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Eighth Annual Banjo Festival Honors Mike Seeger's Legacy

For those familiar with old-time music, Mike Seeger’s name rings like the banjo he was renowned for playing. This summer, the eighth annual MikeSeeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival will pay tribute to his legacy with a series of concerts and workshops on the weekend of July 12-13.

The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, will host the concert on Saturday, July 12, featuring Tony Trischka, Cathy Fink, Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton, Marcy Marxer, and Rick Good. Tickets are $29.50 and available through Ticketmaster (service fees apply) or directly from the Birchmere box office.

The roots music store House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland, will host the workshops on Sunday, July 13, featuring old-time fiddle, clawhammer and finger style banjo. Space is limited, and the organizers recommend registering early at www.hmtrad.com/lessons/workshops.html#banjofest. If it is less than three days before the workshop, call (301) 270-9090 to register. The workshops are $40 each.

The concert and workshop venues are 13 miles apart, which is about a 30-minute drive across the Potomac River.

Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso Cathy Fink, a cofounder of the festival, said the festival was named in honor of Mike Seeger because of his legacy in the old-time music community and for his participation in the event before his death in 2009.

As a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, Seeger (b. Aug. 15, 1933; d. Aug. 7, 2009) helped to revive interest in old-time music. He played a variety of styles on a variety of instruments, including banjo, fiddle, guitar, jaw harp, harmonica, quills, lap dulcimer, mandolin, and autoharp. Growing up in a musical family, Seeger reportedly learned the ballad “Barbara Allen” at age 5 from his parents, a musicologist and composer. His half-brother was the folk era icon Pete Seeger.

Throughout his life, Mike Seeger recorded more than 40 albums, produced more than 25 field recordings and documentary videos, and organized numerous tours and concerts that featured traditional musicians and dancers. He received six Grammy nominations — two with the New Lost City Ramblers, one with John Hartford and David Grisman, and three on his own.

In 1995, Seeger received the Rex Foundation's Ralph J. Gleason Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring him as "one of our great musical and cultural resources." In 2009, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s highest honor in the field of traditional arts. He continued to tour, teach, and record until the summer of 2009, when he was diagnosed with a fast-growing bone marrow cancer. He died a few months later.

“Mike Seeger was a mentor, inspiration, and friend,” Fink said. “He was a seminal figure in the world of what he called ‘old-time music,’ music from the rural south. Mike collected all kinds of rural music, but had a special interest in the five-string banjo. He traveled the south finding folks from 78 recordings and meeting them, learning their styles. He found many unrecorded players and documented their styles in recordings as well. Mike preserved a whole repertoire of unique banjo techniques that would be lost otherwise.”

During the first few years of the festival, Fink said Seeger helped bring wider recognition to the event by performing.

“That helped us to attract both a great crowd and other excellent players,” she said. “He also had an interest in seeing traditions both carried on and morphed into newer styles and music.”

The festival actually started as a CD release party in 2006, when Fink and her partner and fellow festival cofounder Marcy Marxer released two recordings on Rounder Records, her Grammy-nominated solo album “Banjo Talkin’” and the compilation “The Old Time Banjo Festival,” which she said was inspired by the album, “The Old Time Banjo Project,” released in 1964 by Electra.

“That recording influenced me a lot in the 1970s,” said Fink, who has played old time banjo since about 1973. “I wanted to record an update that included newly influential people in old-time banjo, and of course some great influences such as Mike Seeger, Reed Martin and Dan Gellert.”

Each year, Fink and Marxer put together a different cast of banjo players, to add variety from year to year and to offer opportunities to hear different old-time styles, such as minstrel, fingerpicking, and clawhammer. In addition to Seeger, past performers include Paul Brown, Cheick Hamala Diabate, Bruce Molsky, Bob Carlin, Bill Evans, Roni Stoneman, Adam Hurt, Bill Schmidt, Kate Brett, and others. Fink said the festival’s focus on old-time banjo allows her to share her love of the instrument with a larger audience.

“This is not only a great event for the old-time community, but we get a very broad audience,” Fink said. “At least half of the audience is appreciative listeners who don't play. Many are folks who want to see their banjo heroes and heroines perform. Others want to see the show and then take workshops. And then there are music fans, brilliant enough to know that this music is special.”

The Performers

Cathy Fink 
Singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, banjo picker, guitar player and community activist, Cathy Fink lives an eclectic career in the music industry and beyond. She is not only well known as half of the Grammy-winning duo, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, but for her volunteer efforts and activism within the music industry and on behalf of issues and organizations that care about children.

In 1980, Fink became the first woman to win the West Virginia State Old Time Banjo contest, an honor she earned three times. She has taught banjo, guitar, fiddle, vocal styles, harmony singing and songwriting at music camps such as Augusta, Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, Kaufman Kamp, California Coast Music Camp and Swannanoa.

Fink began playing the banjo as part of the “earn while you learn” program of making a living at folk music. She has released several albums and instructional recordings. She has notched several Grammy nominations, winning twice for her music. Her interest in the history of women in country music led her to meet, play music with and perform with some of country’s greatest female pioneers, such as Patsy Montana, Ola Belle Reed, and Lily May Ledford.

Rick Good
A founding member of the Hotmud Family, a 24-year veteran of Rhythm in Shoes and a 2010 Ohio Heritage Fellow, Rick Good is recognized and respected for his driving banjo, swinging guitar, heartfelt singing and crafty songwriting. With his wife and long-time collaborator, Sharon Leahy, Good has made a life of creating critically acclaimed performance art, rooted in American traditions. He plays regularly with the bands ShoeFly, Good & Young and the Red Clay Ramblers.

Good was born in Dayton in 1951 and grew up in the Belmont area. His father Edwin knew a few chords on the guitar and played songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Red River Valley” on the harmonica. His older brothers and sister, Mick, Chuck and Ginny, were avid record buyers with eclectic tastes in music ranging from Count Basie and Broadway musicals to Buck Owens, the Kingston Trio and Gene Pitney. By the time he was 12 years old, he was picking out simple tunes by ear on his grandpa’s banjo-mandolin. His first real banjo was a Harmony five-string given to him by his brother, Chuck.

Marcy Marxer
Marcy Marxer is a multi-instrumentalist, studio musician, performer, songwriter, and producer with 30 years of experience and a shelf of awards. She has played acoustic music on Emmy Award winning National Geographic specials, platinum-shipping Eva Cassidy CDs, and on more than 50 recordings and instructional materials created with her partner, Cathy Fink.

Marxer’s guitar playing spans a variety of styles, including swing rhythm and lead, bluegrass, old time, Celtic fingerpicking, folk fingerpicking, and she is recognized for her tasteful backup. The C.F. Martin Co. honored her with a signature model guitar, the MC3H, which she helped design. Flatpick Guitar Magazine called her “one of the country’s top Western style guitar players.” She also plays mandolin, bouzouki, hammered dulcimer, Latin percussion, banjo, pennywhistle, flute, and ukulele.

After a recording session with Mike Seeger, Marxer fell in love with his 1918 Gibson cello banjo. She later gained a following on YouTube for her cello banjo music, and the Gold Tone Banjo Co. began making the Marcy Marxer model Cello Banjo.

Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton
Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton are a dynamic duo, performing music rooted in the Americana tradition. Over the past four years, they have collaborated in various projects, such as the Evil City String Band and their newest project Red Dog Run, which released its first album this year. They began playing as a duo after hours of jamming in Stearns’ kitchen, experimenting with traditional and original songs, releasing their first album, “Tractor Beam,” in 2013.

Stearns is a legendary banjo player, who began performing in the late 1970s as a teenager with the string band Bubba George in Ithaca, New York. He is perhaps best known his work on banjo and vocals with the innovative roots music band The Horse Flies, which over the past 30 years has produced eight albums and two film scores. He is also a founding member of Donna the Buffalo and has played with countless others, often touring with Natalie Merchant. He is steeped in the traditions of American old-time music, Appalachian folk, blues, African, rock, and country music.

Newton began playing fiddle at age 8. She grew up immersed in the rich folk music scene of Woodstock, New York, attending concerts and parties with her mother, Celtic cellist Abby Newton. She recently graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in viola performance and has become an integral part of the Ithaca old-time music community. She has performed in various bands including her own project, called the Pearly Snaps, and Ferintosh, an internationally touring Celtic music band. She recently toured the Northeast playing zydeco fiddle with Louisiana legend Preston Frank.

Tony Trischka 
Tony Trischka is considered one of the most influential banjo players involved with roots music. For more than 45 years, his playing has inspired a whole generation of bluegrass and acoustic musicians with the many voices he has brought to the instrument.

Trischka's interest in banjo was sparked by the Kingston Trio in 1963. He made his recording debut in 1971 and throughout the years has played in a number of bands, toured the world, appeared in feature films and on radio, worked on Broadway, and recorded with notable banjo icons Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Steve Martin, Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Bill Evans, Bill Keith, and Bruce Molsky.

In 2007, Trischka was named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and his album “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular” received two IBMA awards and a Grammy nomination. He also is renowned for his instruction materials, having launched in 2009 the Tony Trischka School of Banjo, an interactive, online instructional site. He was the musical director and co-producer of the 2011 PBS documentary “Give Me the Banjo.” In 2012, he was awarded the United States Artists Friends Fellow.

The Workshops

Noon-2 p.m.
“Clawhammer Banjo the Way I Do It,” with Richie Stearns
Stearns will teach a couple of tunes he wrote and some “cool and different ways” to play around with clawhammer (for intermediate and advanced players).

“Old Time Fiddle,” with Rosie Newton
Learn old tunes and basic bowing patterns of Appalachian fiddle music. Newton will also discuss ways to back up songs and explore the potential of the banjo-fiddle duo.

2:15-4:15 p.m.
“Old Time Fingerpicking,” with Rick Good
Introduction to pre-Scruggs three-finger and two-finger picking styles, using thumb lead and finger lead. All levels of players are welcome.

“Tune Up Your Technique,” with Cathy Fink 
Right- and left-hand drills to make your playing clean, precise and in time. More tricks of the trade. All levels of players are welcome.

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