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On Center: Super Strummers

by on September 27, 2012 1:09 PM

Once upon a time in America the banjo was almost exclusively associated with the South. But a new concert tour, featuring six banjo masters with ties to New York, demonstrates that prime pickers also come from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Headlined by Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka, the 2006 Banjo Summit was one of the most memorable Center for the Performing Arts presentations of the last decade. Fleck and Trischka return to Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium on November 1 for Banjo Summit 2 with Bill Keith, a trailblazer of melodic playing; Richie Stearns, who helped revive the old-time claw-hammer style; Eric Weissberg, who had a No. 1 hit with “Dueling Banjos,” the theme from the Deliverance soundtrack; and Peter “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, an influential instruction-book author and force in bands such as Hot Rize and Country Cooking.

Fleck, generally regarded as the most accomplished master of the instrument, leads a concert that finds the banjo performed in conventional and unexpected ways. From solos and duets to full-tilt banjo blowouts with all six players, the concert features the banjo in traditional settings, including bluegrass and country, along with unconventional banjo genres such as jazz, classical, and rock.

Fiddler Alex Hargreaves, bassist Corey DiMario, mandolinist Jesse Cobb, and guitarist Russ Barenberg form Banjo Summit 2’s backup band.

Traditionally, the banjo had a regional following in the southern Appalachians because that was the home of bluegrass. But the folk revival, which began in the 1950s and blossomed in the 1960s, along with the growth of television, introduced bluegrass to the North.

“I got into it through the folk scare of the early ’60s — the Kingston Trio — and then from there found bluegrass,” says Trischka, who grew up in Syracuse. “Béla Fleck (a native of New York City) heard the Beverly Hillbillies, which was, you know, the national media.”

But why did a seemingly humble instrument pique the curiosity of so many young musicians?

“Who can say why someone’s attracted to play the banjo? It’s just that sound,” says Trischka, speaking by phone from his home in New Jersey. “I’ve interviewed many people about this sort of thing — you know, other players. And people just say, ‘It’s the sound. It just got me excited.’ It’s usually the fast aspects of it, just that pointillistic sound of every one of those individual notes — just crisp, and sharp, and exciting.”

Trischka started playing flute and piano as a youngster. Then he got into folk guitar, largely because of the music of the late Doc Watson.

“But then I heard the banjo,” he says, “and that became an immediate passion, which it is to this day.”

The year was 1963, and the song that did it was The Kingston Trio’s “Charlie and the MTA.”

“There was a banjo solo on there that just blew me away,” he recalls.

Trischka got a copy of Pete Seeger’s seminal banjo instruction book, but he couldn’t quite figure out the finer points of the instrument.

“I was at a hootenanny in Syracuse, and this guy was playing [Earl] Scruggs-style banjo, and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ ” he says. “I prevailed upon him to give me lessons, and he did, and the door opened.”

Corvette America sponsors the performance. For more information or tickets, visit or phone (814) 863-0255.


John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
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