Actor Steve Martin released an album of banjo instrumentals and songs in 2009, and I can relate to the first song, “Daddy Played the Banjo.” It tells of a man who plays music but has no children and hopes other children will hear his banjo and find joy and inspiration in the music.
“Because the banjo has always been so present in my life, it’s hard for me to think of it as an underground instrument,” writes Martin in the liner notes. “Yet, even though thousands of people crowd bluegrass events all over the country, bluegrass seems mostly invisible in the world of music that is focused upon by the media. I remember in the 1980s, when young people were routinely and earnestly piercing their noses and eyebrows, stumbling upon an Irish fair and discovering 13- and 14-year-old girls competing with old-fashioned innocence in an Irish step-dancing contest, so far outside the darker world of the American teenager.”
I’ve known about Martin’s involvement with the banjo since the 1970s. He played banjo on his comedy LP “Let’s Get Small” that was released in 1977, and the flip side of his 1978 hit single “King Tut” contained banjo instrumentals. One of those, “Hoedown at Alice’s,” is on “The Crow.” An old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album includes a photo of Martin playing with NGDB member John McEuen, another banjo wizard and producer of “The Crow.”
Another person known for a medium other than bluegrass who played bluegrass banjo was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. He played in a group called Old & In The Way in the 1970s. And McEuen explored classical banjo on 1970s NGDB albums, when the band played a wide range of styles, including bluegrass, Appalachian, and ’50s rock and roll. That was before the band switched to easy listening in the late 1970s and later mainstream country in the 1980s. McEuen left the group and continued to explore acoustic banjo music with other like-minded musicians.
The continuing problem for musicians who hope to make a living as musicians but play music that doesn’t fit the format of commercial radio is staying employed as creative musicians and not bowing to the dictates of the latest pop music rut. Very rarely they make some waves, as when the soundtrack to the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” went platinum in 2000 with almost no airplay. Here’s an excerpt from that album’s liner notes:
“You won’t hear it on ‘country’ radio. And it flies beneath the commercial radar of most record shops. So for those whose musical tastes are shaped by the great gray behemoth that is the modern entertainment business, this music does sound obscure. Even exotic.”
The nature of the music business demands that music fall into rigid categories. Executives and producers want to market music that sells, and they dislike adventure. They stick with tried-and-true formulas and in the process create a glut of monotonous, bland music. That’s why you miss an incredibly rich world of music if you let the radio dictate your listening. You miss gems such as McEuen playing classical banjo and Garcia singing “Pig in a Pen.”
I am fortunate that I discovered a great variety of music at a very young age. I remember listening to a 10-record set of American folk and patriotic songs when I was 5 or 6 years old, and in my elementary school days I listened to my parents’ records — Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Roger Miller, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and “The Sound of Music” — and to Ricky Nelson 45s that my uncle left behind after a visit when we lived in Iowa. In junior high school I began playing and listening to classical music. In high school I was drawn to bluegrass and Appalachian music, and I discovered ’50s music when the movie “American Graffiti” came out. In college I discovered Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti through a library record and more classical music in a music appreciation class.
Seeking musical alternatives to mainstream pop music requires effort, and it can be expensive but needn’t be. Of course you can buy music new, but where do you start? Libraries maintain a good selection of classical, folk, jazz and soundtracks, and borrowing CDs is a good way to learn what appeals to you. If you find something you like so much you must own it, try used music stores.
So break away from the narrow spectrum of pop music and discover a new world of listening. Have patience and an open mind. You may need to listen to an entire album to find one song you truly like, but that song can be worth it. A change in musical pace is a breath of fresh country air.