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Banjo Detente

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"...Mr. Scruggs, tear down your wall..."


Of course Earl Scruggs did not construct an Iron Curtain between Old Time(OT) and Bluegrass(BG) banjo players; we did it ourselves. However, when I began playing banjo back in the late '70s there was certainly, to say the least, not much in the way of glad tidings between the BG and OT music communities. I cannot speak with any authority on behalf of the BG folks, but I have been able to identify some important changes in the banjo world from the OT perspective. That's what this installment will be about.

I started thinking about this matter about six or seven years ago after going to a winter jam that was primarily, but not totally, BG oriented. The moment of epiphany was when my wife elbowed me and said, "you're being videoed. Again." I waived her off saying THEY were just lusting after my old Gibson. Y'know that whole pre-war Gibson fetish thing. Can't we make THEM register on some Vintage Banjo Stalker List, or at least get a restraining order so that our pre-war Gibsons are safe. All we want is to peaceably act out our Wade Ward and Uncle Dave fantasies.

Seriously, there is a real warming of relations between the BG and OT music worlds, and more pickers than ever have a foot on either side of the fence. There also is a lot more tolerance and mutual respect between the camps as well.

A few observations here: It is not uncommon to hear some OT banjo on the recordings of BG artists, and BG radio stations are including some OT music on their play lists. There are numerous banjo players who pick in BG and OT string bands and it's hard to tell which style they are dominant in. While few BG pickers use open back banjos, there continues to be a growing contingent of OT pickers who play resonator banjos, either on occasion or always. Many OT pickers are wearing picks as well, both for up and down picking styles.

Speaking of styles, it also must be noted that OT finger styles, both 2 and 3 finger, are being employed almost as often as clawhammer(CH), especially for solo playing. When I began playing, CH was OT and OT was CH. Period. Only a few eccentric people were talking about learning to play in the manner of Boggs, Poole, Holcomb and the rest. Lots of people fashionably dropped those names, but few took up their banners.

About twelve years ago I saw a concert in Fayetteville, AR that turned my world inside out. It was Tom, Brad and Alice. I walked out of that concert so embarrassed of my one-dimensional playing compared to what Tom Sauber was doing with that (gasp!) resonator banjo of his. Not only did he twist those tuning pegs into every possible configuration, he also surely played every one of those styles that were in my Art Rosenbaum book; the ones nobody really played, you know.

The OT banjo world also had been guilty of some degree of self-segregation. A lot of this was rooted in an inferiority complex due to the fact that BG banjo IS harder and more complicated to learn and play than OT. Big deal...but it was. It caused a lot of OT pickers to shun anything our simple minds thought even mildly reeked of BG. This self-segregation is the self defeating behavior of so many minority groups. In the OT banjo world it meant hating resonator banjos, finger styles, picks, breaks, playing up the neck and creating our own banjo mythology concerning what a "clawhammer banjo" is and making sure to hit the damn thing as far from the bridge as possible.

Given what jerks we were, I still wonder what made so many BGers interested in OT banjo! Was it the meteoric rise of Steve Martin as the Banjo Renaissance Man of the 21st century? Was it Mark Johnson taking CH banjo into the belly of the beast? Was Ricky Skaggs an OT Trojan Horse? Or John McEuen headlining the Charlie Poole Festival?

What has made so many BG players show up on the OT threads here at BHO the past few years? Why does the BG radio show I listen to out of St. Louis play Molsky, Carolina Chocolate Drops, the NLCR and LeRoy Troy? Why have mainstream Country singers like Loretta Lynn and Vince Gill made recordings with clawhammer banjo featured?

And what is your story insofar as embracing a wide spectrum of playing styles from Scruggs to Gellert, from Macon to Martin? Things have changed within the banjo world that we reside. It's interesting, it's exciting, and it's challenging. Please post your thoughts below. thanks for reading, and hopefully, participating.






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Playing Since: 1976
Experience Level: Purty Good


Occupation: Roustabout

Gender: Male
Age: 67

My Instruments:
Bart Reiter Standard(circa 2003) ; Gibson Depression era (1927) RB-1 resonator banjo; Vega(by Martin, circa 1970); brand new Bishline Patriot resonator banjo

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Banjo players who play in a style or styles (both up and downpicking)and sound recognizably personal and not "generic". Special thanks to Franklin George who's 1964 LP recording set me on the correct path years ago.

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Created 12/11/2008
Last Visit 6/18/2024

Not very interesting. I like all forms of oldtime banjo, not just clawhammer. I like Mike Seeger's term "Fresh Old Time" to descibe my approach to playing the banjo.

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