Donna Lynn Caskey takes a pure, timeless sound to heartfelt, comforting and sometimes edgy new places. Her original songs honor the venerated five-string banjo while stretching its boundaries.
Stretching boundaries comes naturally to Donna Lynn, who received a scholarship for an intensive “Clawhammer Banjo by Ear” class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC shortly before leaving her hometown on the coast of Virginia for California in 2001. She began writing songs three months later.
With a degree in Visual Art, her songs are correspondingly quite painterly. “Slot Machine” (previously recorded by Julie Christensen) elicits a vivid picture of the gamble of love. A sassy “Flower Print Dress” (featured in the 2014 Banjo Babes Calendar & Album) symbolizes ill-advised romance amid a lush, southern June. “The Good News” pans for gold in the mud of life and, like many of Caskey's songs, inspires listeners to sing along.
Music is, as she sings, “good for what ails,” and her sincere, engaging performances are sought after at art galleries, poetry gatherings, churches, spiritual centers, as well as standard singer-songwriter venues. She has even been commissioned for performance art pieces! Donna Lynn's classic banjo sound takes new ground.
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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Donna Lynn, here's what she had to say.
Q. WHERE WERE YOU BORN AND RAISED?
A. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia. Raised in Virginia Beach. Currently live in Ventura, California.
Q. DID YOUR GEOGRAPHIC AREA HAVE ANY INFLUENCE ON YOUR DECISION TO PLAY THE BANJO?
A. Growing up in Virginia, banjo music was around my entire life. I'm the youngest of ten kids and one of my brothers has played banjo since before I was born. I went to college in the Blue Ridge Mountains and fell in love with all kinds of banjo music, which influenced me to buy a banjo as a graduation present for myself. I began to play in earnest shortly before I moved to California. That way I could be sure to bring the music with me in case I couldn't find it on the west coast. I brought it with me AND I've found people to play music with since the very first day I arrived when I met a fiddler at the farmers' market who pointed me to an old-time jam later that week.
Q. HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THE BANJO?
A. I've loved music all my life and banjo was certainly in the mix. When I lived in the Blue Ridge, the banjo wooed me! I regularly attended the Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club shows and went to listen to the Saturday morning jams at the instrument store in Happy's Flea Market, where I eventually bought my first banjo. Banjos would give me a case of the rainbows- smiling with tears in my eyes. I was dreaming about banjos. I got to hear Mike Seeger play a show at Emory & Henry College. Loved how he played by ear and made music seem so accessible - folk music, music of the people, EVERYONE can make music, it is part of our birthright.
My musical tastes have always been eclectic, but there were heavy doses of banjo in the mix starting in my late teens. My brother made me cassette tapes from his old Wade Ward records. There were some Rounder bluegrass and folk song compilations and the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music I also obtained around that time. I just kept going from there, delving deeper into the music- Library of Congress and Lomax field recordings, the Altamont Black String Bands and Black Banjo Songsters compilations. Bluegrass, old-time, folk, still doesn't matter to me what you call it or what genre. If a song touches my heart, I'm all for it.
Q. IS THERE A SPECIFIC BANJO PLAYER OR BAND THAT HAS INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
A. As for influences and inspirations, there are so many- too many to list here! Of course my banjo teachers were big influences. I started out in a week-long intensive workshop with Diane B. Jones at the John C. Campbell Folk School, where I received a scholarship. I was also fortunate enough to have Brad Leftwich live nearby for a while in California, so I took lessons from him while he was here. They shared some of their big influences with me- The Hammons Family, Dwight Diller, Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham.
Ola Belle Reed is also an inspiration. I love how she played clawhammer style on a resonator banjo. I also love that she played traditional songs as well as wrote songs that have become bluegrass classics. I appreciate the inclusivity, depth, and breadth of what's possible with banjo that she embodied with such soul and power.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO PLAYER(S) THAT IS STILL ACTIVE TODAY
A. So many, difficult to pick favorites. Dwight Diller, Dan Gellert, Gillian Welch, and Taj Mahal are a few who come to mind right now.
Q. WHAT BANJO STYLE(S) DO YOU PLAY?
A. I play clawhammer style. I also have a way of writing songs that exceed my technical ability to play them at first. That's one way I've learned a lot- by doing what I have to do to play my own songs. Some folks say that has led me to some innovative approaches to banjo at times. Clawhammer with innovative modifications as needed depending on the song!
Q. WHAT STYLE DO YOU PREFER THE MOST?
A. I enjoy listening to a variety of banjo music and styles and sometimes play around with old-time finger picking (bare fingers and fingernails, no additional picks). I would like to learn and experiment more with finger picking. I prefer music played with heart and soul whatever the style.
Q. HOW DID YOU LEARN THE BANJO, WHAT METHOD OF LEARNING DO YOU FEEL IS MOST EFFECTIVE AND WHY?
A. Different styles of learning are better for different people. I encourage people to find what works best for them. If one way doesn't work, try something else. It's not one size fits all. I took classical piano lessons as a kid and had a hard time reading musical notation. I mistakenly took that to mean I was bad at music and felt sad and discouraged for years about it since I love music so much. I'm so glad the banjo showed me I could make music, after all.
I took a few bluegrass-style lessons that were tab-based when I first got my banjo, but it didn't click. When I started again in earnest, I learned banjo by ear. Though I can read tab if I need to, by ear is what works best for me.
I started out in an intensive, week-long beginning clawhammer workshop. That was a great way to start since I quickly got past the initial hurdles with the support of the instructor and the group. By the end of the week I could play a few songs and had enough skills to keep teaching myself more when I got home.
After that, I would attend jams and workshops and plunk along the best I could. I'd record them and would listen to tunes I wanted to learn over and over. To this day, if I can hum a tune, I can figure out how to play it.
When I've taken lessons, I would record the lessons to listen back and keep learning at home.
Q. DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO, WHAT DID YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING, AND WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU STILL HOPE TO MASTER TODAY?
A. At the very beginning, I remember the fingertips of my fret hand resembling cherry tomatoes before I developed calluses! It also took some practice to get used to making a claw shape with my playing hand and getting the hang of the "bump-ditty" basic rhythm. Those things didn't feel natural at first but before long they became second nature. I remember having some second thoughts about the banjo endeavor as I quickly shredded through my index fingernail. I soon learned to keep it lacquered so I'm wearing off paint instead of my actual nail! Survived the initial pains and have gained so much from continuing to play.
I'm still constantly learning. Every song I write or learn teaches me something new. Every time I collaborate with other musicians or take musical risks or perform in public or feel like I'm "in over my head" - as uncomfortable as that can be - and keep treading water, I learn more.
For me, the biggest challenges can be fear and perfectionism. There are times I've felt insecure or had my confidence shaken by fumbling parts of songs while performing, having difficulty learning songs, have had times when it has felt like my nerves have gotten the better of me despite how much I've prepared and practiced. I just keep going, though.
I remind myself that nerves and a desire to do a good job are signs I care and that music matters to me. I remember that fumbling can be a sign I'm taking risks, stretching, growing, and going for something rather than playing it safe all the time. When I'm in the audience, fumbles can be part of the charm of live, unedited, real performance - doesn't always feel so charming when I'm the one on stage, however! I remember that some of my favorite recordings and performances may not be perfectly in tune or considered virtuosic, but they touch my heart, bring a tear to my eye or make me want to dance, and I listen again and again just the same. It's still a joy to play and share music with people no matter what.
Q. WHERE DO YOU SEE BANJO MUSIC GOING AND WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN THAT?
A. What a gift to be part of the banjo's rich, long, diverse, and ongoing legacy. That's how I see my role in it- I'm part of something much bigger than me. The banjo world keeps growing and going.
It is also great to be part of the long, though sometimes unsung, line of great female banjoists including Ola Belle Reed, Peggy Seeger, Matokie Slaughter, Maggie Hammons, Hedy West, Cousin Emmy, June Carter, Lily May Ledford, and Dolly Parton just to name a few.
To me, it is neat to see the banjo be more widely embraced by mainstream popular culture in recent years- more people discovering their love of banjo and wanting to listen and learn to play. I've heard some people express concerns that the increase in popularity creates more competition among banjo players, however, or that banjo could be trendy today, out of fashion tomorrow.
I believe there has always been an audience for banjo music and there always will be even as trends come and go. Unlike some music of my youth, banjo has stayed with me and I imagine it will throughout my life. I know many others feel the same way. It is part of their heart, part of their family traditions, much more than a passing fad.
As for claims there may be more banjo players now than ever before- I say fantastic, the more the better. Long traditions are being kept alive and getting carried on to new generations, old music is finding a new audience. How wonderful is that? At the same time there is plenty of room for innovation. Artists are taking new ground as to what can be done with the instrument. I believe there's a place for everyone and all of it. Takes all kinds.
It could be said my role in banjo music has a foot in tradition and a foot in innovation. I've been told the songs I write and share often have a timeless, traditional quality.
To me, the banjo itself is a timeless classic that transcends boundaries of nationality, race, class, creed, politics, and genre and will continue to do so.
Q. WHAT MOST INSPIRES YOU TO PLAY?
A. Being on the trail of a song inspires me to play- whether that's writing a song or learning a song. Preparing for performances and opportunities to share music with others also inspires me. Playing can be comforting, fun, bring joy, be an outlet for expression whether for myself at home or out in public. Playing as an act and form of service inspires me, too. Music can be a social service. Music can lift spirits, let people know they're not alone, provide comfort and joy as I mentioned. Even when I've had gigs where I'm playing instrumental background music, I've imagined the sounds blessing the event and the people there. Even when I've thought no one was listening or paying attention, when I wasn't even sure anyone could hear the music over the conversation at a party or event, people have come up afterward to thank me and to say the banjo added a lot. I've also had the honor of being asked to play for religious services, weddings, memorials, and funerals. Inspiring to provide those services.
Q. WHAT SONG(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING MOST ON YOUR BANJO?
A. I'm having fun playing and refining the latest songs I've written. I also enjoy taking a break from my own tunes sometimes by playing traditional old-time, hymns, and other beloved songs I've figured out on banjo.
Q. WHAT VENUE(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING THE MOST AND WHY?
A. I've had better luck keeping the banjos in tune at relatively climate-controlled indoor gigs, as lovely as outdoor shows can be!
As a singer-songwriter, I generally prefer playing to attentive audiences rather than as background music to conversation. Venues that are designated "listening rooms," house concerts, and concert series at churches and theaters are some of my favorite places to play. I've also had a lot of fun playing events at art galleries and studios that encourage the freedom to experiment and take more creative risks than some more traditional music venues.
I've streamed some shows on-line from my living room recently, which was enjoyable. Great that fans, friends, and family from across the country and the globe can tune in and can virtually chat with each other between songs. On-line shows don't take the place of live, in-person performances, but are another way to have a positive community music experience.
Q. WHAT GENRE(S) ARE YOU MOST ASSOCIATED WITH?
A. The lines distinguishing genres are blurry at best, but I am most associated with folk, singer-songwriter, acoustic, Americana, and old-time music.
Q. ARE YOU CURRENTLY WITH A RECORD LABEL?
A. Published my debut album on my own Cordulia imprint.
Q. WHAT BAND(S) ARE YOU CURRENTLY A MEMBER?
A. I will sit in on banjo and/or vocals with friends' bands from time to time, but mostly play solo under my full name- Donna Lynn Caskey.
Q. DO YOU ALSO SING OR PLAY ANY OTHER INSTRUMENTS?
A. I play banjo, sing, and have one song I've written and recorded on guitar, which exhibits the current extent of my skills on that instrument.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO MAKE AND MODEL?
A. I love banjos in general, especially 5-string openback banjos. I currently have seven of them- a variety of makes and models. They all have different voices and different songs in them. Some sound good tuned down low to give me access to other keys. One's fretless. One's from the 1890's with nylgut strings. I can't bring myself to play favorites.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A NICKNAME FOR YOUR BANJO(S)?
A. I tend to call the banjos by collective terms of endearment: the sweeties, the babies- though some of them are older than me. Maybe I'm THEIR baby.
My nicknames for the banjos are nothing fancy. In fact, none of my banjos are particularly fancy. I love how they are fairly simple, humble instruments that sound great and bring me and a lot of other people joy and comfort. I tend to stick with their given names or one of their distinct qualities when distinguishing one from the other in conversation. My first banjo is a Sigma. I call her, surprise, wait for it... The Sigma. Second was a Mike Ramsey fretless that I call The Fretless. Next I acquired two Deering Goodtimes, one stained, one not. The stained one I refer to as The Goodtime, the other one is The Blonde. I have a Kent that came out of a friend's neighbor's shed for free. Sounds great tuned low. I call him... The Kent. Next is a Vega Regent from the 1920's that I refer to as "my main sweetie banjo" (most versatile, sounds great, and if I HAVE to bring only one to a gig, she's it) aka The Vega. One of my sisters found a bargain 1890s Gatcomb in great, playable condition at a flea market for me last year. You guessed it. That one's The Gatcomb.
Q. BASED ON YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AS A BANJO PLAYER, WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BEGINNERS?
A. There are as many ways to play banjo as there are banjo players. Learn to play how you want on whatever type of banjo speaks to you. Have fun and do your best to find ways to keep it fun and delightful. If you feel frustrated or discouraged, remember what inspired you to pick up banjo in the first place and keep going. If a particular teacher, style, or method of learning isn't working for you after you give it a fair chance, try something different until you find what's right for you. Listen to a lot of banjo music to learn what you like and to let the sound of it seep into your body. It will also help you know what you are listening for as you learn your way around the banjo.
Q. WHAT AWARDS OR RECOGNITION HAVE YOU RECEIVED FOR PLAYING THE BANJO?
A. I'd been playing banjo and living in California less than three months when I entered and won first place in the beginning banjo competition at the local Goleta Old-Time Fiddler's Convention. That experience was an encouraging confidence-booster when I was first starting out. Within a few years, I won first place in advanced banjo at the same festival.
Two years ago I entered the advanced traditional banjo competition at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival in Los Angeles for fun and for the opportunity to sing and play an original song for the crowd. I had no expectation of winning since conventional wisdom indicated that performances of traditional instrumental tunes were what the judges liked. It was a wonderful surprise to win first place and to prove conventional wisdom is often more conventional than wise.
Q. WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
A. I enjoy making collages, drawing, reading, writing, and living near the ocean.
TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU THINK OUR COMMUNITY MIGHT ENJOY.
I'm currently employed as a social worker for seniors in addition to my music and creative pursuits.
Folks are also welcome to contact me through my website, Facebook, or Twitter if they have any questions.
Donna Lynn Caskey
Released 2014 > Nameless Heart - Donna Lynn Caskey
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Grammy-nominated producer Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco, Eliza Gilkyson) adds just the right amount of vocals, percussion, guitar, bass, bouzouki, piano and studio warmth to tastefully support Donna Lynn and her classic yet boundary-stretching sound.
Stretching boundaries comes naturally to Donna Lynn, who received a scholarship for an intensive beginning banjo class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina shortly before leaving her hometown on the coast of Virginia by train for California in 2001. She began writing songs and playing shows three months later.
Her heartfelt, engaging performances can inspire audiences to sing along, to weep at a soul-stirring ballad, and to laugh at playful one-liners amidst occasional bouts of tuning.