Banjo is cool again

Mum­ford & Sons, Tay­lor Swift, Steve Martin help with in­stru­ment’s resur­gence

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY NANCY DUN­HAM

If you’re old enough to re­mem­ber “The Beverly Hill­bil­lies,” the show’s banjo-driven theme song — “The Bal­lad of Jed Clam­pett” — might be play­ing your head right about now. If you aren’t, you might be among those re­spon­si­ble for the banjo’s new­found pop­u­lar­ity, ac­cord­ing to Johnny Baier, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Banjo Mu­seum in Ok­la­homa City, Ok­la­homa.

“Many of those un­der the age of 35 never saw that show,” Mr. Baier said of the CBS com­edy that aired from 1962 to 1971. “I sincerely be­lieve there is some­thing in the air right now with the banjo. People like Steve Martin and Tay­lor Swift and Mum­ford & Sons, seem­ingly un­re­lated artists, are mak­ing the banjo palat­able and ac­ces­si­ble to younger au­di­ences. It is quite ex­cit­ing.”

(It’s funny that Mr. Martin, who used the banjo as a prop in his stand-up rou­tines, has be­come a force be­hind the in­stru­ment’s higher pro­file. His goof­ing around with strings in­vari­ably segued into a jaw-drop­ping, vir­tu­oso per­for­mance — and then some more jokes. To­day, his acous­tic shows, es­pe­cially his per­for­mances in which he deftly moves from three-fin­ger pick­ing to more mod­ern chro­matic ap­proaches, have won him ku­dos from mu­sic crit­ics.)

Five-time Grammy Award nom­i­nee Cia Cher­ry­holmes, 30, is among those who have led the way for young fe­male banjo play­ers to gain na­tional recog­ni­tion.

Orig­i­nally a gui­tarist, Ms. Cher­ry­holmes taught her­self banjo when her fam­ily’s group, Cher­ry­holmes, be­came a pro­fes­sional blue­grass band.

Al­though she learned to play blue­grass-style banjo, she quickly gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a mul­ti­tal­ented artist who in­fuses el­e­ments of blues, pop, and rock into her song­writ­ing and per­for­mances.

Cher­ry­holmes dis­banded in 2011, and Ms. Cher­ry­holmes has con­tin­ued to stretch her sound into Delta blues and Celtic work with Songs of the Fall, the duo she formed with hus­band and well-known gui­tarist Stet­son Ad­kisson. The duo per­forms through­out the U.S. be­hind its lat­est, self-ti­tled re­lease.

“There are plenty of banjo play­ers that pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion, but oddly there haven’t been a lot of women. I think there are a cou­ple of fac­tors” that have kept women from play­ing banjo, said Ms. Cher­ry­holmes, whose in­flu­ences in­clude J.D. Crowe, Kristin Scott Benson and Ali­son Brown.

“Blue­grass was tra­di­tion­ally a male genre, but now you hear banjo in clas­si­cal, pop, coun­try rock, every­where,” she said. “It’s be­come a new in­stru­ment, and there are girls every­where who play the banjo. That has glam­or­ized it. People think of [con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cians] in­stead of ‘The Beverly Hill­bil­lies’ when they think of banjo.”

Ash­ley Camp­bell, 27, who fa­mously played banjo in the Ras­cal Flatts’ video for the song “Banjo,” came to the in­stru­ment while study­ing the­ater at Pep­per­dine Univer­sity in Mal­ibu, Cal­i­for­nia.

“What re­ally sur­prised me about banjo when I started play­ing it was how so­phis­ti­cated and el­e­gant it could be,” said Ms. Camp­bell, who also played on tour with her fa­ther, coun­try icon Glen Camp­bell, and now tours with artists in­clud­ing Krys­tal Keith, daugh­ter of coun­try star Toby Keith. “You lis­ten to the banjo on mu­sic like that of The Punch Broth­ers, and you re­al­ize it’s not all harsh and in your face. You can play mu­sic on it as beau­ti­fully as you can play it on any other in­stru­ment.”

Ban­joist Donna Lynn Caskey agreed, but was con­cerned she wouldn’t find banjo mu­sic fans when she moved to San Fran­cisco from the Tide­wa­ter re­gion of Vir­ginia, the home state of leg­endary coun­try mu­si­cians such as the Carter Fam­ily, Patsy Cline and Roy Clark.

“I had the fee­ing this banjo mu­sic wouldn’t be here and it was,” said Ms. Caskey, 36. “The first week I was here, I ran into a fid­dler in the Farmer’s Mar­ket and … started get­ting pay­ing gigs right away. Bit by bit, the work kept com­ing and ex­pand­ing.”

Al­though the Vir­ginia na­tive is well aware of the play­ing of June Carter Cash and other iconic fe­male banjo play­ers, she said Abi­gail Washburn (whose hus­band, ban­joist Béla Fleck, recorded a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of “The Bal­lad of Jed Clam­pett”) and Ms. Cher­ry­holmes are most fa­mil­iar to main­stream fans.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the banjo mu­sic of such con­tem­po­rary artists has brought record num­bers of vis­i­tors to the 21,000-square-foot Amer­i­can Banjo Mu­seum, said Mr. Baier.

“Just look at Mum­ford & Sons, in par­tic­u­lar, and the Bri­tish-Ir­ish-folk-rock groups, in gen­eral,” he said. “Their mu­sic isn’t aimed at any tra­di­tional banjo au­di­ence. We’re see­ing a whole new au­di­ence. And I don’t be­lieve that will end any time soon.”


Mu­si­cians Win­ston Mar­shall of Mum­ford & Sons (top left) and Tay­lor Swift (top right) and ac­tor and co­me­dian Steve Martin, who of­ten uses the banjo as a prop in his stand-up rou­tines, are help­ing to pro­pel the banjo to new­found pop­u­lar­ity.

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