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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.


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