One of the things I’ve been focused on lately is Bluegrass. That may sound funny coming from a banjo player, but it’s true. I’ve taken a very unique path on the banjo, one that involves understanding lots of styles and elements of music (jazz harmony and improv, classical, South Indian rhythmic concepts, etc.) as well as bluegrass. Of course, the sounds of The Del McCoury Band and Flatt & Scruggs are what originally drew me to the banjo and to bluegrass, but I quickly digressed by discovering Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. The more I came to know about their playing and influences, the further down the rabbit hole I went, leaving Earl and J.D. behind for a while.
In the past year I’ve come to realize how much depth there really is in straight ahead bluegrass banjo. Sammy Shelor really opened my eyes to this. His timing and tone are impeccable, and his vocabulary is so spot on. He always plays exactly what should be played,(and nothing else) and his attention to dynamics is the icing on the cake. Sammy says that he tries to play what the singer sings, nothing more, and I believe that’s where the true art of bluegrass banjo is hidden. Earl and J.D. are both masters of this skill. Listen to them kick off a handfull of different songs and you’ll notice they can phrase the same pieces of standard banjo vocabulary in so many different ways to emulate almost exactly how the singer will sing the chorus. Their kick-offs often go as far as copying a vocal embellishment of the melody. Coupled with their knowledge of the melody is their excellent local timing and a sense of where they fit into the grove.
From Flatt & Scruggs, to J.D. Crowe & the New South, to The Lonesome River Band there are vastly different concepts for groove, feel, and beat placement, and each banjoist fits perfectly into their respective setting. It’s not that one style or player is more right or any better than another, but that these players listen far beyond the notes they choose.
Of course this whole phenomenon started with Earl Scruggs, not because he “invented” 3 finger banjo, but because he swept the world with his combination of influences and skills pouring through the 5-string like nobody else had ever done. He’s been followed by everyone from J.D. Crowe to Noam Pikelny, including myself. Followed with varying degrees of accuracy, and to varying degrees of success. The followers who’ve been most well received are those who’ve managed to modify bluegrass banjo into their own style without alienating the fundamental concepts and sound. As a “modern” banjo player I can say that players like myself are often guilty of grouping all these trad. guys together, and then putting them in a box that collects dust while we chase after Tony, Bela, and Noam’s illusive innovations on the 5-String.
There’s a sort of a double standard in Bluegrass music. The overall musicianship and chops of bluegrass musicians have come a long way since the early days, now it’s common to hear flashy guitar and fiddle solos that stray far away from the melody and imply harmonic contexts other than what the band is playing. If the banjo player takes such liberties, however, he’s probably not going to get called back for the next gig. This used to frustrate (I might go as far as to say “offend”) me. I work very hard at understanding and learning as much about music as I can, and to see blank faces and hear no applause for my fast complex ideas only seconds after an uproar for the fiddle players’ fast complex ideas is very disappointing, and even disheartening. When a Bluegrass audience sees a banjo, they know what they want to hear. Somehow the other instruments (excluding bass) have escaped this. I wrestled with this concept for a long time, at times restraining my playing to please crowds, and at other times playing only for myself.
Eventually it dawned on me, with some help from Igor Stravinsky, that within this expectation lies my power as a performer. Stravinsky writes in “Poetics of Music in the form of 6 Lessons” that standards actually enable creativity:
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. – Igor Stravinsky
That’s why J.D., Sammy Shelor, Ron Block, and Robby McCoury have been so successful in the Bluegrass world. They’ve taken the house that Earl built and remodeled it without compromising any of it’s structural integrity. Sure they’ve knocked down a wall or two, put a new one up somewhere else, installed some new appliances and fixtures, but it’s still that same old house we all grew up in, and don’t we love them for fixin’ it up for us.
So I’ve learned not to be chained by an audiences expectations of me, but rather to let what they expect inform my decisions so that I can be challenged and they can be happy.
With all this in mind, I sat down this morning and recorded the banjo classic, “Fireball Mail”. Click the green “play” button below to hear it.