Born in the winter in the mountains of Wyoming, Sharon Martinson picked up the banjo first a young girl while on the front porch of her grandparent’s house. But she didn’t start playing it until nearly the end of her PhD studies, when it suddenly provided ample distraction from writing her thesis. Her ecology field project brought her to California, where she lived part-time in Santa Cruz and part-time in the Sierra Nevada, near her field sites. It was in the mountains that she happened upon an amazing cellist and they started the unlikely banjo-cello duo of The Littlest Birds, her current main musical outlet. She nests in the Sierra, but is more likely to be found migrating, anywhere else. She is often touring for music, sharing her soul with the world, and continues to study ecology, volunteering in countries near and far, sharing her brain (Dr. Martinson is a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College). Her unique banjo playing and hauntingly beautiful voice, innate grasp of traditional music and history of the banjo, as well as an unassuming yet powerful drive to forge ahead into uncharted musical and intellectual territories, have given her the ability to create a path of her own through this life, following none, and inspiring many.
MORE ABOUT THIS ARTIST FEATURED ARTIST - AUGUST 2015
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The Banjo Reserve interviewed Sharon Martinson, here's what she had to say.
Q. How did you become interested in the Banjo?
A. My grandpa played the banjo, and during the summer when I was growing up, I would visit him in Nebraska. I remember summer evenings sitting on the front porch watching him play and listening to that sound, all the sounds of the insects in the trees, and watching his fingers pick the strings. I left home to go to college out on the east coast and when I started my PhD, he sent the banjo along with me, saying that he couldn't really play much anymore and that I'd need it sometime. I plunked around a bit on the banjo, but mostly it lived under my futon in a cardboard box. It wasn't until near the end of studies that I really heard clawhammer banjo ( Bruce Molsky ) and tried to figure out how to play that style. I took just a handful of lessons from two teachers, and then took off with my own style of playing.
Q. Did your geographic area have any influence on your decision to play the banjo? If so, why?
A. I don't think that geography really influenced my decision to play the banjo ( except that being born in America does make that instrument choice far more likely ), but geography has surely influenced my playing. Although I grew up in WY and have just recently returned here, I've always been a wanderer, and my music is heavily influenced by many of the places I've lived. I recall listening to early records at home of cowboy & campfire songs. I grew up learning to sing and hear 4-part harmony with the gospel songs at church. I also spent many summer days out at the old Fort and sometimes they'd have reenactments complete with music of the pre-settlement days of the wild west. When I was living on the east coast, I fell in love with contra-dancing, and the music that accompanies it, and at the time when I was first learning banjo that is what I was listening to the most. For five of the years when I was back at school in New Hampshire and Vermont, I spent my summers living in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and I spent as many evenings as I could, going out and catching the local sounds everywhere from little bars in Vicksburg to big concerts in Lafayette. I'd hear swamp rock, and blues, I learned to dance a good cajun two-step down in Mamou, and I know I picked up a dose of the southern US at that time. More recently, I've been living in the mountains of CA and spending winters in Patagonia ( Argentina ), so now shades of both of those beautiful places and their music come through me, too.
Q. What Banjo style(s) do you play and which do you prefer the most?
A. I first taught myself 3-finger Scruggs type rolls, thinking that was the only way to play the banjo. But after I heard clawhammer and learned that, I prefer, and mostly play, that style.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. I picked up 3-finger picking from some books, and then when I decided I wanted to learn clawhammer, I thought I'd do the same. I went out and bought a book and struggled at it for awhile before I wrote to the author, asking where he lived and if I could have a lesson. He lived too far off to meet me, but introduced me to a woman who give me my first 3 lessons, out in the woods of New Hampshire. I took a few more from another instructor in San Francisco. For me, and for most people, it's especially beneficial to learn clawhammer by sitting down face-to-face with a person and watching and trying to get the basic rhythm down.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo what did you find most challenging?
A. The basic bum-ditty stroke of clawhammer was the hardest to get really smooth, and accurate. After that, it all came together for me!
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. I work on playing different solos than the ones that come easily and naturally to me. It's easy to play a lot of notes, and I think that the best phrases don't have nearly as many notes, but instead they have perfectly played and spaced notes, with silence and sound balancing each other.
Q. Based on your personal experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. Get the basic strum down before you try to do anything fancy. The best sounding string is an open one, so think about than when you're soloing, and silence is golden. Play fewer notes, and play them well.
Q. Do you have a favorite Banjo make and model, and do you have a nickname for your banjo?
A. Just like picking a favorite song or child, I can't pick a favorite banjo, since it changes all the time. I've had banjos I didn't like, and which I couldn't get to sound good, but I don't have them anymore. My first banjo, was my grandpas, the old Washburn, and I just call it 'Grandpa' now. I have an equally old Nelson, and I call it 'Nelson' or 'Old Man'. My Recording King is sadly named 'Beater' since it's the one that goes on every international trip, and has been all over the world, left outside in the snow, roasted in the desert and still plays like a champ. My fretless is 'baby' maybe because it's a short neck or maybe because I got really attached to it right after I got it ( made by Seth Kimmel ). I used to live just up the road from Bob Thornburg and he gave me a gourd banjo, and it's name is simply, 'Gourd'.
Q. Do you have a favorite Banjo Player(s) that is still active today?
A. I've been really enjoying the music of Pharis and Jason Romero, lately. Their new album, A Wanderer I'll Stay, is just fantastic.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I have no idea, but I'm going to just keep playing whatever I want on my banjo and singing whatever songs I fancy. I've never felt like I play old-time music to keep it alive, but I do love playing old songs, playing them in my own way. And I love writing and playing my own songs, too, and sometimes those of other people. So I guess my roll will be to keep on playing!
Q. What most inspires you to play?
A. Being an ecologist who works outside whenever I can, and a hiker/backpacker, too, I get most of my inspiration from the natural world. Secondly, events that happen in my life or circumstances I witness, also inspire me.
Q. What venue(s) do you enjoy playing the most and why?
A. Festivals and House concerts. The thrill of seeing thousands of people enjoying music is equal with being able to meet and watch the faces of people in an intimate space, as they soak in not just the music, but also the whole experience.
Q. What Band(s) are you currently a member?
A. Right now, I'm only performing with The Littlest Birds, where I both sing and play banjo (and occasionally, French horn or piano or bones).
Q. What Band(s) were you a member of in the past?
A. When I first started playing a picked with a few bands that have split and reformed into new musical configurations like "Oil Beads In Water". In New Hampshire I played (very poorly) in a bluegrass band called "One Fish, Two Fish". In Oregon, I learned a lot more about singing and playing with an all-ladies group, "Musica Chica", and in Santa Cruz, our Arabic/Sephardic/Folk group was called, "Fretless". For about two years I was the banjo half of "Sittin' on the Fence", and I spent the summers playing a local farmer's market with my friend (on fiddle), performing mostly old-time tunes.
Q. What Recording Label(s) are you currently with?
A. We self-recorded, financed and released all three of our albums.
Q. What genre(s) are you most associated with?
A. Old-time, New Folk, Americana, Mountain Music.
Q. What awards or recognition have you received for playing the Banjo?
A. I don't suppose many people know who I am or that I play the banjo. While I'm not one inclined to compete, I did record a waltz I wrote, Tonopah Waltz, for a Banjo Hangout Old-time waltz contest, and I got 2nd place, so I guess some other people enjoyed it, even though I did it with the most terrible mic built into my laptop! Music is such a personal thing. I don't really want to be judged for it. I should hope that I, also, always appreciate that people are expressing themselves through music, even if it's not something I would enjoy. I've had a lot of people come up to me and smile and say they really enjoyed my playing and that's more than enough, because I enjoy it, and that's why I do it!.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I spend part of my time doing ecology research, and maintain a position as a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. In the past, I've also done research for Oregon State University, University of Santa Cruz, California and University of Wyoming. While performing with my banjo is my first love, I have a very analytical mind that will never be completely satisfied unless I'm also doing science. I love spending time in the high country, and backpacking without seeing anyone for days on end. I take care of my mind and body through running, yoga, nordic skiing. I love cooking, mostly India and Thai food ( even went to cooking school in Thailand ), and while I do most things in silence, I listen to music when I cook. I also adore my veggie and wild flower gardens, my honey bees, and my worm ranch.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. 1. I had my daughter my second year of college, and she's amazing! I think my favorite part of touring is when she, aka Petit Bird, is on the road with us. She really steals the show!
2. I do most all of the maintenance on the tour car.
3. I want to design and build a house with net zero energy, using mostly recycled materials. Someday. I hope.