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Danny Barnes

FEATURED ARTIST - APRIL 2016
Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass Winner 2015

I’ve been at this a pretty long time. The main thing I use to get my ideas across has been the banjo, it has an unusual sound and is capable of a wide range of expression. However, it isn’t very developed yet, in terms of what is being done with it in a current macro sense. It’s untapped.

A lot of what I do was informed by punk rock and dub music from the 70’s, I bought those records when they were new, thus starting a lifelong obsession of buying records. I received a degree from the University of Texas [Austin] in audio production, and loved the classes there about the history of audio and recorded music. That’s where I first started hearing experimental music, that’s also where I learned to be very comfortable in a recording studio. Later I became the principle songwriter/producer/singer for Bad Livers, and eventually launched my own private record label ( Minner Bucket Records ), publishing company, and solo career in about 1998.

I have some good friends in bands of various sizes, some of them are these quite famous people, though I try to learn from anyone that has an “idea.” My whole thing is music, and trying to make my own sound. I have developed a specific technique I call barnyard electronics which is an aesthetic combining various bits of bluegrass, noise, rock, and electronic music. The live aspect involves a computer program I built in max/msp and a banjo. I do about 150 domestic shows a year with that set-up.

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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Danny Barnes, here's what he had to say.

Q.  How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A.
 I learned from a fellow Maxie Roessler in Temple, TX, from slowing down records and watching Ed Shelton play, stuff like that. I think learning is like fishing, sometimes someone that has no idea what they are doing can use the most obtuse methods to fish and catch fish. Sometimes the pros get stumped, all that matters is, does your method work? It's hard to have a reductionist view of how everything should be done in terms of an art. If your method isn't working, get a new one. If it is working, stick with that.

Q.  During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A.
 Getting a good tone out of the the dang thing, and what to do when you weren't actually soloing. That's a very challenging study right there.

Q.  What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A.
 I'm still working on my reading, improvising, composition, tone, being able to play other idioms and just general music i suppose. I would like to be a master someday. I would like to be able to make someone feel something.

Q.  Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A.
 There are a lot better players than me that I suppose would just jump in there and start answering, and I preface every utterance with, "I could be wrong about the whole thing," but, I don't really feel like there is such a thing as banjo music. I think the banjo is a medium like a pencil and a person can do whatever they want or are able to with a pencil. But, there really isn't a form called pencil art. I think the banjo is used to play music. If you have a thesis like "there is banjo music." you have to look at the antithesis which is, "there is no such thing as banjo music," and then synthesize the two. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I feel like my role is to master the instrument and to play the music that is in my heart and head. For me the banjo is a tool, a tool with which to make art. There are so many great guys that play, I don't think I can really add much to that party. However, I do have my own experience, my own research into philosophy, poetry, sound, art and things like that. that's what I hope to bring out, using the banjo.

Q.  Your most recent album “Got Myself Together (Ten Years Later)” was released on November 27, 2015 to great reviews such as the one by Bluegrass Today. Do you have another project in the works or special event that you would like to share with readers?
A.
 I'm still out there playing a lot of shows this year behind that record. So, I'm still kind of in that mode. I would think as well, it's a pretty fair bet I have about 15 other records the readers haven't heard yet, I have a LOT of art out there. As always, I'm working, writing and practicing. So, yes there's new stuff coming out all the time. I have a batch of new songs i'm writing, I have a pure banjo record coming out with some of my bluegrass pals ( Nick Forster, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, and Chris Henry ). I'm working on a suite of dodecaphonic ( 12-tone ) music for tuba and banjo. I'm working on a tuba / alto sax duet record with my friend Jacob Navarro whereby we are playing music by contemporary composers. The Test Apes are working on a new metal / noise / punk rock record ( I play a banjo tuned to E with an added bass string on a Les Paul frame called the "barnjo" ). Lots of stuff, I have more ideas than I have life left to do them in.

Q.  Throughout your career you have pushed the limits with the banjo, well known for crossing genres, writing, singing and playing with some of the music industry’s biggest names. Where are you most comfortable in this profession? Perhaps another way to ask this is “when are you most in your zone”?
A.
 My degree is in Audio Production. I like making records, I'm very comfortable with computers and tape machines, that's what I like best is making records. I like machines, I'm more at home with a machine than a person. I feel like machines are my friends and have anthropomorphed them where I feel like they have personalities and stuff like that. I like how you can use them to make stuff and how you can have happy accidents.

Q.  How has winning the "Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass" changed your life and your musical career?
A.
 Oh, that's been a tremendous blessing. I suppose the biggest thing is that I always feel like I'm kinda outside looking in, I've never really felt a part of things too much. Winning that award has really caused me to gather stock and think about things. There's people listening to my work even when I worry they don't. I'm friends with some of the biggest names in music, there's 7 or 8 people on my contact phone list that are zillionaires. I love to point this out when people say you can't make money with music. It has also caused me to take a fresh look at myself, to appreciate myself and my work a little more. I've sacrificed everything in order to learn to play the banjo, I never had kids, or a day job really ... since i got out of college anyway. I don't take vacations, all i do is work. This is not the life for everyone. My feeling is that most folks are afraid of work. A couple weeks ago I was working on a record and we did 72 hours in six days. Not up walking around making a sandwich, but 72 hours of straight busting. A 40 hour week is a very slow week for me, there's so much to do and learn.

Q.  You and Bob Bishline collaborated on the design and creation of the "Danny Barnes Amplified Woody" banjo. What were your goals with this design? Have you used it on a song that you have published?
A.
 I play a lot of different ways on a banjo and we wanted to make something that could work in lots of different approaches. A little shorter scale for these long reaches and ergo you could run slightly thicker strings. Also, a minimalist design aesthetically, so a regular person could afford one. We've sold quite a few. I've used that banjo on lots of records, Pizza Box and Ambient Works Vol. 1. I've probably made about 8 of my own records with it and played it on about 200 records by others. I got a platinum record with it, and I used it on the Dave Matthews record Big Whiskey. I got a Bishline open-back from Rob recently and used that banjo exclusively on my newest "Got Myself Together". There is one overdub on that record with a Bishline Cardinal.

Q.  At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A.
 I'm real proud of being in the Bad Livers, getting to tour with Bill Frisell, playing with Dave Matthews, lots of stuff. I'm the most proud of having a big body of work. If you dig around in there, there is a LOT of stuff, I have a huge catalog.

Q.  What other interests do you have?
A.
 Reading philosophy, working on my old VW van, working in my yard, walking. I'm very active in the alcohol recovery community, meditation, and riding my motorcycle. I follow basketball and baseball, lots of stuff like that.

Q.  Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A.
 I got to know John Hartford a bit, and he was a brilliant guy. I think it would be good if we as a community, fostered creativity more. It's one thing to learn how to play something well, but it's a whole other idea to create new forms. If you don't know his work, you should dive in there. He had so many periods there is sure to be something there for you. My three favorite living banjo players to listen to are Charlie Cushman, Rob McCoury, and Reed Martin. If you don't know them, or one of those guys, you would enjoy digging in there.

 Go to Danny Barne's complete discography.

Check Out This Artist's Band:

 Danny Barnesdannybarnes.com
 Danny Barnes & Thee Old Codgers
 Bad Liversbadlivers.com

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Jim Coston

Born in 1954 in St. Petersburg, Florida Jim is the younger of twin boys born to James & Patricia Coston. Jim was raised in Florida attending elementary schools in St. Petersburg and graduating from Zephyrhills (Fla.) High School in 1972.

While in High School, Jim worked at a Richardson's Funeral Home where he ran ambulance calls and assisted in mortuary duties such as embalming and removals.

Upon graduation, Jim obtained his E.M.T. (Emergency Medical Technician) certification at Pasco-Hernanado Community College and continued working in the EMS field at Jackson Memorial Hospital (Dade City, Fla.) and eventually SunCoast Ambulance Service in St. Petersburg.

In 1973, Jim moved west to Phoenix, Arizona where he spent two years working for Kord's Gold Cross Ambulance. Returning to Florida in 1975, Jim completed his Paramedic training at St. Petersburg Junior College and gained his state certification.

Upon completing certification, Jim was hired by Charleston County (S.C.) EMS and spent four years with the system. While working for Charleston Co. EMS, Jim gained S.C. Paramedic Certification (#172), Rescue Squad and Radiological Monitoring training.

While living in Charleston, Jim bought a tenor banjo in a pawn shop for $35 dollars, a decision that would eventually change his career path.

A love of music and show business in general led Jim to spend many hours each day practicing his new instrument. Unfortunately, there were no teachers of 4-string banjo in the Charleston area and the learning process was painfully slow. Jim drove 400 miles to Orlando, Florida on every opportunity just to listen to professional banjo players.

Finally, the realization that if he were to improve, he would need the support and guidence of other musicians led Jim to move to Orlando, Florida where he could surround himself with the talented performers from Disney World and Rosie O'Grady's.

In 1980, Jim began working for Herndon Ambulance Service in Orlando while studying the techniques of banjoists such as Randy Morris, Pat Terry Jr. & Eddie Erickson. In early 1981, there was an audition call for a new vaudeville-melodrama theatre called Daisy's Basement - Jim was hired on the spot.

Critically acclaimed by the Orlando Sentinel Star newspaper but unable to compete with the bigger downtown and area attractions, Daisy's Basement changed format in 1982 but not before Jim had gained valuable stage experience.

Unemployment didn't last long as the cruise ship "Scandinavian Sun" sailing out of Miami came calling, as did a 60 city national touring show called "The Riverboat Ragtime Revue" produced by Bill Fegan Attractions. "Riverboat Ragtime Review" featured many prominent New Orleans Jazz musicians including Bob French (Drums), Pud Brown (Clarinet) & Walter Payton (Bass).

Upon completion of the touring show, Jim returned to Orlando where he divided his time between spot jobs for Rosie O'Grady's, private parties and part time work at Herndon Ambulance.

In 1984, a decision was needed. Either Jim would renew his Florida Paramedic Certification and continue in EMS or he would pursue a full time career in show business. After 14 years of emergency work that included of 15,000 ambulance calls, Jim decided to let his state certification lapse.

Fortunately, the the choice was the right one. Within a month of leaving the ambulance service, Jim had secured another cruise ship ("Emerald Seas") as well as a six month contract at the 1984 World's Fair held in New Orleans.

While working at the Fair, Jim was hired by New Orleans Paddlewheels Inc. for their new riverboat "Creole Queen". Jim continued with the riverboat after the World's Fair closed, but the Louisiana economy suffered through off shore oil industry cutbacks and full time work became difficult to sustain.

The cruise industry again came calling with a rapid succession of headline cabaret contracts with Costa, Commodore and Carnival Cruises. In 1987, a call from the Bramson Entertainment Bureau in New York City led to artist representation that is still going strong today.

Along the way, in addition to cruise ships, Jim has been a Cruise Director on board the riverboat "Queen of the West" sailing from Portland, Oregon. Jim has also been Entertainment Director / Entertainer at Maxwell's Jazz Cabaret in New Orleans French Quarter, as well as having performed across the USA in theaters and nightclubs and numerous conventions.

An avid computer user since he bought his first Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1981, Jim has written software in BASIC, DBXL, VB5 as well as HTML design. Jim has served as a consultant for his twin brother Mike who has been a software developer for over 15 years.

In 1995, Jim was approached by Gale Research to write a chapter for their Career Advisor Series book "The Performing Arts Career Directory" pertaining to performing on cruise ships. Previously, Jim had served as Associate Editor for International Banjo Magazine from 1980 -1984 and still writes occasional articles for several publications nationally.

Today, Jim continues as a headline Cabaret Act for Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas & Oceania Cruises having appeared worldwide on over 85 different cruise ships.

For over 21 years he resided in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, La. up until losing his home in Hurricane Kristina.

Currently, Jim is residing in Khao Sai, Thailand (just north of Bangkok) when not on tour.

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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Jim Coston, here's what she had to say.

Q.  How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A.
 I was largely self taught long before the advent of the Internet. I received a lot of support from Banjo Players I met at FIGA ( Fretted Instrument Guild of America ) Conventions in the late '70's & early '80's. Major influences were Pat Terry Jr., Randy Morris & Eddie Erickson who were all based out of Walt Disney World in Orlando FL.

The instructional book that first opened the door for me was a long out of print copy of Harry Reser's "Let's Play the Tenor Banjo". The last dozen pages showed every chord inversion up and down the neck of the banjo and that opened the world of "Chord Melody" playing to me.

Looking back, if I had the opportunity to take lessons from a live instructor, I probably would have learned a whole lot quicker. Not having a teacher meant I developed my own "sound", for better or for worse.

Q.  During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A.
 Improvisation. I always had a pretty good "right hand" but the fret board was (and some days, still is) a major challenge. I once had a Banjoist tell me that it takes about 20 years to really truly begin to understand the Instrument. If that's true, I'm about 15 years behind schedule!

Q.  What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A.
 I'd like to be a better player in all areas but primarily I'd like to be better at improvising. I'm pretty good at what I do as long as I don't "stray" too far from what I already know. I'd like to be able to have the confidence to go out on stage and really wing it!

I'd also like to be able to play without making weird facial expressions!

Q.  Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A.
 When I began doing my Banjo Cabaret Show on Cruise Ships in 1982, the average age of the passenger was 65, meaning they were born in 1917 and grew up with the music of the Roaring Twenties, the 1930's Movie Musicals and the Big Bands of the 1940's. My shows were the music of their generation and it enjoyed a good reception.

Flash forward to today. Cruise Ship passengers are STILL 65 years old (on average) but now they were born in 1950 and grew up with the music of Elvis, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. My shows still "work" but now more as a novelty act - it's the music their parents (and grandparents) grew up with.

I've had people tell me I should "modernize" my shows, and to a certain extent, I have, but I'm not interested in playing "newer" music on the banjo just to attract a younger audience demographic. If the musics "feels right" on a banjo, I'm all for it but I'm not interested in playing just to satisfy a market.

After 33 years "on the road", I know I'm on the downside of my career. Thirty three years is a pretty good run and I'm hopeful there is still a little more gas in the tank. As long as there is a market for what I do and I'm still able to perform it well, I'll be out there strumming away.

Q.  What most inspires you to play?
A.
 Playing the banjo has taken me to over 116 countries & territories and 46 US States. I've played with Grammy Award Winners and hung out with Astronauts, Authors & Academy Award Winners - all because of the banjo! The fact that playing the banjo has made ALL that happen inspires me to pick it up every day and hopefully, get a little bit better.

Q.  What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A.
 I love playing most everything in my shows. The great thing about doing your own show is that YOU choose what music you want to play, not some Show Producer or Director. I've always been able to play the music I loved. It's still a thrill to hear the audiences emotional reaction to a song like "Danny Boy" or "Stars & Stripes Forever".

I love playing things on the banjo that most people don't expect. The best comment I get after my shows is "Wow!, I never knew you could play _ _ _ _ _ on a banjo!".

Q.  Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A.
 Play for the love of playing. I was lucky enough to start playing professionally 35 years ago. If I were were starting out now, I doubt the opportunities I had would then would present themselves today... but that wouldn't stop me from playing.

Don't try to copy other players "note for note", that has already been done (and probably a lot better!) Put yourself into the music and enjoy the ride where the music takes you.

Don't assume the banjo is only suitable for playing one style of music You'd be amazed at what the banjo can do, if you give it a chance.

Q.  At the time of this interview TBR is not aware of any music that you have recorded to sell for retail. Has this ever been of interest to you? Do you have any plans to record in the future?
A.
 I recorded an album (Cassette) back in the 1990's with several members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at George Buck's Studio in New Orleans. I used to sell it "on the road" but never produced it for mass retail distribution.

I don't have any immediate plans to go back into the Studio but wouldn't rule it out if a project appealed to me.

Q.  You've lived in Florida, South Carolina, New Orleans, and now Khao sai, Thailand. Does each location influence your technique in some way?
A.
 South Carolina was where I bought my first banjo in a pawn shop for $35. Unfortunately there were no teachers in the area which prompted me to quit my job there and move to Orlando, Fl . where I hoped I could pursue the instrument.

Living in Orlando, Florida was a major Disney World influence in the 1980's, lots of great musicians and friends and I learned a lot there. It also made working the Cruise Ships out of Miami an easy commute. New Orleans was a magical 20 years living in the French Quarter and playing with some of the greats such as Danny Barker & Pete Fountain.

Thailand is now home (after losing pretty much everything in Hurricane Katrina) and I adore it. I may be the only 4 string banjo player in the country!

Q.  You have created the entertaining comic strip "Jim's Banjo World", demonstrating another talent of yours! Tell us more about your interest in creating and developing this comic strip.
A.
 Comedy has always been a love of mine. I do a lot in my shows and about a year ago I found a website that allowed you to create comics quite easily. I did about a half dozen and posted them online to a pretty good response. After twelve months, I've created over 275 comics, all relating to banjos and banjo players (you can see them all on my Pinterest Account).

It's been a lot of fun but honestly, after almost 300 strips, I'm running out of new ideas! I'll continue to do them as I find funny subjects to tackle.

Q.  At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A.
 I'm most proud that I have been a working entertainer who has managed to make a pretty decent career out of doing something I truly love. I've been extremely lucky and I know it.

Q.  What other interests do you have?
A.
 I love old Radio, TV & Movies. I have approximately three terabytes of downloaded material still "waiting" to be watched! I love to travel and have begun travellng for enjoyment and not just for work.

Living in Thailand for the past ten years has truly been a wonderful experience. I love the food, culture and people here. I suspect I will live out the rest of my life here quite happily.

Q.  Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A.
 I wasn't always going to be a Banjo Player. I didn't pick up the Instrument until I was 23 years old! In High School, I worked at a local Mortuary where I was an Embalmer and Ambulance Attendant. I went on to become an Advanced Cardiac Life Support Paramedic for a number of years until my banjo career took off.

Check out this Artist's website:

  banjojimcoston.blogspot.com

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Todd Taylor

Todd “Banjoman” Taylor first fell in love with the banjo at just six years old. While on a family trip to Walt Disney World, Todd's parents, James and Nancy, realized he had wandered off. After a frantic search they found Todd on a steamboat ride -- mesmerized by the music of the banjo per- former. His mom finally gave in to his pleadings and purchased his first banjo from a JCPenny cata- log the following Christmas. Since then, Todd has enjoyed a music career spanning three dec- ades. As a teenager and young adult, he and his twin brother performed on the Grand Ole Opry with music legends Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, and TV shows like Hee-Haw and Regis and Kathy Lee. Todd may be best known for using his unique style to elevate the banjo from the con- fines of bluegrass to build a bridge into all genres of music, especially rock 'n' roll. He was the first solo banjo musician featured on the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 internationally-syndicated radio program in the 1980’s for his groundbreaking arrangement and performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” Although Todd has donated his time to various worthwhile charities during his career, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) has a special place in his heart. In his twenties, Todd became increasingly ill and almost lost his life. Extensive testing revealed he had inherited a mitochondrial disease from his mother, and despite his doctor's diagnosis, he was determined to recover. He performed on the MDA telethon with Jerry Lewis on more than one occa- sion; increasing awareness of the disease and helping to raise funds for the organization's tireless efforts. In 2007, Todd was the first to set the Guinness World Record for Fastest Banjo by perform- ing both parts of “Dueling Banjos” at a mind-blowing 210 beats per minute! He dedicated his record to everyone who struggles to overcome a disease or obstacle in their life. 2011 produced Todd's rock 'n' blues tablature book, Pickin’ Over the Speed Limit, and a feature in the documentary Breaking and Entering, highlighting his Guinness World Record achievement. He has earned doz- ens of Grammy nominations over the past decade in multiple categories, from original song compo- sition to producing. Todd’s eighth and latest CD, Indescribable, earned six Grammy nominations -- most of them attributed to his performance of "Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major,” accompanied by Thornton Cline on cello and long-time friend Mike Moody on bass. But the pinnacle of his career came in 2012 when Governor Nikki Haley presented Todd with the Order of the Palmetto, the high- est civilian honor in South Carolina, for his inspiring personal example and musical contribution to his home state. Todd says, "My life has been blessed in so many ways, and I have no plans to stop sharing the gift God has given me."

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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Todd Taylor, here's what he had to say.

Q.  How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A.
 When I started out there was no internet, I was self taught by listening to records and playing by ear. I went on to a teacher named Walker Copley, and then on to Earl Scruggs Cousin Dan X Padgett. I also got pointers and a couple lessons from Earl Scruggs himself. Today. anyone wanting to learn to play it's a whole new world with the availability of the internet and YouTube, you can learn how to do just about anything. But, the main thing is practice, practice, practice.

Q.  During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A.
 Again, I was self-taught by listening to Earl Scruggs and learned playing by ear, nothing seemed challenging because it was fun.

Q.  Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A.
 I hope banjo music keeps going mainstream so more people will know you can do anything with the banjo. My role would be, and still is, from the early 1980's, best known for using the banjo and my unique style to elevate the banjo from the confines of bluegrass, to build a bridge into all genres of music, especially rock 'n' roll. Also in the 80's, I was the first solo banjo musician featured on the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 internationally-syndicated radio program, for my ground breaking arrangement and performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’sFree Bird”. In those days it was called pioneering, it was a hard road but was worth it. There was no internet, no bands playing anything like that, and no picking CDs like you see today. Now lots of bluegrass bands are covering rock songs etc, which is a good thing.

Q.  You have been playing banjo since age 6, as a teenager you earned music notoriety playing in a duo with your twin brother Allen as The Taylor Twins, played on the Grand Ole Opry with music legends, and you have received multiple Grammy Award Nominations, among other impressive accomplishments. Throughout your music career you have demonstrated that you are able to successfully adapt to change. What have been some of the keys to your success that you feel would benefit aspiring banjo players?
A.
 If you are an aspiring banjo player and you want to make a living out of it, my advice is to work hard, eat sleep, and breath the banjo. Thats what it takes, and play with anyone anytime you can. It all comes down to how bad you want it. You have to make a lot of major sacrifices to be in this business. Now if you are doing it for fun, as a hobby, that's a totally different thing, you do not have to sacrifice and be on the road all the time etc. But, either way work hard at it and enjoy the journey as it comes.

Q.  In the 1990s you were diagnosed with a rare genetic muscle disease (Mitochondrial). Despite this life threatening disease you went on in 2007 to be recognized by Guinness World Records as the fastest banjo player in the world. How did you prepare for this accomplishment and what did it mean to you?
A.
 I set the Guinness Record for all the handicap people in the world, to show them not to give up on life despite any illness. To prepare for this I practiced for six months, 8 hours a day even though I was very sick at the time.

Q.  In 1989 you were the first solo banjo player to make Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40 list with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, from your album “Something Different”. In 2012 you released “Bach Cello Suite No. 1” on your album “Indescribable”. There are numerous other examples throughout your discography. As a pioneer among genre crossing banjo players, has the banjo’s seemingly recent re-surgence in popularity across genres inspired any new Banjoman projects or events that you would like to share with us?
A.
 Yes, I am currently working on numerous projects for Hal Leonard Corporation. I am working on a brand new animated sitcom tv show with a major network called "The Adventures of Florida Bama". The show's excutive producer is Grey Fredrickson, producer of all three " Godfather" movies and "Apocalypse Now". The Creator of the show is Dean Davidson, readers may know of him for Britney Fox, Black Eyed Susan and TC Ridge. I have written and performed all the banjo music.

Q.  I have seen numerous event postings that indicate you often cross paths with Joe Bonsall “Ban Joey”, of the Oak Ridge Boys, one of the first banjo players I have had the honor of interviewing for The Banjo Reserve Featured Artists. Would you share with us more about how you both met, your relationship, and the banjo you had made for Joe!?
A.
 Joe and I knew each other from afar for a longtime, he liked my banjo playing and I always liked The Oak Ridge Boys. The first time we met was at an Oak Ridge Boys concert, we hung out and I played on stage with the boys, they are all fine men.

I consider Joe Bonsall to be like a Brother, he is a great guy with a big heart, as is all the Oak Ridge Boys!! Joe also wrote the forward for my last book put out by Hal Leonard, Americas largest print publisher. The banjo I had made for Joe is a Gibson style 11 copy, a sweet banjo.

Q.  At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A.
 I am proud of the 80's, being the first to expose the banjo as a solo upfront instrument in the rock-n-roll world with my remake of "Free Bird" for banjo. I am also proud of having received the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor in South Carolina, presented to me by Governor Nikki Haley. The Guinness World Record was a proud accomplishment, I did it to inspire others suffering like me, demonstrating that they can still make it. My life has been blessed in so many ways, and I have no plans to stop sharing the gift God has given me.

Q.  What other interests do you have?
A.
 I like to be in my recording studio. I love producing projects for others, and my own as well.

I would also like to say I love being a part of the Gretsch family, playing Gretsch Banjos and working all the Gretsch events that we do. The history of the Gretsch line is amazing and I love being apart of it, great poeple and great company.

Q.  Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A.
 I will speak a little about my banjo and what strings I use etc. I play Gretsch banjos, I love them and I am on a mission to let the banjo world now about their great banjos. They have a new model coming out soon! I use GHS Strings...the Todd Taylor Custom Set and Dunlop .025 finger picks. I keep my banjo head tune to a G# and my action set to 1/8th at the 22nd fret, I like just a tid bit of neck relief like .09. I also use and recommend the custon banjo bridges of David Cunningham - DC BANJO WORKS Banjo Bridges, they are great!

Check Out This Artist's Band:

 toddtaylorbanjoman.com

Check Out This Artist's Music:

Todd Taylor's music in the Banjo Reserve Shop

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Jesse Langlais

Jesse Langlais grew up in the rural town of Old Town, Maine where he first discovered his passion for banjo, bluegrass and working with his hands. At 19, Jesse picked up the banjo and took lessons from Bill Smith, founder of the successful Bluegrass Supply Company band. In 2001, with determined interest in pursuing a music career, Jesse moved to Asheville, NC, calling western North Carolina home for the past 15 years.

Jesse's hard work paid off in Asheville, he plays banjo, provides vocals and songwriting for the award-winning group Town Mountain, a high-energy bluegrass band. Jesse has always been interested in the history of music, with musical taste across the board that you can hear reflected in his banjo playing style.

As important as music is in Jesse's life, he has other passions. A carpenter by trade, he still picks up jobs from time-to-time, more recently completing a full interior remodel on a home he and his fiancee purchased.

Town Mountain (left to right): Phil Barker (Mandolin, Vocals), Jesse Langlais (Banjo, Vocals), Bobby Britt (Fiddle), Robert Greer (Vocals, Guitar), (not in photo) Adam Chaffins (Bass).

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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Jesse Langlais, here's what he had to say.

Q.  How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A.
 When I first started playing, I took lessons from a guy close to my hometown in Maine. His name is Bill Smith, and he was an amazing musician. He taught me a lot about the banjo and about bluegrass in general. I probably took lessons on and off for a year or two. He taught me using tablature and by ear. Learning by ear is the most effective way, in my opinion, to learn music. It's played for the ear so why not learn by the ear.

I moved to Asheville, NC about 15 years ago to play music and that was, and still is, a learning experience. There are so many great players here. Just being around them and picking with them is an extended learning experience. Some of these folks you may have never heard of, but, believe me, they are world class musicians!

The internet is also an amazing tool for learning. To this day, I still use YouTube videos. I'll just find something I like and then sit down and learn it. I also use live drum tracks on YouTube to play along with. I can't stress enough the power of drumtracks or a metronome. If you use them everytime you practice, you will see a vast improvement in your playing.

This answer could go on forever, but I'll try to keep it short. Play everyday. Even if it's just for 15 minutes! Sit down, remove all other thoughts and focus on an idea and practice that idea. Music is about muscle memory as much as anything else. Repetition is key in training muscles to eventually slide into auto-pilot mode.

Oh yeah, and go buy "Earl Scruggs and the 5 String Banjo". It's his method essentially condensed into a text book on three finger banjo playing. No matter how good you get, you'll always use this book and learn something new everytime you open it up.

Q.  During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A.
 Well, I probably still find this the most challenging: having a solid right hand. Having a nice even roll with all notes being distinct from one another is something you'll always work on. This harks back to my comment about practicing with metronomes and drum tracks. Always use them; they are your friends. And they are never wrong!

Q.  What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A.
 With bluegrass banjo, there has always been this idea that, "this is how it was and this is how it's supposed to be". I can certainly agree with that idea but only to a point. If you want to play three finger banjo, you need to know the foundation that Earl Scruggs built. But so often, people stop there and that's usually a conscious decision. I, however, want to have a sound unique to me. So, trying to find that sound while maintaining the integrity of the tradition is something that I will always be working towards.

Q.  Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A.
 The banjo has already been used with most genres of music. It fits in fine wherever it lands. I personally don't think of music in terms of generes. In Western music, we play the same 12 notes in all 24 keys. It's just music! So for me, I see the banjo as another instrument that can be used seamlessly anywhere.

I'm a huge fan of Django Reinhardt. I often learn material from his repertoire and apply it to the banjo. Django was a banjo player first and a guitar player second! Maybe someday I'll be able to record a banjo album of gypsy swing tunes. I may catch some grief for this idea, but "ce la vie".

Q.  What most inspires you to play?
A.
 I think inspiration is often something that unconsciously goes unnoticed. It's everywhere! Certainly it's in music, emotion, scenery and in general it's just in life. Everywhere you look you can be inspired. In fact you should be inspired from all aspects of life. Take for instance the brisket I smoked for 10 hours this past weekend. That my friends, was extremly inspiring and delicious too!!

Q.  What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A.
 I don't think I can give an exact answer to this question. I will say that the banjo is actually a versatile instrument. You can play nice slow, pretty pieces and give the song the emotion that it needs. Or you can play Dear Old Dixie at 180 beats per minute and feel just as satisfied.

I will say that I love Don Reno instrumentals. I think he had an approch to the banjo similar to mine. In that it's an instrument for music rather than an instrument for bluegrass. I recently learned his song, Chocking On The Strings. It's a fun one to play!

Q.  Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A.
 So often beginners want to jump right in and play songs, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you take the time in the beginning of your banjo odyessy to really understand the importance of the right hand and work those fundamental ideas, I promise it will pay off ten fold. Also, like I said before play everyday. Even if it's just for 15 minutes. Take your banjo out, focus and practice.

Q.  What is your favorite venue / festival to play, and why?
A.
 I don't want to single out any in particular. I will say that I really enjoy playing festivals that have a well rounded roster. Where we may be one of a few bluegrass bands amongst many other styles of music. This let's me get my multi genre musical fix!

Q.  Town Mountain is releasing a couple Grateful Dead songs in November 2015, I understand the Grateful Dead are among some of the classic rock bands you listened to when you were younger. Jerry Garcia was known to play banjo, did you or Jerry's banjo playing have much influence over selecting these releases? Tell us more about the project.?
A.
 I still listen to the Grateful Dead and will continue to as long as I can hear.

Here's a brief story of how I got into bluegrass and the banjo. I'm definetly not the only one with this story. When I was 19 or so I bought an Old and In The Way CD. I was washnig dishes at my parents house and when that first song came on, Pig in a Pen, I was floored. I probably dropped what was in my hands and just sat there in awe. My bluegrass journey had begun and I wasn't going back.

I'm from Maine, and even though there is a bluegrass scene in New England it was not a part of my upbringing. It wasn't something that I even heard until I bought the Old and In The Way CD. I couldn't even have defined what it was up until that point. All I knew was when I heard it that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make that noise, that sound. I wanted to pick and pluck the banjo from that point on. Jerry took my hand and guided me to somewhere I had never been before. Soon after that I was introduced to the first generation of bluegrass and that's when I really started to dig into the histroy and sound of bluegrass.

To read more about the Dead Sessions project head to townmountain.net.

Q.  You did some songwriting for the band, do you write with the banjo in mind first, and develop ideas around that? What is your songwriting process?
A.
 When I write instrumentals it's always with the banjo. Not neccesarily with the banjo in mind but certainly in hand.

When I write material that has words it usually starts with the guitar and is written with the guitar. For me it's easier to write vocal songs with with the guitar becasue tonally it's more well rounded and suitable for the voice.

I typically start with some lyrics and a melody, or a story line and work from that. I think that most songwriters would say that their process isn't one way all the time, but instead a series of processes that come and go. I often write something that just comes out as is and then I'll re-write it if i want it to be a Town Mountain song. Maybe I'll make it a little more bluegrassy or change the rhythm or chord progression. It's fun being able to write for yourself in mind, but when your in a band you have to write to the sound of the band.

Like they say there's more than one way to skin a cat!

Q.  At this point in your banjo career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A.
 I think that our album, Leave The Bottle, is a great album. It's full of solid original material, the music is strong and it sounds like Town Mountain. I'm extremely proud of the project we recorded with Dirk Powell last year. It's a brand new album that hasn't been released yet. In fact the release date is still TBD. I think it's going to be very well received. Stay tuned in 2016!

Oh yeah, The Dead Sessions EP is really cool too. We got to play a couple of our favorite songs that the Dead played. With some good friends of ours. The songs really came out great.

Q.  What other interests do you have?
A.
 Well, I'm a carpenter by trade and I've done it as a job for most of my life. This was a trade passed down from my Dad. When I was juggling music and carpentry at the same time I probably wouldn't give the same answer as today. Now that music is full time I can look at carpentry and realize how much I love it. It's been a profession and a hobby. In fact my fiance and I just bought a house last year and I spent time between touring gutting and remodeling the interior.

I also love to cook. It's an art in itself. I'm always experimenting in the kitchen. The other guys in Town Mountain are also very into food. It's nice to be able to travel all over and get to experience cusine from regions that your not familiar with.

I studied agriculture in college. I'm very interested in that world. At one point in time I wanted to farm. Then as the banjo and I got more acquainted with one another I realized that music was where my heart was.

Q.  Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A.
 I love chainsaws and all work affiliated with them. In fact, I often say that the banjo is like the chainsaw of the music world. Why? I don't know, they both just have a way of bringing me satisfaction.

Check Out This Artist's Band:

Town Mountain - townmountain.net

Check Out This Artist's Music:

Jesse Langlais' music in The Banjo Reserve Shop

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Cia Cherryholmes

Cia began her banjo career with the internationally acclaimed Bluegrass family band Cherryholmes at the age of 16. Influenced by the stylings of banjo heroes like JD Crowe, Don Reno, Jason Burleson, and Jake Jenkins and mentored by Bluegrass King Jimmy Martin, she developed her own style blending the traditional hard driving approach with blues and honky-tonk. Recipient of the SPBGMA banjo player of the year award three years in a row, she has helped to pioneer the way for many young female banjoists and to bring playing while singing to the forefront. The Americana ensemble Songs of the Fall is her most current musical endeavor, blending traditional banjo with, delta blues, and mountain roots.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson has revolutionized the art of clawhammer banjo by adapting its techniques and rhythms to the demands of playing in a bluegrass ensemble. He calls his banjo style Clawgrass. He has performed and recorded with many bluegrass and acoustic luminaries on the music scene today and is also a gifted teacher and songwriter. His second recording -- Acoustic Rising with Emory Lester, released on the Crossroads / Mountain Home Record Label -- was nominated by the International Bluegrass Music Association ( IBMA ) in 2007 as Instrumental Album of the Year. Mark's music was used in the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan television commercial and in September of 2012, Mark was named as the third annual winner of the prestegious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music Award and has performed his clawhammer banjo style on the Late Show with David Letterman. Mark has conducted countless Clawgrass/Clawhammer workshops at bluegrass and acoustic music festivals across the country, has hosted the annual clawhammer banjo workshop as part of the IBMA Fanfest in Nashville, Tennessee, and will be appearing at IBMA 2015 Clawhammer banjo workshops in Raleigh, NC September 2015.

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Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Discography

Released 08/21/2013 > 1863
Released 04/01/2010 > Acoustic Vision
Released 07/18/2006 > Acoustic Rising
Released 2002 > Acoustic Campaign

Mark Johnson & Clawgrass - Discography

Released 06/17/1997 > Bridging the Gap
Released 1995 > Mark Johnson Clawgrass with the Rice Brothers and Friends

Various Artists - Including Mark Johnson

Released 06/17/1997 > Blue Ridge Mountain Banjo

Connect with this Artist:

 facebook.com/MarkJohnsonClawgrass

Check out this Artist's Bands:

 Mark Johnson and Emory Lester

On DVD

Released 01/16/2009 > Mark Johnson Teaches Clawgrass Banjo

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Kristin Scott Benson

Kristin Scott Benson is the four-time International Bluegrass Music Association’s Banjo Player of the Year (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). She grew up in South Carolina, surrounded by a musical family. After receiving a much-anticipated banjo for Christmas when she was thirteen, Kristin became enthralled with the instrument and spent her teen years studying the playing of all the banjo greats from Earl Scruggs to Bela Fleck. After high school, she attended Nashville’s esteemed Belmont University, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BBA in Marketing and a minor in Music Business. After 13 years in Nashville, she relocated back to the Carolinas with her husband and young son. Her latest solo release, Second Season, features eight instrumentals (half of them originals) and four vocal performances. The album showcases her powerful banjo playing, while still appealing to fans that aren’t motivated solely by instrumental prowess. The project received stellar reviews and features some of bluegrass’ brightest musicians.

"The Grascals." The Grascals. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

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