Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ode to my banjo, or, thanks, Steve Martin

Introducing Zeke to the banjo, Hawaii 2007

My dad, being a Jewish guy from Detroit, is naturally a big fan of bluegrass and old-timey country music.  When I was growing up, the music in the background was --  in addition to, and in fact, even more than the music of his generation like The Beatles and Peter Paul & Mary and Traffic -- Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and old time country gospel and Doc Watson and twangy bluegrass instrumentals.  Sunday mornings were for Stained Glass Bluegrass on the local NPR station.  More than anything else, bluegrass is the music of my childhood.  

Of course, this drove our relatives crazy.  My grandmother would demand, "why are you listening to this??  They're singing about JESUS!"

And because my dad loves nothing better than to cross the line and get a rise out of people, the response invariably was, "this is American music.  What are you, a communist?"

My grandmother would throw up her hands and sputter while my dad winked at me and we shared a conspiratorial smile.

Of all the bluegrass instruments, I always loved the banjo most of all.  There's something about the irrepressible rhythm of a good banjo roll, the technical proficiency required to play a great break,* and quite frankly, the old-timey twanginess of it, that I just adore.  

My mom loves it too, and always talked about how she would love it if one of her children learned to play the banjo.

So the year I was 27, I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she asked me what I wanted for Hannukah.  

"Why don't you get me a banjo, and I'll learn how to play it," I suggested.

The next time she came to visit me in Atlanta, we went to a music store and picked out a banjo and I found a banjo teacher and I learned how to play.  I knew how to play the guitar, so the mechanics of playing a stringed instrument wasn't entirely foreign to me, but it was very difficult and required an enormous amount of practice (much to my roommates' chagrin, I'm sure).  

But eventually I became more comfortable on the instrument, and my banjo teacher introduced me to some other bluegrass musicians to play with, and over the next few years I developed this wonderful new group of friends.  We would get together and everyone would bring their instruments (guitars, mandolins, upright bass, fiddles, dobros, bouzoukis), and we would drink bourbon and play music and sing songs.

At a bluegrass jam in Atlanta, 2002

One night, I was out at a bluegrass jam a month or so after having lower back surgery.  The recovery had been slow, and I was still in some pain and feeling sorry for myself, but I was getting cabin fever and needed to get out of my bed and out of the house.  So I grabbed my banjo and went out to this party that I had been invited to.

It ended up being one of the best nights of my life.  I only knew a couple of people at the party, but the friends that I had introduced me around, and I joined a circle of musicians.  It was a gorgeous, crisp fall night in an old house in a hip, funky tree-lined in-town neighborhood, and I stood on the porch with a group of people and picked bluegrass and sang gospel songs.  For a few hours, I forgot about the pain I had been in for months and I reveled in the incredible social connection that comes from playing music with other people.  I felt happy and alive.

Over the next couple of years, I played regularly, even did some gigs with a little band I was part of, and got pretty good at both the playing and the singing.  

At my wedding in Australia, December 2005.  My Australian father-in-law, who also happens to be a bluegrass enthusiast, surprised me by inviting some bluegrass musicians that I had met and played with when I visited Jason in Australia in 2004.  Having these guys show up and play (and let me sing with them) was seriously one of the coolest parts of an already wonderful night.  In the picture above, I'm singing Old Home Place, one of my favorite bluegrass songs.

And then people started to move or drift apart, and I got married and left Atlanta, and all of a sudden it's been almost 6 or 7 years since I played with any regularity.  

Over the weekend, Jason and I were driving and Steve Martin was on A Prairie Home Companion playing banjo with his bluegrass group in support of a new album he recently released.**  They did a couple of numbers, and I felt the stirrings in my heart and in my gut that I get whenever I hear great bluegrass.  Because while I truly love all different kinds of music -- I listen to everything from blues to opera to reggae to hip-hop to dance pop -- bluegrass, and specifically, the banjo, is really the only kind of music that makes me feel like my heart is flying.  

I miss that feeling.  And though I don't know when I'll find the time to play, I'm heading out to Guitar Center to get some new strings.  

I really love playing the banjo.  And as happy as it makes me, life's too short not to recapture that feeling that it gives me.  So, thanks, Steve.

*"Break" is bluegrass-ese for a solo. 
**For the uninitiated, Steve Martin is a fucking amazing banjo player.  

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