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Tony Trischka Has More Than One Banjo on His Knee
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Tony Trischka Has More Than One Banjo on His Knee

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Tony Trischka Has More Than One Banjo on His Knee
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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm John Ydstie.

It's not easy to coax the banjo out from under the shadow of tunes such as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the theme songs from "Deliverance" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." But over the years, Tony Trischka has taken the instrument many places and explored its vast history from ancient African melodies to classical arrangements to jazz-fusion. Now, after three and a half decades of music making, his new CD is billed as a kind of bluegrass homecoming. It's titled "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular." It comes out Tuesday on Rounder Records.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

YDSTIE: A list of duets on the CD is a veritable who's who of banjo players, including Trischka's heroes and players he's inspired and influenced, everyone from elder statesmen Earl Scruggs and Bill Emerson to newer trailblazers Alison Brown, Scott Vestal and Noam Pikelny.

We're in NPR's New York bureau with Tony Trischka and two more banjo luminaries who are on the CD.

First, welcome to you, Tony.

Mr. TONY TRISCHKA (Musician): Thank you, John. Pleasure to be here.

YDSTIE: Also here with his instrument is banjo superstar Bela Fleck.

Welcome, Bela.

Mr. BELA FLECK (Musician): Hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Plus, writer, actor, comedian, and banjo player extraordinary, Steve Martin.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor, Musician): Thank you very much. Nice to be here. Plus, I love that we're on the news.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Making news.

Mr. TRISCHKA: News.

Mr. FLECK: News.

Mr. MARTIN: Double banjos making news.

Mr. FLECK: No, it's noose. N-O-O-S-E.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes.

YDSTIE: First, Tony, tell us a little bit about the Double Banjo Project. Is there a tradition of banjo duets in bluegrass? Or is this something kind of unusual?

Mr. TRISCHKA: There is a tradition. It's not the sort of thing that happens every day, though.

Mr. MARTIN: I think it recently just became legal. Didn't it?

Mr. TRISCHKA: Yeah, in at least in this county, yes. I think the Osborne Brothers - Sonny Osborne being the banjo player in that group - they did "Rocky Top." They had a double banjo project out in the late '50s and that was probably the first one, although "Dueling Banjos" preceded that. I think it was called "Feuding Banjos," with Don Reno and Arthur Smith with the five-string dueling...

YDSTIE: Not to be confused with the "Dueling Banjos" in the "Deliverance" theme, which is not two banjos.

Mr. TRISCHKA: It's a banjo and a guitar, and not the two people in the movie. But for me the main one, the one that looms large in my life was "New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass," with Eric Weisberg, who was the banjo player in the movie, or played the banjo music in the movie, "Deliverance," and Marshall Brickman. And they had a wonderful, very progressive kind of album out in '64, or something like that.

Mr. MARTIN: But an interesting note about Marshall Brickman. Not only a banjo player, but he co-wrote "Annie Hall."

Mr. FLECK: Right.

YDSTIE: Amazing.

Mr. FLECK: You guys have a lot in common.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Well, we live in the same building.

Mr. FLECK: That, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRISCHKA: So he made a decision. Let's see, where is there more money, in movies or the banjo?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. TRISCHKA: You know, there was a...

YDSTIE: So is it hard to do banjo duets? Is that why it's relatively rare?

Mr. FLECK: It's a very risky procedure. Not all the patients survive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: Some of the doctors die too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: It's very difficult. You got to get every note right. And if you're doing a harmony part, all the fill in notes, everything...

Mr. TRISCHKA: There's so many notes where there's like da, da, da, da, da...

Mr. FLECK: So fast.

Mr. MARTIN: You know, because it's plucked, you know, you just got that one second to hit that right note.

Mr. TRISCHKA: For some of the duets, like people - like Steve sent me a tape of his tune and then I slowed it down to half speed and worked out laboriously every single note and harmony. And then we played it and was like it's too exact. It didn't breathe at all. So then you got kind of discard the three hours of work you did trying to figure that all out, and then just simplify it.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. So, Bela...

Mr. FLECK: What?

YDSTIE: I don't want to date anyone, but Tony was your teacher.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah.

YDSTIE: Right? What are the most important things you learned from this man?

Mr. FLECK: Oh, my goodness, everything. I mean I ripped Tony off wholesale. His records were really progressive, and I'm just crazy about his playing and what he's been doing with the banjo. And then also, just on a human level, I was a teenager and he was a role model to me about how to be in the world.

YDSTIE: Steve, how did you get in on this project?

Mr. MARTIN: I think it was just a phone call. Wasn't it? Through the e-mail...

Mr. TRISCHKA: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: I'd been playing through the years. I basically played in my comedy act. And I had written some songs early on and then I dropped it for a while. And then Earl Scruggs actually asked me to play on the 75th anniversary album and that got me back into it again. And I thought I got to get up to speed here.

YDSTIE: I think maybe it's time to hear some music.

Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLECK: Okay.

YDSTIE: Something that you wrote.

Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

YDSTIE: You're going to all three play together on, right?

Mr. MARTIN: Right. It's called "The Crow." "The Crow."

(Soundbite of song, "The Crow")

YDSTIE: That's a tune called "The Crow" by Steve Martin, played here in the studio in New York by Steve and Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. That's a very sweet song.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks.

YDSTIE: Really lovely. Actually, you were sort of self-taught, or sort of picked things up along the way.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Everybody - I think everybody is, really.

Mr. TRISCHKA: That's what's cool about the banjo. Everybody's personality is so clear when they play the banjo.

Mr. MARTIN: When I started learning, we would - I think everybody did this. You'd get a bluegrass record, slow it down, pick it out, tune your banjo down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Seriously.

YDSTIE: Really?

Mr. MARTIN: Tune your banjo down to match, and pick it out note by note.

YDSTIE: You mean slow the record down?

Mr. MARTIN: Slow the record down.

Mr. TRISCHKA: Remember records?

YDSTIE: Yeah, I remember the big vinyl things, that you can turn it to 16, 33, I guess.

Mr. TRISCHKA: Exactly.

Mr. MARTIN: Or turn it down to 16.

YDSTIE: Bela, you've often played classical pieces on the banjo along with jazz and new-grass style you do. Is it an uphill battle to get a crossover audience for that kind of banjo music?

Mr. FLECK: It's weird. When I did that record, I didn't expect it to do that well, actually. I mean, I was doing it more for me because I wanted to get to spend time with that music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLECK: Sometimes the banjo wins just because of its sheer novelty. I think people had really low expectations, too, so they were like, oh, isn't that cute, instead of, like, if it was a violinist or a pianist playing those tunes, they'd be like, well, that's not as good as Horowitz, or that's not as good as Heifetz or whatever, but because - so I think a couple different things are going on.

First of all, it's a surprise, and then - but that record won two Grammys, so I came out really good on that - "Perpetual Motion," yeah.

Mr. TRISCHKA: I - just talking about the classical music on the banjos reminds me, I was listening to a local radio station here in New York that carries NPR that can remain...

YDSTIE: Anonymous...

Mr. FLECK: ...memberless or (unintelligible) for the moment, and they were doing their annual fundraiser, and I was listening, you know, to some classical music; they're playing some Bach and things like that and some Mozart. And then the guy said, look, we have to raise another, you know, $10,000 this hour or we'll play some banjo music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: Threatening the audience with it.

Mr. TRISCHKA: Sure enough, on comes "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or something. Didn't quite meet the goal that hour. So times have changed.

YDSTIE: Yeah. Steve Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

YDSTIE: I remember back in the day, when I was a college student, and you came out on stage at my little college in Moorhead, Minnesota...

Mr. MARTIN: Moorhead, Minnesota.

YDSTIE: Across from Fargo, with an arrow through your head and a banjo, opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Mr. MARTIN: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

YDSTIE: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I used to travel with them, and I'd get on stage with them and maybe play a song.

YDSTIE: What got you interested in the banjo?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think it's - the story is so similar for everybody. We heard a record once, and I was 17, and I heard Earl Scruggs play. I was not musical, no history of music. I just went, oh, and my girlfriend's father had a banjo, and it was a four-string.

I didn't know there was a five-string and a four-string. I didn't know the difference, and I was just getting it and trying to learn chords. And then my good friend in high school, John McEwan, I didn't even know he played banjo and guitar, and I just started mentioning it to him, and he said, well, you know, we meet and we play. So I bought a banjo for 200 bucks. I still have it.

YDSTIE: So how did it end up in your comedy act?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, when you're going on stage as a young entertainer, you're thinking, I need material, and so I didn't have comedy material. I had some magic tricks. It was like, you know, an omelet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I put in, you know, banjo. I put in comedy. I put in magic. I did juggling. I did everything.

YDSTIE: But it seemed - I recall that you seemed to great pleasure when people were surprised that you could actually play.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I don't know what they were thinking, but I remember - it all came together for me one time, and I was doing my act. I was still kind of novice, and a friend came out and said, I've got a line for you. I said what? And he said, you say to the audience, I know what you're thinking. Oh, this is just another banjo magic act.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. MARTIN: Isn't that a happy sound? You just can't sing a depressing song when you're playing the banjo. You just can't go...

(Singing) Oh death and grief and sorrow and murder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: When you're playing the banjo, everything's okay. Hey Steve, your house is burning down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I just thought the banjo was the one thing that could've saved Nixon, if he went on television right at the right time and went hi, everything's great. When he was - I think it'd be great if he'd been traveling around the country and got off the plane and said, I'd like to talk about politics, but first a little "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Now I think you also, though, probably created one of the stereotypes for banjos that has lasted a long time, that is that you can't sing a depressed song if you're playing a banjo. Now, I read somewhere recently - well, actually, something you wrote a few years ago, that suggested you really don't believe that.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I don't believe it. I was - it was just a thing for my act. I was playing a very happy song and acting very dopey and happy and up, so I had this line. But one of the things I love about the banjo is it has some melancholy, and it...

Mr. TRISCHKA: There's nothing like dreary banjo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARTIN: But that mountain modal sound, I just love it. It's heart-rending to me.

YDSTIE: You know, Steve, I'm a little surprised, actually, that you've continued to play and play as well as you play, given that you've become accomplished in so many areas, as a writer, as a comedian, as a performer.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I - first, I love it, and I love the music. And you know, I rise and fall; I get better or get worse, depending on how much I play. But I remember thinking when I was 18, I was so clumsy. But I kept saying to myself one day I'll have been playing for 40 years, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: And are you getting better?

Mr. MARTIN: For a while I was - when I first started, I was sort of bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, and my best quality was speed, and I was crisp. But what you do is you find a new slot.

YDSTIE: You mentioned Earl Scruggs, and you can't have a discussion about the banjo without talking about Earl Scruggs. He's on this album, in a duet called "Farewell Blues."

(Soundbite of song, "Farewell Blues")

YDSTIE: What's it been like to work with him, and what was it like to work with him on this song in particular?

Mr. FLECK: It was ethereal. I mean, it's one of my favorite tunes that he recorded back in 1950 or '51 for Mercury Records with his partner, Lester Flatt, and just it's one of those classic tunes. And you know, I've known Earl a little bit over the years, and it's only been the last few years that I've spent a little more time with him, and so you know, it's kind of one of those things - well, you know, it's Earl. But then it's - it's Earl Scruggs. I'm recording with Earl Scruggs, you know, and I wouldn't exist without this guy. I mean, my whole life would've been - you know, I would've been a shoe salesman or something instead.

YDSTIE: And you say that because Earl Scruggs basically invented bluegrass banjo.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, I mean, he defined it. There were people playing in the three-finger style, which is what we're doing here.

Mr. TRISCHKA: Yeah, but they didn't have the impact of Earl, so there was - it wasn't just that he was playing with three fingers, it was sort of this magic quality to his musicality and then having that position of being able to walk into Bill Monroe's and suddenly change the world on the Opry, you know, and be heard. And it was like The Beatles. I mean, it just flipped people out to hear this. People just went crazy, and it just changed the world of the banjo.

Mr. MARTIN: You know, he tells a story that all the banjo players at the time were also comedians, so they did a comedy act and played the banjo. And when he first got up to play, I think...

Mr. FLECK: Somebody said he could play pretty good, but he's not a bit funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLECK: But he is funny.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, he is funny.

Mr. FLECK: He's got a very dry sense of humor.

Mr. MARTIN: It is amazing that the guy who, in a sense, started it all is still here. He's still playing.

Mr. FLECK: He's still alive.

Mr. MARTIN: You know, you can talk to him on the phone.

YDSTIE: You know, we tried to get a hook-up with him, and it just didn't work out, but...

Mr. FLECK: It's too bad. He lives about a mile from my house. It's really cool. I've been able to go spend some time with him.

Mr. MARTIN: Do you ever have to go over and say, hey, can you tone it down a little bit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Well, I'd like you all to play something for us to go out on, but before we do that, let me just say thank you to Tony Trischka.

Mr. TRISCHKA: Thank you, John.

YDSTIE: And Bela Fleck, thank you.

Mr. FLECK: Thank you. My pleasure.

YDSTIE: Steve Martin, thank you.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you very much. It was fun.

YDSTIE: So what's the tune going to be?

Mr. TRISCHKA: It's called "Shuckin' the Corn," a tune that Earl Scruggs made famous back in 1954 or thereabouts.

Mr. FLECK: We want to send this out to Earl. We love you. We wish you were here.

YDSTIE: All right. Hit it, boys.

(Soundbite of song, "Shuckin' the Corn")

YDSTIE: You can hear full studio performances and cuts from Tony Trischka's new CD on our Web site, npr.org, plus a special treat, a beat poetry reading created especially for this project by Trischka, Steve Martin and Bela Fleck.

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