Banjo is cool again
Mumford & Sons, Taylor Swift, Steve Martin help with instrument’s resurgence
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.