I started playing the banjo a little over four years ago. I purchased an intro book to 5-string bluegrass (aka three finger or Scruggs style) banjo and diligently worked my way through the basics of learning how to read tablature (aka musical nomenclature for dummies on stringed instruments), forward rolls, backward rolls, and simple chords. These modest tools eventually built my skill level to a point where I could produce sounds remotely resembling music.
Three months after first picking up the instrument I attended the Suwannee Banjo Camp. The experience was helpful, inspiring, and intimidating. I owned the distinction of being the worst player among the 120 participants, but one has to start somewhere, and I could begin to envision what might be possible.
At that time I was introduced to nuances in the banjo world that were previously unknown to me, most notably the existence of a style called 'old time' or 'clawhammer' banjo. The first time I heard the 'old time' style played, I loved the sound and the foot-stomping beat, but I was put off, because it appeared too difficult.
Bluegrass style is probably more familiar to non-enthusiasts and was made popular in the 1970's by the likes of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with familiar tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, The Theme from Deliverance, and The Ballad of Jed Clampett. Bluegrass style is typically played loudly and boldly with picks on the thumb, index, and middle fingers.
One year later I again attended the camp and decided I wanted to learn 'old style'. But it meant starting over, not unlike switching to oboe. With clawhammer, one strikes the strings with the thumb and fingernail of one finger, middle in my case. The four fingers of the right hand are held in a claw-like fashion, thus the name, and to the casual observer not much is happening, but, in fact, all is quite busy featuring fun-sounding embellishments like double drop thumbing.
I didn't give up on bluegrass style, but I spent the next year focused on the basic elements of clawhammer. I bought the beginner books and worked through the drills that basically add tools from which one can eventually construct a song.
Last weekend I attended by fourth camp in lovely Live Oak, FL, and have had another revelation. I've advanced somewhat from novice to the intermediate level, and I have been introduced to new nuances that have greatly piqued my interest. One session in particular, Round Peak style clawhammer, really called out to me. The origins are distinctly Scotch Irish, but the toe-tap-defying tunes and the picking style took on an American flavor from denizens of the Appalachian hollows of northwest NC and SE Virginia in the late 1900's.
These distinctions are meaningful to no more than a few hundred people on the planet earth, but I've now discovered, I am one of them. I was contemplating taking up poisonous snake collecting, but I think this will be a better fit for me.
For those who enjoy acoustic music, the faculty concerts at the Suwannee Banjo Camp are an absolute delight. My two favorite performers are Adam Hurt and Mark Johnson. They are virtually unknown to the broader world, but they are remarkable musicians, capable teachers, and nice people willing to share some of their knowledge with those less gifted.
I had a class with Mark on Saturday morning that was enjoyable, and as I was packing up my banjo case, he said, "Come to my afternoon class, I think you'll enjoy it." I told him it was listed as 'advance', and beyond my ability, but he said, "Come anyway." He's a big, handsome man with a commanding presence, and I told him I would.
Typically 6-7 students show up for each session, but it turned out I was the only guy to show up for 'clawhammer: advanced techniques,' resulting in a one-on-one lesson. I knew of Mark from an earlier camp, at which time I purchased two of his CD's. I listen to his tunes often on iTunes, usually while mowing the grass or farming. I know you've never heard of the guy, but in the micro world of banjo pluckers, he's a big honking deal. He produces unique tones on his specially crafted Deering instrument in a style he created called clawgrass, eponymously blending elements of bluegrass and clawhammer. And he has a very pleasing voice.
We chatted a bit. I'm moderately inquisitive so I asked him about his background, how long he's been playing, what it's like to be an accomplished, but unheralded musician. And he told me a little of his story. He's been playing since 13, he's now 59, and he plays and writes music, because that's who and what he is. In 2012 he won the third 'Steve Martin Banjo Player of the Year Award' that yielded a $50,000 prize and an appearance on the David Letterman Show. His music is played regularly on the Sirius bluegrass radio channel, and he starts a 6-week performance tour in Europe next month. But he also has a day job as the director of the emergency agency of a coastal county in northern Florida.
Then he said something that's both odd and rare for one who has earned a semblance of modest fame, "Enough about me, tell me a little about yourself and your banjo journey."
He listened politely to a brief recitation of my humdrum existence, and he said, "Play some of your best stuff for me. Maybe I can offer a few helpful hints."
I tuned to double C and started with, "The Great Remember (For Nancy)" my absolute favorite clawhammer tune that happens to have been written by Steve Martin. He listened patiently and quietly as I played. About half way through he started playing harmony and counter-melodies, gently overlaying my many deficiencies, blending some pleasing sounds heard only by the two of us. When we finished, he said, "Can I tell you a story about that song?" And I said, "I'm all ears."
"For several years, I have been giving lessons to Steve Martin. He once invited me to his home in NYC for dinner and a jam session. I brought a gift of special Florida orange marmalade as a hostess gift for his lovely wife and arrived at the appointed hour at his upper Westside apartment. I told the doorman that I was a guest of Mr. Martin. He motioned to some security type folks near a bank of elevators. They made a call and then gave the sign to allow me to proceed. He told me to go to the 11th floor, and I asked 'What apartment number?' and he shook his head in disbelief to ensure I knew I was a rube. He said, 'Just go to the 11th floor, you'll figure it out.'"
"The elevator opened into one of the most elegant dwellings I'd seen featuring panoramic views of the New York City skyline rising above Central Park. Steve and his wife could not have been more gracious hosts. Shortly after I arrived, his aging dog Wally ambled in, and he introduced me to the dog. Then he got down flat on the floor to chat with Wally. He's a playful and nice man, it's not just an act."
"We had an exquisite dinner, and afterwards played banjo for four hours. When it was time to leave he volunteered to walk me to my hotel, and he did. I was scheduled to return the next evening to perform for some of his friends at a dinner party they were hosting. He stopped and put his face about a foot from mine, eyeballed me, and said, 'There will be celebrities present tomorrow evening. Will that be a problem?' I assured him it would not. People are people, no big deal."
"When I arrived the next evening I learned the celebrities included: Meryl Streep, Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels, Kevin Kline, and many others. My partner (Emory Lester, who plays guitar and fiddle) had arrived from Toronto for the event, and we played a one-hour set. Afterwards, a stunningly beautiful blond woman came up to me and said, 'That was truly wonderful. I had no idea a banjo could produce such delightful music. I'd like to introduce you to my husband and some of our friends.' Nancy took me over to meet her husband Martin Short. They were generous with kind words, and said they'd hope to have me come perform at some events they host at their home in Canada."
"Six months passed, and I never heard a word from them. No big deal, I figured, stuff happens. Later during a session with Steve he introduced me to one of his new songs, 'The Great Remember (For Nancy)', and he told me that it was written in memory of his friend, Nancy Short, who passed away several months after the dinner party."