wonders, he is still making wonderful music!

Jack Baker Says:
Sunday, February 26, 2012 @4:31:29 PM

Thanks Michael and yes Earl will always be number one. No one can imitate his sound--and talk about authority and power!! Jack

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