February 6th, 2012 By Deirdre Kaye | Music | Posted In: Music Commentary

I <3 the Banjo

A rant, an exploration and a playlist


I caught a tweet from Noam Pikelny (The Punch Brothers) the other night. It said the new Rascal Flatts song “Banjo” made him want to kill a small pet. While I tend to steer clear of anything involving Gary LeVox and the gang, I will listen to anything involving a banjo. So, I clicked on his link to a YouTube video.

I made it to the end of the chorus before I not only stopped the video, but I shut down my entire web browser. The last two lines of the chorus are, “And you kick it into four-wheel drive when you run out of road and you go, and you go and you go-go-go/’Til you hear a banjo.”  

Of course I understand that “Banjo” is supposed to be a fun, light-hearted song, but I still don’t appreciate the fact that these “country artists” have once again tried to associate the banjo with little more than Deliverance.

During the last few years, the banjo has slowly found its way back into Country music. I assume the move is the industry’s way of answering all the criticism they get for their “Country” music sounding very un-Country. Mr. Nicole Kidman (Keith Urban) recently picked a banjo riff throughout his new, swoon-worthy song, “Without You.” Taylor Swift even brought the banjo to Pop music (albeit tucked away neatly into the background) with, “Mean.” I suppose it was only a matter of time before Rascal Flatts jumped on the bandwagon and crashed it into a freaking ditch.

Still, there are bands in the industry that aren’t filing it into the mix because they’ve been told to or because the banjo has somehow become hipster. There are musicians who play banjo because of its unique sound or sheer volume, who don’t just layer it into their music somewhere behind rhythm guitar No. 2 but put it front and center. 

From traditional to incredibly unique, here are some musicians who rock the banjo in far less soul-crushing ways.

When you talk about the banjo, you have to start with the old guys. As far as I’m concerned, Doc Watson, Charlie Poole, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were the grandfathers of American Banjo music. You may not know it, but you’ve probably heard at least one song by Flatt and Scruggs. They wrote, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies. Meanwhile, Doc Watson made a name for himself by playing American Folk, including the murder ballad “Tom Dooley.” Before Watson, Flatt and Scruggs was Charlie Poole. One of his biggest hits, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” came out when the other three were still toddling around in diapers.

From the grandfathers of the banjo, it’s not a huge jump to some newer Bluegrass artists. Bands like Crooked Still, The Punch Brothers and (now defunct) Cadillac Sky are making music that would make their banjo-pickin’ forefathers proud. Crooked Still plays a mellow, Gospel-sounding Bluegrass. They have mix chipper banjo licks with eerie fiddle to create a sound all their own. Meanwhile, The Punch Brothers and Cadillac Sky both make Bluegrass that’s a lot closer to their roots. While they can reel themselves in and still sound beautiful, both bands are at their best when they’re loud and rambunctious. Yet another banjo wielding, Bluegrass-centric artist is Sarah Jarosz.  Barely in her 20s, Jarosz has already graced the stage at Austin City Limits and gained fans with her sultry voice and gift with multiple instruments.

Check out:
Crooked Still: "Ain’t No Grave," "Turning Away," "We Can Work It Out"
The Punch Brothers: "Rye Whiskey," "Next To The Trash," "Don’t Need No"
Cadillac Sky: "Wish I Could Say That I Was Drinking," "Insomniac Blues for Matthew," "Thank You Esteban"
Sarah Jarosz: "Ring Them Bells" (Bob Dylan cover), "Tell Me True," "Song Up In Her Head"

Outside of Bluegrass, the banjo can take some pretty drastic turns. One of the best might be its use in louder, edgier music. Say, Rock? Have you heard of Mumford & Sons? At the very least, you may recognize them as one of the bands that played with Bob Dylan at last year’s Grammy Awards. Despite their love for Bluegrass and Country, Mumford & Sons are actually from London. Their sound is mostly Rock, but it hints at some pretty American subjects, including Steinbeck and the Dust Bowl. The Avett Brothers were the other band to play with Dylan at the Grammy Awards. They also utilize the banjo with pride and overwhelming enthusiasm. Brothers Seth and Scott play a kind of music that might best be described as Punk-Grass. It’s loud, jarring and wild like punk but with a hint of Rascal Flatts’ aforementioned redneck-ness in their lyrics and Carolina accents.

Check out:
Mumford & Sons: "Roll Away Your Stone," "Sigh No More," "Dust Bowl Dance"
Avett Brothers: "I Killed Sally’s Lover," "Talk of Indolence," "January Wedding"

There is a tamer approach to the banjo, as well. Most famous in the banjo world might be Bela Fleck. His music tends to border on more of a Classical or World Music feel. That’s certainly not “wrong,” though. The banjo is mostly associated with Bluegrass music, the Appalachian Mountains and … white people. However, the instrument originated in Africa. A few years back, Fleck traveled to Africa to explore the origins of his instrument of choice. The result of his trip was a DVD and an album, Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions. Meanwhile, his wife takes the banjo to yet another area of the globe. Abigail Washburn once went to China to study law. During her stay she learned to speak the Mandarin that sometimes appears in her music. Upon returning to the states, she picked up the banjo. The sounds she creates with her banjo all have an old-world oriental vibe that is absolutely unique to her.

Check out:
Bela Fleck: "Angelina," "Tulinesangala," "Joyful Spring"
Abigail Washburn: "Banjo Pickin’ Girl," "City of Refuge," "Kangding Qingge"

When it comes to unique banjo music, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t mention one song in particular. What do you get when you give a banjo to a great, relatively unknown rocker and let him cover a Rap song? You get Hugo’s version of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”

Click below (and here) for Hugo's Rappalachian breakdown and a playlist with the other songs mentioned above.

02.07.2012 at 02:24 Reply

I appreciate your appreciation of the banjo.  Really I do.  But... Doc Watson is a guitarist, not a banjoist.  There are tons of great old banjoists-- Ralph Stanley, Don Lilly, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Bill Keith, Don Stover, Bill Emerson, Eddie Adcock, Ben Eldridge, etc., etc.  But Doc Watson is not one of them (and neither is Lester Flatt). 

And talking about Punch Brothers as a "roots" band.  That's just wrong.  Yeah, sure, they can play the hell out of any bluegrass standard in the book.  But that is just SO not what they are about.  Punch Brothers are about stretching what bluegrass instruments can play, from classical to Radiohead, breaking boundaries. 

Go forth and listen more.


02.07.2012 at 07:52

Doc Watson actually played both guitar and banjo. I went with Doc because he's one of my favorite Bluegrass artists. The musicians you mentioned were, of course, awesome. But I couldn't very well namecheck them all -- this was a beastly long blog already! I should have mentioned Ralph Stanley, though! I deserve to be admonished for leaving him out.  As far as Lester Flatt, yeeeeah...I should have done a better job with wording that graph and pointing out instrumentation. (I wonder if it's too late to change that to "Grandfathers of American Bluegrass Music?") But I had to mention him...if I didn't I'd have gotten a comment about how I missed the obvious "Flatt & Scruggs" duo.

As for Punch Brothers... You're right. But they aren't really rock (Even when they play "Kid A.") and they don't really fit into a grouping with Washburn or Fleck, either.

Forgive me. I'm still learning the art of giving all the info in as few words as possible. If only I could have written a whole blog for each of the musicians...


02.07.2012 at 08:50 Reply

I was cracking up when I read your reaction to Rascal Flatts' banjo offering.  They tend to make me switch the radio station every time I hear Gary's twangy whine.  And as for the other Flatt, I'm glad you included him in with Scruggs, even if the wording was misleading and Flatt doesn't really play banjo.