Oh, the Banjo. Sarah Neal

Here’s something you don’t hear an Asian say often: “I LOVE THE BANJO!”

Frankly, I don’t hear a lot of white people say it, either, and this makes me sad.

When I expound on my adoration for this beautiful instrument, I often get weird looks. Maybe it’s because I don’t fit the “bluegrass” mold, or maybe people aren’t aware of how wonderful it is, or maybe it’s because I have a giant banjo with the words “Hootenanny 4 Life” in a blackletter font tattooed on my neck. (Mom, I’m kidding. Please stop sweating.)

Whatever the reason, I’m here to say the banjo is an incredible thing. Its ancient roots can be traced back to Europe and Africa, but its sound began to thrive in the hills of the Appalachians starting in the 18th century. It’s an eclectic, old soul with an earthy and honest voice. If it were a person, it’d be a lanky fast-talker, who loves dancing barefoot, lively libations, and hot summer nights. Who wouldn’t adore it? Besides, there are many* talented celebs who play the banjo! (*two)

#1: Steve Martin. This man cannot get any cooler.

#2: Ed Helms. On stage with Old Crow Medicine Show. Humunah.

The banjo is also the frontman for all bluegrass music, and its frenetic-paced sound has influenced a ton of modern bands. I had the honor of discussing its influence with the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste Magazine, Josh Jackson.

What do you think has brought bluegrass-influenced music back into the mainstream? Any particular musicians or bands that you think have helped fuel this resurgence?

“I think it’s important to remember just how outside the mainstream they’d gotten. You couldn’t even find a banjo in mainstream country until recently. There was the occasional mandolin (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” most notably), but the torch was really carried by Americana and Alt-country acts into the new Millennium. You had bands like Uncle Tupelo (who split into Wilco and Son Volt) making those instruments cool again. Then bands like Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show came along with real bluegrass chops; they stretched the traditional genre into non-traditional directions. Eventually indie-rock acts like Sufjan Stevens adopted banjo until you could hear it everywhere—The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, even country radio came around some to those bluegrass sounds.”

Even though the roots of bluegrass are pretty eclectic, it is distinct. What, in your opinion, separates bluegrass music from country and folk?

“Bluegrass is still a very distinct genre from related ones like country and folk. It’s as fast as speed metal, but with acoustic instruments and high vocal harmonies. It’s very much about lead instrumentals—usually alternating between mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and even upright bass. A folk musician might perform with three chords and some truth, but bluegrass musicians can flat-out play.”

For me, personally, the raw sound and honest lyrics are what I love about bluegrass. What do you think is the appeal of modern bluegrass? What chord does it strike with its new listeners?

“There’s something reassuring about a tradition as old as bluegrass. These old bluegrass songs still sound great, and for musicians, they’re still fun to play and sing. For listeners, they’re both catchy and complex. You’re not just listening to some sloppy kids who’ve barely learned to play.

For me, my dad’s family comes from the hills of East Tennessee. I didn’t grow up with bluegrass, but a few years back, we went to the Carter Family Fold with four different generations of Jacksons. My grandmother and my daughter could sit (or dance) and enjoy the same music. There’s something pretty special about that.”

I love the banjo. Yep, I may be the only Korean hanging out and dancing like crazy at a bluegrass festival. But you know what? It’s okay, because it’s a lot like the music’s heritage–distinct, diverse, beautiful…American.

p.s.: I dare you not to dance like crazy watching this:

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  1. Huzzah! I’m not the only Asian old time/ bluegrass aficionada on the virtual block! If you’re in the DC area, check out our square dance on 8/25: https://www.facebook.com/events/386316068100246/

  2. I fell in love with bluegrass a year or so ago. I’m SO EXCITED to go see the Punch Brothers soon, this article describes my feeling about all of this lovely music so perfectly. Eeeek!

  3. I LOVE THE BANJO!!! I LOVE BLUEGRASS!!! I love that it is finally getting the respect and attention deserved :)

  4. I am a chocolate brown girl and I love the banjo too!! Oh, and Ed Helms? Super Crush!

  5. love, Love, LOVE the Avetts!

  6. The Avett Brothers! Love them AND the banjo!! :)

  7. Brilliant article. And Avett Brothers – combing my two favorite instruments – banjo and cello! They are beyond fun live.

    But as far as banjo players are concerned, I think my love started with this guy… http://youtu.be/eubQfKYFOPc

  8. Sufjan Stevens is pretty badass with his folky-chamber pop music, although now he has veered into more electronic/experimental territory. I’m pretty sure Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Music Tapes also plays the banjo, though he tends to play with a violin bow, as he does with the singing saw.

    • Rachel, I love your insight! Totally agree on Sufjan. Koster’s a great musician. Loved his quirky NPR Tiny Desk Concert last year.

  9. I love the banjo! In fact, I’ve already requested one for Christmas:D And it’s nice for someone to finally recognize them!

    • YES!!! I love that you’re getting a banjo! They’re really amazing and complex instruments, aren’t they? Happy picking!

  10. Check out Abigail Washburn! She combines incredible banjo playing with an asian flare including some songs all in Chinese. http://www.abigailwashburn.com/

  11. That video at the end, amazing! I decided that 2 seconds in. I absolutely adore bluegrass music! My dad and I used to go to a small bluegrass festival every summer when I still lived with him. This article brought back so many memories!

    • Sarrah, if you ever get a chance to see the Avetts–GO! Such a great show. I love that video, but they’re just as incredible in concert.

  12. Love, love, love bluegrass! I was born and raised in Kentucky, so I came by my love of it naturally.