So in Old-Time pretty much everyone has a day job. Mine is being a writer— plays, mostly, although I write poems and stories as well, and I have occasionally even committed journalism. Oh, and translations. Anyway, given that playwriting doesn’t pull down big bank the way you might imagine, I’ve generally also lurked around the edges of Academia, and at present am teaching German at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Yes: that Asheville. Great place to live if you like Old-Time and craft beer.
I’m not a native, but I did grow up not far from here, up in Watauga County, North Carolina, in a little college town called Boone, named for one Dan’l, who apparently passed through there at some point on his way to Tennessee. I have to admit, though: for most of my childhood and youth and young manhood, Old-Time was sort of hillbilly elevator music to me. I was into prog rock (this was the late 1970’s and 1980’s), and I played drums in a bonafide Rush cover band. But I also played jazz, funk, blues, etc. The point being: I’m actually a drummer. Which perhaps explains both why I was drawn to the banjo and why I play it the way I do: basically like a drum with some strings across it. But with less of a schlepp and less hearing damage.
So when did this change happen? I guess I was in my early-thirties when I started getting interested in acoustic blues from the pre-WWII period–– Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson in particular. This led me to the “parallel tradition” of classic country: Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family and so on to Doc Watson, who was sort of a local legend in Boone. (I remember when Merle died. Even my very straight-laced parents were in mourning.) In other words, one thing led to another.
At some point, after moving to Asheville years later in 2006, I must have wandered into the weekly Old-Time jam at Jack of the Wood, lead by John Herrmann and Meredith McIntosh. At that moment, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, the music suddenly spoke to me. I promise this had nothing to do with the beautiful women who happened to be playing in the jam that night. Anyway, the following week I brought my beat-up guitar and fumbled along as best I could. There were some rolled eyes, but no explicit requests to fuck off. So I apprenticed on the guitar for about a year, sitting next to banjo players like Neil Carroll and Tom Heck and fascinated by what they were doing. Eventually I invested in a little vintage Vega Special no. 2, and we were off to the races.
So what’s that? Ten years on the banjo now? Maybe it’s time to attempt the fiddle. I mean, how hard can it be?