The April, 2014 edition of Merlefest included a special event Friday called the BanjoRama. Festival talent coordinator Steve Johnson had thrown an interesting assignment my way this past winter: coordinating ten banjo players to do an hour-long set on the the Doc and Merle Watson Stage.
The BanjoRama was conceived to salute the banjo playing of both Merle and Doc. For all their guitar prowess, we should also remember their greatness on 5-string, Merle mostly 3-finger, and Doc with clawhammer and old-time 2-finger style. Steve pulled together an amazing cast: Jens Kruger, Jim Mills, Alison Brown, Sammy Shelor, Rob McCoury, Terry Baucom, Mark Johnson, Graham Sharp, Ned Luberecki, with Dr. Banjo hosting the whole thing. The not-shabby backup band: The Travelin’ McCourys with Bryan Sutton. It felt like quite an honor and a responsibility.
Banjo jokes aside, one might even consider whether it’s advisable in the first place to feature ten banjo players for a whole hour. But with that as my challenge, I tried to fashion a *program*, not just a lots-of-banjos showcase. Connecting with each of the players over the winter, we put together an interesting and varied array of tunes, oldies to originals, featuring every imaginable technique plus of course, a lot of Scruggs style! A couple of vocals, solo pieces, banjo harmonies, not to mention some stellar soloing from the not-shabby band.
Rehearsals? Could only be the day-of, weaving around the players’ other festival commitments, getting shuttled in and out. In a big room off the lobby of the local Hampton Inn, they started showing up at 9:30, brief warm hellos after having not seeing each other since last season, and running their numbers. I have to say it was fun being around this elite crowd. True living legends — and they sounded mighty good too! At 3pm the shuttles arrived to take us to the festival backstage, quick sound check and … BanjoRama!!
We kicked in with “Lonesome Road Blues”, two sections of “virtual unison”: all ten pickers closely following the Scruggs rendition, melody only – most impressive. Part of the intention here is to show that some tunes are so iconic, we learn learn them pretty precisely, Earl’s way … and with ten pickers playing together, the 50 strings sounded pretty much like “one big banjo”. Between the unisons, the pickers got to play it their way.
Check out the program: Clawgrass by Johnson, “Flint Hill Special” by Mills, “Limehouse Blues” from McCoury, “Knee Deep in Bluegrass” by Baucom, Luberecki’s “Nedscape Navigator”, and Alison’s delightfully artistic medley “Oh Susanna / Swannee River / Steam Powered Aeroplane”. Sammy picked “Just Over in the Glory Land” mostly as an instrumental, but with extra-good vocals by the McCourys, enhanced by the warm bass vocal tones of Mr. Baucom. Some “variety” features were Graham’s bluesy vocal on his original “Watertown”, my swingy “Haystack Rock”, and an especially impressive classical-style new original by Jens Kruger. Mid-set, Jens, Sammy, and Mark teamed up on a 3-banjos-only “Angeline the Baker”, blending the diverse styles of the three most recent winners of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize.
How to cap it off? Well, I’m partial to “Foggy”. That was Earl’s go-to number — I remember him saying, “You go with your best shot.” And it’s another one to feature several breaks in unison (well, near-unison). Spread across the stage as one of any army of ten, delivering 10 notes/second, I must say it felt powerful, and the audience let us know they liked it.