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My Bluegrass Banjo Story

Posted by d_pert on Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Thanks to everyone who sent me a welcome and everyone on BH who makes it such a rich resource for banjo learners and players all over the place! Please accept my apologies for meeting your initial welcomes with silence - I had no idea there would be so many so quickly and I didn't check!

I discovered bluegrass by accident, using the original MP3 file-sharing program Napster in 1998. I was trying to explain to my father (b. 1928), over the telephone, how he could hear any ‘old music’ for free. In a mix of early country and opera recordings I downloaded for him there were about two Flatt & Scruggs tracks. These stuck out to me somehow – they sounded historic yet timeless, exceptionally virtuosic, and serious-minded but fun all at the same time. I ended up listening to them a few times every week for about a year! I don’t remember which songs they were.
About a year later (1999) I mentioned ‘bluegrass’ at a party in Toronto and was promptly invited by Ms. Rachel Long to the Silver Dollar Room 'High Lonesome Wednesday' to prove to me that it wasn’t the completely dead piece of music history that I was convinced it was. In those days it was a ‘very’ full band with Chris Quinn (CQ), Chris Coole, Jenny Whitely, Dan Whitely, Joey Wright, Marc Roy, Brian Barron, John Showman, Andrew Collins. Right from the first notes, I was blown away and hooked. I went back every single Wednesday for 1.5 years (I mean every single Wednesday - seriously). I planted myself at, and heavily defended, a barstool in the direct line of fire from Chris Quinn's banjo.
Chris Quinn is a character who will recur with special status through the rest of my story.
Over many months I invited dozens of friends and acquaintances to see the Silver Dollar show, often going 1-2 hours ahead to reserve 8-9 barstools directly in front of the stage. It was consistently a packed house with a friendly and keen audience of music enthusiasts, players and non-players, young and old, from all walks of life. There was wall to wall dancing practically every night, often ‘til 2-3am. I listened a ton, drank a ton, danced a ton, made a ton of friends and had some of the best times in my life there.
I frantically went to the HMV superstore on Yonge street and feverishly searched through the modest bluegrass section. I sampled several CDs and bought two which couldn’t possibly have been better for me at that time: Bill Monroe – American Traveler ‘Deluxe Instrumentals’ and the Rounder ‘Hand-Picked, 25 Years of Bluegrass’ 2-CD compilation set. I listened to those every day for about a year. During my continued Silver Dollar attendance, CQ introduced me to many other great recordings, among them Flatt & Scruggs –  Live at Carnegie Hall (1963), The Johnson Mountain Boys – Live at the Old Schoolhouse, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mt. Boys – ‘Classic Stanley’ 2–CD set.
About a year later (2000) I met CQ by accident at a Toronto diner and we had breakfast together. It was a Saturday, and at his suggestion we progressed to a fine instrument shop in Toronto where he suggested that I consider buying a Deering Goodtime banjo – which I did. 'Stop being a spectator and join the action...

6 comments on “My Bluegrass Banjo Story”

Unplugged Says:
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 @7:04:35 PM

Sounds like a wonderful journey that you're on. In parts, I see myself in there, though I don't have a CQ "angel" to guide the way (yet). I could map out my somewhat different journey for you (I started in 2002), but suffice to say, your thoughts are most welcome and nourishing. I will retire at the end of this school year (after 40 years of teaching) and look forward to my own immersion in banjo and bluegrass. Hope to meet you (see you onstage?) at a festival sometime soon. Thanks. - Steve

Ks_5-picker Says:
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 @7:06:45 PM

That's a great story,thanks so much for sharing it. 

randyblair Says:
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 @7:27:22 PM

Hey Derek

Thanks for sharing your's great to hear the steps you took and I love the front row at concerts advice!


SJL Says:
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @7:49:33 AM


Great story.

'Stop being a spectator and join the action...' he said, characteristically.
Yes, that sure is Characteristic of Chris. Thank goodness you were up to the challenge. 
I hope to get out to hear you soon.

TopCat Says:
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @8:59:19 AM

Great stuff, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to write down your "story so far".

TopCat Says:
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 @9:00:09 AM

Oops - sorry, I mean great stuff, Derek!! Getting mixed up between you and your mentor!

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