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I recently applied to the Blue Ridge Banjo Camp which is held at Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. What follows is the personal musical history and biography that they asked for as part of the application process. I re-read it today and thought, what the heck, maybe this is a story worth sharing, maybe someone out there in BanjoLand will get a kick out of it. So here ya go, my personal story of my musical life age 10 through today...
April 11, 2022
I began playing classical violin at age 10 in 1970 through the local school system in Spartanburg, SC. I was clueless about music but fell in love with the violin (I'm 1/2 Italian, 1/2 Hillbilly) and stayed with that for 7 years, playing in the high school orchestra and making All State Orchestra several times. However, I wanted to "improvise" when at age 13 a friend of mine was wailing on electric guitar without sheet music, which I found remarkable. "How do you do that?" I asked him, and he told me he was "improvising!!" THAT's what I wanted to do. However, when I asked the student conductor about this I was told I'd have to play 30-40 years to get that good. Being green, gullible and naive, I believed that. I guess I just assumed classical music was different than rock. I had no point of reference.
(Coincidentally, also at age 13 in 1973 I attended Brevard Music Camp for classical music for three weeks when Dr. Henry Janiec was director there. I played in orchestra with his daughter at the time, she was my age. I had to audition for and was accepted to the camp, but I don't remember much about it, good bad or indifferent, just that I was there ... that time in my life was stressful and remains a blur ... )
When in high school orchestra, they hired an a**hole to lead the orchestra and suddenly music was not fun anymore. The orchestra met 8:00am 5 days per week and being yelled at every morning was not what I signed up for and it got old really fast. So much so that I quit orchestra and violin in my senior year, I was so disgusted with it. When I graduated at age 17 (I graduated 6 months early) I went out and bought a banjo, January 1978. And I've never looked back.
Because I was already adept at reading music, tablature came easy for me and soon I had all the tab books of the day. I learned a lot from the Wernick/Trishka books, but still could not improvise after a year or so, but I could play cleanly. Like a robot. Back then, I didn't know what I didn't know.
At age 19 in 1979 I wrote a banjo instruction booklet which I have since posted for free to banjohangout. Because at that age I had already been exposed to basic scale and chord theory, in my first year I had a major "ah-ha" when I realized that the banjo, being tuned to an open chord, had only three basic shapes any (triad) chord could be. I figured all that out on my own on the fingerboard. Many years later I wrote a more comprehensive manual of my method for identifying and learning how to move the shapes up and down the fingerboard (and how to modify them), also posted for free, now as a sticky-topic on banjohangout in the Music Theory section. It seems to be well received as far as I can tell.
However, I never spent the time to study scales or scale exercises on banjo and wish I had had the time and discipline many years ago to do that. Oh well, it's still on my bucket list :) ... but it has not hindered me ... But if you were to ask me to play a pentatonic scale, I would have to stop and think hard about that, as I say, I wish I had spent the time in my youth but life blew me all over the place. Maybe I can be motivated again to do so now, at this stage of life. Anything is possible.
The first real breakthroughs for me actually *playing* was when I was in Memphis, TN and met Randal Morton, a terrific banjoist, who introduced me to all sorts of jam sessions in the area. This would be the early-to-mid 1980s. I clearly recall my first jam session, I was as nervous as could be. But I was hooked. (In the last few decades I will drive a long way for a good jam session or jam party. It's all about the vibe, and musicianship ...)
When I finally settled in east Tennessee in Andersonville, just above Knoxville in the mid-1980s I met and befriended two old codgers from the glory days of east TN radio, D. Stout and Monroe Queener. Monroe is credited with showing Josh Graves his first licks on dobro as they were in a band together as teenagers when Josh still only played guitar. (I have 45 cuts from band practice in 1990-1991 with these guys while I was still green and cutting my teeth, posted to my YouTube channel.) These old coots hailed from the Cas Walker Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round days and Monroe had his own barndance show that later competed with Cas Walker's show. Anyway, both of them loved my picking because I did not play like anyone else and was unafraid to try anything they threw at me, and they wanted me in their band. Soon they became like two extra dads to me and I dearly loved those guys and we played all over east TN for maybe 5-6 years or so until D's death. I cut my musical teeth with them, we even did a live radio show of our own for 6 months, they wanted to re-create the old live radio show format. So for months we did a live 3-hour radio show every Saturday night on WLAF in Lafollette, TN which was also broadcast on some other radio station (can't remember now). Talk about having to be on my toes! They wouldn't even use a set list, they'd just spontaneously call out a tune to kick off and there ya go. That actually made for some comedy routines when I'd forget the tune or not recall fast enough ("File Not Found") and they'd have fun with that live on the air. I didn't mind, they loved me as much as I loved them and I knew that. It was fun, didn't pay a cent, but I would not trade that experience for anything. Making music with folks I love and admire and who are great musicians is hard to beat. I dearly cherish that time and those friendships in my life and am grateful and blessed to have known them.
I have never ever sought to emulate anyone else in my playing, honestly it never occurred to me. And none of my early teachers dissuaded me from playing what was in my head or my own way. For me, it was the sound of the banjo that attracted me to it, not any particular person. My first exposure to banjo was of course The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, but it was not until I was 16 years old when the bug bit, I heard the Deliverance album, which blew my mind. I had no idea a banjo could do that rolling, frolicking playful backup and lead. That was the year I quit orchestra. That's when the banjo bug really bit *hard* and it was the next year after I graduated that I bought my first banjo. I was 17 years old. For 6-8 hours a day I holed up in my bedroom trying to unlock the mystery of this thing. I'd remove the resonator and stuff towels inside, add foam underneath the tailpiece all to minimize my parents yelling at me in the middle of the night to stop that damn racket LOL!!!!! For real. I was seriously hooked.
For a few years Life happened to me and I had laid the banjo down for a while. Meeting Randal Morton in Memphis re-ignited that fire, and when I was there Randall opened my ears to so much. I had never heard Bela Fleck play until Randal turned me on to his stuff. What I noticed about Bela's playing is he layers lead lines with rhythmic motifs all at the same time, which I had never heard before. "Hall of Mirrors" and "Round Rock" are prime examples of that in my opinion but he does this all the time in his non-bluegrass tunes. (Bela also has a formula of sorts in his music which I can hear but find hard to articulate in words.) Most banjo pickers I was exposed to then played lead, or backup -- either-or -- and that was it. Randal also opened my ears to Bobby Thompson (who I knew only through tablature), who grew up not too far from where I grew up, but I had NO IDEA he played the Hee Haw theme. Like most everyone else, I thought Roy Clark did that. Sometime in 1984 or 1985 Randal gave me a cassette copy of a tape he had obtained from Hub Nitchie, of that famous 1964 porch recording of Bill Keith and Bobby Thompson which totally blew my mind. Again.
I have been in and out of all sorts of "Americana" and "jam" bands over the years and truly enjoy making music with the right people. I can pretty much place the banjo in any musical situation I can hear (for me, it's like keyboards) but jazz, beebop, etc does escape me, I think mostly because I never have personally known musicians who play that. I never studied or analyzed record albums, nor have I ever owned or had much of a music collection. I rarely listen to radio. I tend to play by osmosis, what fits in the moment and it changes depending on the moment and who is in it. I learn new tunes by hearing them. Old becomes new again. I am not saying this was the best way for me to learn but it is the way I did learn. Life kept getting in the way of banjo but banjo always remained central to my life. It is what it is.
I still have gaping holes in my knowledge of musical history, who played with who, who played in what band, what bands did which tunes, and so forth. Basically my mind is like swiss cheese (full of holes) which is something I've come to accept. I can't even remember people's names past a few seconds LOL ... yet I can pick up a banjo and play with about anyone, there are few exceptions. For example, last July 4, 2021 I was at a jam party in Nebo, NC and jammed with a saxophonist for hours, it was amazing how well we fit together (with guitar and bass too). Folks were up dancing, folks were mesmerized as was I. And I got a $150 share of pass-the-hat tips from the partiers. Wow. Paid to jam!! But I will never, ever be a walking musical encyclopedia, it's just not in my musical DNA. But I can carry on a musical conversation with my banjo, which is truly a joy.
I attended the first TN Banjo Institute in 1988 but didn't know until years later that they also had camps in 1990 and 1992. Had I known I would have tried to attend. I also attended Steve Kaufman Kamps (I know Steve personally, as a casual acquaintance and have been to his house a few times to jam when I lived in the east TN area).
In 2001 I conceived, designed, coded and operated the website finecases.com where I sold cases and gig bags for all instrument families directly to musicians. It was wildly successful, quickly going to $495,000 in annual gross sales, but like an idiot, I did not pay myself much, only $25k per year. In the 7 years I owned and ran that site I gave at least $50k back to the music community in band and individual musician support, through supplying free cases, bags, and gear. I felt a duty to give back. Had I been greedy, well, I would have gobbled it all for myself. You can verify all this on the Wayback Internet Archive machine and I will be happy to provide links showing my support of musicians all over the world. It was lots of fun. (In addition, for two years I was a sponsor of Kaufman Kamps through finecases and also attended as a camper where I paid full tuition price, no discounts for being a sponsor too. Still, Tons of Fun.) But after 7 years of 90-100 hours per week I was totally toast and had to let that go. It was overwhelming my life. I sold the website in 2008 for $24k just so I could get my life back. It was sad but something I had to do, it was killing me. I could not sustain that level of stress and remain a viable human being for much longer.
In 2009 I sold my home in Tennessee (which I built, by myself, over 18 years, another story and stress point entirely) and returned to Spartanburg, SC where I grew up. I miss Tennessee :( but have had some rewarding musical experiences since returning. I think the top of that list was playing in a band for 2-3 years with Fayssoux Starling McLean in Spartanburg, she is friends with Emmylou Harris and was a backup singer on many of Emmylou's early records. Fayssoux is such a soulful singer, such a great experience for me. I also have quite a few band practice tracks from that band on my YouTube channel as well.
In the 52 years I've played music, the most basic thing I have learned is to LISTEN to what is going on in the moment and to be AWARE of the moment. When I play, there is absolutely nothing in my head at all, no words, no imagery, nothing. I'm not thinking ahead but know where I am going. I am in the moment, feeling it, and tunes unfurl themselves before me as I play, especially for tunes I know well. When I am playing a tune I've never heard before, the same applies. I am a quick study and pick up chord changes and tune structures very quickly. When I play I am completely aware of what is going on, who is playing what when, I hear nuance, react to body language, and adjust. It is not a conscious thing. It just happens. It's a comfortable place to be and I find peace and joy there. What little I can find in my life (no one should ever walk in my shoes, lots of pain and sadness there, but that's Life, no one is exempt, boo hoo) I cherish, and it comes through music. Music is an emotional experience. Most definitely. And that's a good thing.
I also make eye contact with fellow musicians and listeners. It's a connection, and it's real. I have been told many times by folks who listen to me how they love what and how I play. That is humbling to say the least. All I can say is it's mutual. I learned many years ago that musical technical pyrotechnics do not move people, a connection from the heart and soul is what moves people, and that connection can be as simple as one note. Music takes listeners, receivers as much as creators. One can't exist without the other. Music is a shared experience. And I'm aware of that truth. And I live that truth.
I rarely use or refer to tablature these days but I do write tab in TablEdit when the notion strikes, and post for free to my YouTube channel and banjohangout. It's just not high on my list anymore, but it is fun and rewarding in its own way for sure.
Currently, I'm not doing much musically, Spartanburg is not the place to be. The last decade I mostly find jam situations that are beginner slow jams, or super high level jams that I cannot keep up with, it's been difficult to find just the right musical porridge bowl to eat from. That's why I'll drive for miles and hours for a good jam session...
(I apologize for the mild rambling above but I did want to paint a picture of my musical life and where I stand behind my eyeballs and between my ears... )
Since 1982 I have had the license tag on my car -- first in Tennessee, now in South Carolina -- that says "banjoy" = banjo+joy ... and that will remain so until I take my final breath in this life. Banjo brings me joy and, apparently, joy to others as well. For me, that is the most rewarding aspect of this musical journey I find myself, and is my small, unique contribution to this small niche of the universe. I can only hope to be me, which is hard enough as it is, but that is enough for me. Perhaps others may find value in that as well.
Many Blessings and thanks for reading.2 comments
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Playing Style: Bluegrass (Scruggs)
Playing Style: Bluegrass (Scruggs)
Playing Style: Bluegrass (Scruggs)
Playing Style: Bluegrass (Scruggs)
Playing Since: 1978
Experience Level: Purty Good
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