Skip to main content

Tracing the Banjo Addiction: Waits, Cash and 'O Brother'

Music has taken me on a long and winding journey through many dissonant sounds and varying genres. My pursuit of learning how to play the five-string banjo began in 2008, but my obsession with the instrument started much earlier.

The first time I can remember liking any music that resembled old-time was in 2000 with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The album, which was re-released last year with additional tracks, featured a mix of old country, traditional folk, and gospel songs. The soundtrack was so popular that it won five Grammy Awards that year.

My ears had recently opened to country-flavored music after becoming a fan of Johnny Cash, particularly his more stripped-down albums on the American label. Prior to that point, I had mostly listened to independent punk bands, like Nation of Ulysses, Universal Order of Armageddon, and Jawbreaker. My high school social life revolved around going to local bands, as my hometown (Kent, Ohio) had a thriving music scene in the 1990s.

Upon entering college in 1997, my musical tastes began to change toward a more eclectic sound, mostly due to my discovering Tom Waits. His gravelly voice, penchant for mixing genres, and incorporating what might be called "found sound" into his music was a springboard for me to expand my listening horizons.

During that same time, I picked up my first Cash records, a best-of album and "Live at San Quentin" on vinyl, both thrift store finds. Cash also covered a Waits' song, "Down There by the Train," on his first American Recordings album, released in 1994. After I became a fan of old-time music, I was thrilled to recognize Cash's "Cocaine Blues" as a retelling of the traditional murder ballad "Little Sadie."

When "O Brother" came out, I was transfixed by that old sound. I remember my parents rolling their eyes when I put the soundtrack on the stereo Christmas morning when I received it as a gift. However, my discovery of old-time music wouldn't happen for another eight years, after I developed an obsession for any music with the banjo and just had to learn to play the instrument.

Looking back now, though, the seeds of my banjo obsession were sewn more than a decade ago. It turns out one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, "Gun Street Girl," was accompanied by his playing the banjo on the album "Rain Dogs." which I've had since at least 1999, the year I first saw Waits live during the "Mule Variations" tour. Back then, I wouldn't have believed you if you told my I'd be playing the banjo today.


Popular posts from this blog

Getting Blitzed with Tom Collins

A little more than a year ago, Salem, Massachusetts-based banjo player and teacher Tom Collins embarked on a yearlong project he called Banjo Blitz. The weekly YouTube series provided short banjo lessons on technique. Each video is about five minutes long, give or take, and presents a short pattern — or “ostinato” — designed to teach and improve a specific aspect of banjo playing.

The mission was to get the audience “to practice clawhammer in discrete chunks every day without the burden of trying to memorize tunes,” Collins says. He wanted to build skills rather than repertoire.

“Let’s take the tune off the table,” says Collins, who has been teaching banjo for 11 years. “Let’s focus on a simple, mantra-like ostinato that can train your body how to execute a technique properly, while training your ears how to hear it properly. Let’s also make it so that you can do this every day without it sucking every spare minute from your life. The big dirty secret about learning how to play an ins…

Clawhammer Picks and You: A Review

Clawhammer picks are a useful tool for increasing volume or to overcome fingernail challenges, such as broken, too short or weak nails. There are all sorts of commercial and homemade solutions available for banjo players, but it can be difficult to decide which options to choose. Thankfully, I've already done some of the work for you.
Just to be clear, I prefer my natural fingernail for frailing. However, there was a time when I experimented with regularly using a pick, and there are instances now where I find that a pick is necessary. Today, I'll take you through the five options I've tried. These are all available online at prices ranging from about $1 to $13.

Reversed/Reshaped Dunlop Pick ($0.75)
This was the most common suggestion before other companies started addressing the gap in the clawhammer pick market. Take a bluegrass pick, flatten it out and wear it backwards. The problem is that it's hard to get the fit right. While Dunlop picks are cheap and readily avai…

Erynn Marshall, Mark Olitsky, Doug Unger: An Old-Time Smorgasbord in Peninsula, Ohio, for Music on the Porches, Sept. 23

Old-time music and banjo fans alike would do well to aim their GPS units toward Peninsula, Ohio, the historic village nestled in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron. This Saturday is Music on the Porches, which features a number of musical acts playing all around town, starting at 11 a.m. 
The showcase event is Saturday night at the G.A.R. Hall, an evening concert that will feature fiddler Erynn Marshall and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones, the married old-time duo based in Galax, Virginia; followed by Sean Watkins, formerly of the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek; and finally headliner Tim O'Brien, who has recorded with everyone from Steve Martin to Dirk Powell, including the excellent "Songs From the Mountain" album with Powell and John Herrmann (one of my all-time favorites). Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with Marshall and Jones set to start at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online via Eventbrite
But wait, that's not all! 
Marshall wi…