Bluegrass Banjo Interview (listen here)Transcription Status:
“My life is so much happier and better now that I play the banjo. I mean I can remember those thoughts even as a kid like I’m a happier person my life is better and and that was what had changed as I’d started playing banjo.” - Kristin Scott Benson
Greetings folks welcome to another episode of the pinky fingers banjo podcast. I am Keith Billik really happy to have you joining me. We are finally to the last episode that I recorded back at IBMa last fall, and I don’t want to say I saved the best for last but this is a pretty good one with a fantastic player. But first speaking of IBMa if you are listening to this before this upcoming weekend, which would be March 5, the IBMa Facebook page is hosting a live video called the banjo legacy of JD Crowe, featuring Ron Stewart and a couple of veteran pinky fingers, guests, Bill Evans and Ron Bloch. And they’ll be discussing the banjo playing of JD Crowe that is a free event, but they are accepting donations to the IBM a trust fund. So goes to a good cause. I don’t have anything to do with it. But you know, this is this is the type of information I want to provide. I figured that those of you listening to this episode might enjoy great hard drive and bluegrass banjo playing so you know, just a hunch on my part. One other thing before we get started, I do work really hard on these episodes, but I know they only come out every couple weeks. So if you want to stay in touch with me outside of just hearing my soothing voice every once in a while. Make sure to track me down on the social medias. If you are a Twitter user, find me at banjo podcast on Instagram I am picky underscore fingers or on Facebook, I encourage you to join the listener group called picky fingers, listeners fans and friends. That’s a great way to keep the banjo discussion going in between these episodes. So track me down on all of those. I also highly encourage you to check out the Patreon page patreon.com/banjo podcast that’s how you become a supporter of the show, which is also a huge help and very much appreciated. Or if you are not a social media user A I’m jealous. b You can still contact me via email that’s pinky fingers, Banjo [email protected] Drop me a line and say hey.
Today’s featured guest is Kristin Scott Benson. I kind of consider Kristen to be like a five star general of bluegrass banjo. And by that I mean she has put in many years of exemplary bluegrass banjo service and has emerged as a highly decorated banjo player. She’s won the IBM a banjo player of the year award five times. She’s a recipient of the Steve Martin award. And as a member of the award winning band, the grass skulls. She’s won numerous other things and has Grammy nominations. She’s just simply one of the best and really exemplifies the three T’s of course, tone, timing and taste in bluegrass banjo playing and she has a brand new recording project with her husband Wayne Benson who plays some sort of funny, like eight string small guitar type of instrument. I don’t know what it is. It’s a mandolin I know. So keep your eye out for that. Or check her out with the grass skulls or check into any of her solo albums. She’s got, I think three of them now. Basically wherever KSP is found there will be some great banjo playing involved. And so I know you’re going to dig her insights about her own banjo style and background. Here it is my interview with Kristin Scott Benson.
I’m Kristin Scott Benson from Union South Carolina. And I became a banjo player because my family loved bluegrass I grew up around it and I saw Scott Vestel play when I was a little kid with oil Lawson when he was brand new, and I thought that was the coolest thing. The banjo and that man I loved the whole band. It was Russell Moore Curtis vessel and Scott Mystile and I’d heard bluegrass my whole life but when I heard Scott play In that context, it opened my ears for the first time.
And was that the first time you considered becoming a musician yourself beyond just being around the music? You
know, I didn’t plan on being a professional musician ever. I made decisions that I hoped would enable that, but I still am not sure this is what I’m doing for a living. But it’s just very innocent when you’re a kid. And I played mandolin already. From the time I was five or six. So I was already playing instruments and around that, but I was never very serious about it. And then I got a banjo when I was 13. That’s when I got really serious.
And what age were you when you saw Scott?
I was about nine. And there’s reason for that delay. I was about nine years old and asked for banjo, my parents got one for me. And then our house burned down. Oh, no, the house burned down and lost the banjo. And that was not a high priority to replay. So there was just a bit of a delay before I really got started.
Hmm. So if you already played the mandolin, that must have been a pretty strong tug to get you over into banjo world. What do you think it was about? Either the sound or hearing Scott play? Yeah, made you want to switch.
I think mandolin was convenient. Because my dad played it. My grandfather played it. And it was around we had one and I was little. And it was little right. So it wasn’t like mandolin ever really captivated me it was just around and I loved music. So I would play it. But I’m kind of glad in a way that the start on banjo was delayed because I see over and over, especially if you read masters of the five string seems to be this golden window of maybe 12 to 15, where people who get really obsessed and passionate about flying tend to start in that age range. So I wonder if maybe I had started a bit earlier. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to really commit. Who knows? I mean, you never know. But it does seem like when you read that book that the overwhelming majority of people and I’m working on a book now. And that’s something that I’ve asked and that just seems like to be this golden time that people can really absorb a passion that maybe stays with them for the rest of their life. Yeah,
I guess that phase of adolescence things just seem you just feel things very in a stronger way.
I even as an eighth grader, just having thoughts like, my life is so much happier and better. Now that I play the banjo. I mean, I can remember those thoughts even as a kid like I’m a happier person. My life is better. And and that was what had changed as I’d started playing banjo.
So what steps did you take them to progress? I’ve kind of inferring you said your family was into bluegrass, but they’re also it sounds like they’re also musicians.
Well, my dad played for fun. And that was a common bond but my grandfather for my parents because her dad My maternal grandfather was a professional musician. So he played mandolin, and sang tenor and a brother style duet called yd and Hogan and they were part of a larger group based out of Charlotte, North Carolina that had a long running radio show back in the golden era of am radio.
And they were on WB T which was a huge station and they had a daily radio show. And then as those radio shows, fizzled out, they just still played shows and and did other things. But so I had his influence from her side and then my dad just loved to play so it was always around but when I got a banjo, so thankful my parents were proactive about lessons. So I started taking lessons originally from the guy who taught me to play mandolin his name was John Cobra, but he had moved kind of far away. So then we found a guy named Alan Brooker and then I moved to the guy who taught him which is world class teacher, unfortunately has passed away out Osteen and all the great banjo players from the upstate area, which it That sounds really weird of South Carolina, the Upstate There are a lot of really good banjo players in our area. And basically he taught us all so he was really excellent. And I owe that to my parents for thinking, Well, what do we do to help her learn?
Yeah. So what was our teaching you? Do you remember some of the early days of learning?
I do. Alan Brooker kind of gave me the nuts and bolts of stuff. So I learned all the Scruggs tunes and could get around in a jam pretty well, and was just devouring it. So there was a lot of foundational stuff. He didn’t talk a lot. It was just he would play I would play, I would learn it come back the next week and do the same thing, or every other week. And so I kind of had, I’m still working on it, but I had a good handle on the Scruggs repertoire by the end of that year with him. And then I went to Allen owl did a lot of talking a lot of listening. So we still played the banjo. But he was a great banjo player he played for Jim and Jesse and Charlie Moore, some of those guys and certainly Austin. Yeah, I was saying that right. And he, he was just really good about the big picture. And he would say things he was so honest, he would say things like what you just played? Don’t ever play that game, you know, or I would bring something in something modern that I was really excited about. And he would say it’s not very good. And this is why. And then he would say listen to what is very good. That’s like that. And so he was a big thinker. And if I give myself credit for one trait, one good trait, it’s that I was very teachable. So if anyone told me something, and I knew they knew I would go with it, whether I agreed with it or not. And so he used to always say, wait till you’re 30. Just trust me right now. But wait till you’re 30. And you’ll get it. And he was so right. So many of the things he was trying to teach me as a 14 year old or 15 year old. I didn’t necessarily get. But as I aged, I didn’t just agree with him. I may have felt what he was saying. Yeah, and, and so we certainly learned a lot of backup stuff, a lot of swingy stuff, a lot of Alan Shelton, feeling tunes and everything. So I can’t overstate the importance of learning from him.
Do you happen to remember you? I don’t like to qualify music as being good or bad. But do you remember some of those philosophies that he taught you in terms of that’s good, that’s bad? Like what sort of things would go in which bucket and which sort of things would go in other bucket? That’s
a great question. A lot of times it had to do with authenticity, and delivery, you know, is this music delivered appropriately? Meaning, is it confident? And is it executed? Well, and is there a groove? And is it believable, and when you can sometimes find watered down versions of things that are not delivered as effectively as some of the the real masters of this music, it helps to raise your awareness for trying to it’s not about content you can get, you have to have the content, right. But the content just gets you in the door. So much of the effect music has on us is the spirit with which it’s delivered. And that’s really what he was trying to convey. So it’s not the easiest thing to articulate. But you know what it is? It’s like, what is drive? Right? I have a little I’m working on a book for the Hal Leonard company. And I have a little section about that when we talk about Terry Malcolm, it’s hard to articulate, but when you feel it, you know it. And once you start identifying what’s great about a Jimi Martin record, or a flattened Scruggs record, or, I mean, I could go on and on once that switch flips and you get it and and let’s be real for the first generation guys. If you grow up with Alison Krauss and Union Station, Flatt and Scruggs was incredibly, they were a machine, they were so amazing. They were a machine with just production value, it’s not going to be as easy to latch on to that as it is a Union Station record. So, I mean, I was a victim of that like anyone else. But now, as an adult, I just get tugged more and more toward the old stuff because you have that greater appreciation of what it took to do it. And certainly where Earl is concerned. It’s an emotional thing. Like I can barely listen to him half the time without kind of almost wanting to cry. I mean, I’m so moved by what he’s able to do. But when I was 15 If I’m real about it. You know, I was digging home the red fox by Bill Emerson and that is great stuff. I mean now turned me on to that but I just like this liquor production at first. But it’s the gateway to get to the real stuff, visibility and the spirit that they delivered the music with the the modern day acts that are successful and good, let’s say good, because sometimes success doesn’t always correlate with that. But they have captured that in some way.
So this is where I put you on the spot. You talked about the importance of authenticity and confidence. And I think you said a few other words that were roughly in that in that vein, I assume that you have taken that to heart and try to perform yourself with those qualities. How do you turn that into something that comes out on your banjo? How do you try to make sure that you’re playing with Yeah, centricity?
That’s a great question. Again, it goes, I think back to content first, for instance, if we’re, here’s a good example of the content with Earl, the end of Blue Ridge cabin home, a lot of people will go where the roll at the end is not. It’s actually 43414341. That sounds a lot different not to someone who isn’t listening to 99.9% in the world, who cares. But if you care, this sounds different. Versus so I think that’s layer one of authenticity is make sure the content is right. And then we are all at varying degrees on the journey as far as presentation to execute it in a way that captures the spirit that you’re hopefully going for. So I’ve heard people say, Your style is limited more by limitations, not your abilities. And that’s so true. So you figure out what you’re good at, and it maybe it’s improvising. Or maybe it’s playing real clean, whatever your strength is, you tend to take that and run with it. For Terry Bauckham, he probably figured out wow, I’m a really powerful banjo player. So I’m gonna run with that because his, if you listen is playing, it got more focused. He was he was a lot more adventurous as far as diversity in his playing. And then he became like the specialist, right. And so the biggest issues for banjo specifically when you’re trying to capture authenticity, assuming you’re going for a bluegrass sound, is to have your content there, and then realize that you have to have that just to stand a chance. How do you sound How well do you sound playing this, I know that some of super advanced, incredibly talented, brilliant banjo players content wise, they could take a transcribed solo and play it immediately. And it sounds nothing like what it sounds like. So I think honesty can also be important, but it’s hard for me because I tried to play the banjo confidently and authoritatively, and I’m really neither of those things. So it’s like you have to call I have to constantly overcome try to overcome daily, my personality and myself to fake it and sound confident, even though I’m usually nervy and not feeling authoritative at all. So I don’t know. It’s a journey for us all.
Oh, that’s interesting. I’m really a little speechless, because I’m so surprised to hear you say that you lack.
That’s good. I’m faking it. Well, yeah.
You have us all fooled. So you talked about finding the thing that you’re good at? Do you feel like you’ve found what your version of Terry Malcolm’s Dr. Lane that he’s found himself in? Do you know what your version of that end? Is?
Yeah. Knows. We’re saying yeah, you’re still searching, always searching. I know what you’re asking though. And Friday,
you got to forgive me for no, it’s not coming out as clearly as they may be. Otherwise, what you’re
good. It’s I mean, we all get Mulligan on IBMa. Wait, but I think that I’m a very melody driven banjo player. And I attribute it jokingly but not to my lack of creativity. So I’m gonna play the melody of the song probably more than some banjo players would. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. But it is a trait that’s common in my playing and I love to play backup. I’m very interested and driven by backup playing not so much in the band that I’m in because we have a lot going on in that band and write their arrangements but I’ve had musical opportunities where I really had a chance to play a lot of backup and I love that and that’s something Alan I worked a lot on, and then I tend to be able to play pretty smooth and even So if you think of like a certainly not equating myself to him at all, but the kind of banjo playing that introduced me to bluegrass that I loved was Scott Vestal, and he’s a very, I’m talking back in the 80s, early 90s, when he was still playing bluegrass, straight ahead bluegrass, he was very clean and even and just like an executioner.
He really was amazing. And to me, he might be the guy that stands in that gap better than anyone else as far as being a really authentic, straight ahead bluegrass banjo player. And he can branch out and live in those other genres and situations like the sandwich bands, we’ve extended improv and stuff. And he still just sounds so meticulous, no matter what he’s flying. Along with that, though, comes some downsides. I’m pretty careful player, because I do focus on execution. So not as likely to take chances and branch out because then I’ve lost, you know, the cleanliness that you’re going for whatever. So there are upsides to each of these traits and downsides. And mentally you just, you just be who you are. And it took forever, but I’m 45 now, so I kind of am who I am. And I’m alright with that at this point. But it took a long time to get there.
Oh, man, I feel like I should be taking notes. You’re saying so many things that I want to go down these roads. Let’s let’s choose. You mentioned evenness. And it strikes me that there are different kinds of evenness that you could have. You could have evenness in dynamics, you could have evenness in timing. And I guess I’m wondering all of the above. Yeah, which of those you’re talking about? And could you maybe even demonstrate? I don’t know, just so you can hear what it means to have an even sound. Yeah.
So when I start teaching folks, because I, Wayne and I, Wayne being my husband, who’s great mandolin player with our time out, especially during COVID, we transitioned into being full time teachers, we had taught about 10 years prior to that, and it was already a huge part of our life. But he started a YouTube channel and we both amped up our teaching schedules. And, you know, so I find myself feeling more like a teacher these days than a touring musician. And so this just rolls right off my tongue. But when I when I first start a student, and I have a qualifier for this, then I’ll say after about we teach the alternating femoral would be the first thing that you learn, right? So we do three to five one. And we talk about pick direction, and we talk about the economy of motion and staying tux and I equate it to like a typer. You have your home or
staying what? Tucked tucked. Okay? All right. So if you
think of typing and you’re on your home keys, your fingers reach for the key they’re gonna get and then they go back, and they rest. And if you look at URLs, hand, Haynes, the state tucked above strings, one, two, and three, basically. And they just sat there, and then there was the minimal movement necessary to get to whatever string he needed. And then he was back to his home keys, right. So decision. Yeah, so we don’t want flailing fingers that are just going crazy. Because the economy emotion is gone. At that point, it’s hard to ever play fast. He’s talking about pick direction, you want to get as perfectly parallel to the string as possible. But at the same time, our hands are a little bit like a bridge, if you get your thumb in your middle, as good as you can, your index just kind of has to sit there. So it’s not that you’re going to have a perfect contact mark on your pick, because you can see where the strings hit on every finger necessarily, but you want it as good as it can be because it’s scratchy if it’s on the side, versus so we talk about that stuff. And then we just talk about trying to make sure there are no weak or strong fingers. Everybody tends to have one. So that’s what we’re aiming for. And we do metronome per click lick. And we don’t want to lope which is what I hear. Yeah. And here’s the qualifier about that though. We have players like Alan Mundy, who was a big loafer, and it’s magical. And it’s great. And I’ve played with Alan Mundi recording slowed down. And it’s even more pronounced than I thought it was when I’m playing with him. But my experience as a teacher is if someone can play, even timing, they can load they want, right, but if they lope all the time, they can’t play evenly. So you can bet whatever Alan Mundi does is a choice. And if he wanted to go the other direction he could at any time, so I just tried to teach evenness. And then yes, we will look later we will accentuate things, but what we’re ending up with is eventually this
just over and over, and banjo is an instrument of repetition, right? And then when you speed it up it starts to sound music. Right, and but the way to achieve that is doing it really, really slow and remembering that it’s exponential growth. The guy who does it 100 times is more than 10 times better than the guy who did it. 10
Oh, wow. Just for how deeply it seats itself into your Yeah, you just get better you muscle memory or whatever.
Yeah, and just the execution just really improves.
Hey, folks, we’ll get right back to the interview. But I wanted to express my gratitude for all of you for listening, and my extra gratitude to a small subset of you listeners. That’s the patrons of the show. And really, this show would not be possible without my Patreon subscribers who went to patreon.com/banjo podcast to help support the show. This episode’s featured Patreon supporter is Kenneth Johnson. KENNETH always knew he wanted to play an instrument but was finally drawn to the banjo after seeing the Ken Burns country music documentary. And now he’s online watching Jim panky videos and learning how to play and apparently listening to the pinky fingers, podcasts. So Kenneth, I think you have a great start. Keep with it. And thank you so much for being a Patreon supporter, once again, patreon.com/banjo podcast to help keep these great interviews coming. The next thing you mentioned in it, and it’s funny that well is is backup. And what I was going to say as funny as that was something I really wanted to ask you about are like the specific situations for sale grasp calls, because there is so much going on. And maybe having you just talked about what your general approach is with that, but since you mentioned that it might be different than some other projects, maybe also then contrast it to what you might do in other situations.
Yeah, backup is arranged in bands just like the order of the solos. So we assume that hopefully everybody knows where they’re supposed to backup and they’ll stick to it in that in that spot. So that it stays nice and organized. It doesn’t mean you can never fill at the same time but hopefully it’s a complementary thing that’s getting played if that happens and and in the grass goals there’s now I mean lead guitar as well but that’s not so much an issue with backup but we have fiddle mandolin and and banjo and none of the three of us are singers. So there are three backing instruments on every song. you contrast that to where I started, which was with the Larry Stevens man, we were for peace. And he played mandolin so there was no other lien instrument backing up so I just had a free for all Yeah, so fun. I mean, I loved loves that. And it gave me a chance as a 19 year old to play a lot, because I had all the verses and all the courses right? I love a four piece bluegrass band song. I mean, I sound that’s what got me was oil, awesome Quicksilver and that’s what they were. And then you find the in between, for instance, my husband and I are working on our first ever cobuild album. We’ve never done a record. We’ve played on a lot of records together, but we’ve never had an album that we’re both names. Oh, that’s fine. Yeah. And that’s a range to our preferences. So there’s a lot of banjo backup. There’s a lot of mandolin backup, because we can envision the song and Grab the pieces we want. And there’s a lot less control when it’s a man situation because everybody has their own vision and you have to be a team player and just go with that. So there’s every end of the spectrum and everything in between.
Can you drill down more specifically like how you might approach lead guitar backup or mandolin backup or vocal backup? Maybe take us through what what you think about when you’re
Yeah, this is this is part of a lot larger conversation, I think, which is the role of the banjo the ROI Lee job of the banjo and how it’s changed. And I think what really cemented this change that was happening already. But when Ron Bloch went with Alison Krauss, everybody got used to the sound of the banjo rolling all the time. And prior to that, it wasn’t like that it was completely acceptable. Certainly JT crows, the master of this, where you would hear some vamps and all this great, juicy Sonny Osbourne is another example up the neck back up, and, and vamping in addition to low rolling, and then the idea just sort of changed to create that momentum and drive that people expect now, the banjo, more or less rolls all the time and most bands. And it’s not necessarily, again, a good or a bad thing. It’s just the norm these days. So anymore, I may not I make the joke that my I make a living doing this. But it’s really the truth I mean.
And that is the truth. I mean, that’s what I’m doing. 90% of the time is that so if it’s guitar, I do that just way down. If the mandolin has taken a break, he likes me to roll, Adam Haynes fiddle player will take over the mandolin, chop. And then Fiddle is probably a banjo players biggest opportunity to still play aggressively as a backup player and then vocally, you know, you probably get maybe one verse where you’re just doing what I just did with Phil’s here and there. Maybe if you’re lucky, and your bandmates will tolerate it, you can go up the neck.
Saw about, again, being a team player and figuring out what they want and what they like and rolling with it.
The good way to good way to put it, roll with
it. Yeah, rolling with it. That’s right.
Do you ever give consideration to registers like so for example, if if a guitarist is maybe playing more out of open position, does that change where you might want to back things up? Or I guess vocally that would apply to to try to stay out of whatever the range is of the thing that you’re backing up?
Yeah, that’s a great consideration because it’s all about context, right? So I spent, I have a young, little brilliant student that you met Nikolai, and he was going to Nashville and he just gonna sit with all these amazing banjo players while I was there, we spent about a month on backup for banjo to banjo because that is totally different than how you would play even in a small setting. Because the assumption there is you’re never going to roll because whoever’s playing the break is going to be rolling. So what are you gonna do messy. So it’s all about context. And I can’t say that I have any rules or go to preconceptions, with that sort of thing except to say that you just listen and if something’s clashing, you’ll feel that or maybe it’s just a bit heavy. You’ll feel that and do something else to try to make it all semiotic.
Oh yeah, I wanted to ask you about the solo section of all I want is you Oh yeah. Which has that really great triplet pattern. And I guess my my lead in was like usually that’s the sort of thing that we might associate with like a really cool backup pattern but you play a great melody with that. I was wondering if you could just demonstrate some of the techniques that you used it was just a sheer I don’t know something I noticed that.
I did that night without a cape or B flat. We’ll go with a today and Chris saying that was on one of mine that was on string works again. I
should put it in context. Yeah, it was on string work. So
it’s a banjo album. So I got a lot of backup I got I said the Solo was like worn piece. I mean I got to play just the whole song as a solo because it’s a manager record Yeah, that’s not something that will happen in a band. So if I can remember it and this all stems from the chord scale if there was one technique that I could say is liquid gold or banjo gold,
wooden metal oh yes metal called
it’s a special alloy. It would be the G major chord scale you have to get great at that because it will transform your playing it can be used for 434 fast slow leader backup. And that’s what all of this is. My teacher never presented the G major chord scale to me, but I knew it and used it all the time because that’s how he played and then as a teacher, I thought oh my goodness all this stuff is that so it comes to people way faster if you just teach them the chord scale and then they already know the raw material then they just stick it into songs that goes a lot better and that’s what this stuff comes from. Okay, so like if I’m in a if I played just an A chord scale the bar shape and version well that’s kind of the song right there I’m gonna stumble because I haven’t played this sense we recorded it Yeah, that’s great. So the whole reason I played that I wanted this phrase is Flatt and Scruggs to but let’s see was this you see a little movement is in that wait there we go there we go. And so anyway, I just saw is great melodic, not melodic style. Just a great melody. Yeah, super low singer. I had Chris Jones saying that and then you get all kinds of backup. That is the same thing. No, I did do this. That chords not in the chord scale. That’s a nine. But in Sonny Osbourne, I learned that from him right.
It’s a very sunny thing.
Yeah, so but everything else basically is so for backup see that straight chord scale, you can do it again. Straight chord scale in I’ll do it again. Now again
Yeah, love that. Very good. I also might year gravitated toward EagleEye anie. On that record. And I think the reason my I mean, all of your playing is great. But that one stuck out as being maybe not necessarily. It presents like a slightly different side of your playing I thought then maybe a lot of graphical stuff for even a lot of other material on that record.
And then that’s the idea of a solo album, if it just sounds like the band that you’re in. In a way it’s like, Well, why do you want it you kind of want to use those as opportunities to say, because I do have vocal songs on that album. It’s half and half, I think. And it’s like, these are the types of songs I love. Like I had Claire Lynch sing when fall comes to New England. That’s not ever going to be a rascals song. I just wouldn’t fit the band about I love that song. I love playing banjo on that type of song. So it’s an opportunity even vocally to choose material that you love that would be a little different. And then EagleEye any, that one will be even worse. But the tunes that are right tend to be a lot like that. So if I write a tune, there’s a good possibility it’s something like this
right I didn’t spike. So I didn’t spike on that, because I needed the genome when I got there. Okay. Yeah,
and I’m sorry for not knowing is that an original composition of yours? Yeah. Oh, talk about that. How do you I mean, do you have any specific process for writing tunes.
So I think I loved the idea of lots of slides and pull offs and D
It’s just great. It’s just really good in that D shape to play those kinds of things. And then if you’re in D, you get the low string, which is easy, nice. So I think I was just doing that and came up with a tune that would work incorporating some of that, but don’t right near enough, but it’s different every time. Sometimes it helps me if I narrow it down. Like one of the songs on the string works record that we’re talking about is called Great Waterton. And it’s the barnburner and I wrote it because I needed one. You know, I knew that I needed a really fast instrumental, preferably original. So I just sat down and thought okay, I need to write something like that. And that was super fast. That’s way too early for.
Super fast Yeah, but anyway, so there’s an example of like, I need this kind of song. So I didn’t
you mentioned really enjoying being like a trischka diehard fan, and I read about his his album album called hill country. And I think the way he approached that was like, He’s gonna make a banjo album. What are all those categories of banjo tunes? And that it strikes me that that’s like a similar thing to what you just said. So is that is that a common thing that you do where you want you want to only when
it’s time for a record, hopefully you have my husband on the other hand, Wayne, he writes so many tunes, I mean, he’s got albums worth of tunes that he could pull at any time. And I don’t do that. So I’ll usually have written a few tunes and of course, you don’t always want to do anything with a lot of them, or most of them even but you ideally would have a lot to choose from and I just have to be real, I tend to write medium and slower pretty sounding things. So the what I’m gonna lack is a hard driving fast bluegrass song. So that’s the reason the album before that. I was in the same boat. I wrote a tune called Don’t tread on me because I needed that again, but I usually have a lot of the or I shouldn’t say a lot but I have several of the pretty things like. So on are like
That’s great. And is that that’s something that you have not recorded yet.
No, that one’s on the record before string works well, before we
run out of out of time are Are there any other general techniques that you view as something that you were relying a lot upon in your style? Or maybe even something that you worked on during your learning process that really helped you? Advance?
Yeah, I think learning all those Scruggs teens is really essential. And, and it’s a lifelong process, but really trying to know them, you know, I’m still to this day. You know, I’m still to this day trying to get some of those tunes. Joe Mullins on the other hand, never learned to Scruggs tune in his life. He doesn’t know any of them who but I think that’s an essential foundation and then find some music that you’re really inspired by. But try to always check yourself that it’s a great banjo player, because we are products of what we listen to and osmosis does matter and happen musically. And so even if you’re, you’re like, you know, I love to hear old Scruggs play a banjo. I just can’t listen to Flatt and Scruggs that long well fine presentation that suits you better over all that you know as a trust it’s Crux flair. So maybe the Bluegrass sound man is the the answer for you. Or Ron Stewart is phenomenal. Straight ahead Jim Mills, you know, you can find these Jim Mills, Gosh, what a great scroll to my top and and he’s completely polished and the presentation he gives on his record. So that’s a wonderful in to get the real stuff. And then try to if you can find a teacher, especially these days, with online learning, it’s so easy. I equate it to like bad doctrine. You don’t want a teacher who’s going to teach you wrong roles or anything like that, because relearning is so much harder. So I would just encourage people to listen to great banjo players, and try to be sure as much as you can, that you’re learning good, good vocabulary, because it saves you so much time in the end. And then I played endlessly with albums. You know, I spent so much time playing out and it was just like you get to be a member of that band.
Give us like a give us like a top three or five. What what like, what are the ones that
oh, there’s so many go to yeah, there’s so many I’m trying to think back to my childhood bedroom. And that radio, the CD player that I had live in Japan by the country gentleman was a big one. That’s Bill Emerson on banjo, the Livewire record, which ironically, my husband was on. Scott Vestal was playing badge on that. And I remember pretty much trying to learn everything of that. I remember playing a whole lot with the Osborne brothers. And one reason why is because Sonny is amazing. And vocally, I could sing with Bobby. So as I was playing, you know, I could sing with the lead singer, and it was in a range that I could do and stuff. So the once more albums were, there’s Volume One and Volume Two, once more. The Osborne brothers, though, if I could only name three, those are the three that came to my mind right now. Okay,
cool. I know my question made it seem like I was going to start wrapping up, but you just keep jogging my, my memory for other things to ask you. You. I’ve heard you talk about, I think probably at banjo Summit, about being able to hear people who have studied, Earl, let’s say, and a lot of those like little differences in you already pointed one out with what was the song that you read at the cabin home? Are there any other examples of that of like, I guess when I hear someone like you say that I worry that like I’m sure that you hearing me play would be like, Oh, he hasn’t done all those micro, focused, concentrated type of learning that that you have. What are some other things that that maybe you listened for? Or that tipped you off?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And here’s the beauty of it no matter where we are. We’re all still on that same journey. Someone asked Alan I knew what he was doing during COVID. And he said he had revisited the Scruggs book because every time he goes back, there’s more there and it never stops. And that’s one of the beauties of playing an instrument playing bluegrass and playing the banjo is you never stop refining. I mean, I just heard something in groundspeed that I kind of missed. But was it when he goes to the fourth string and and we have so many live recordings now that we can hear but there’s actually a slide it’s not when he goes to the second part when he goes that’s there if you you can hear that and we’re I just always gone versus I mean, that’s a minute thing but that’s the beauty of it is that you at first if you get 70% That is great, but every time you get back you get just a little bit more but we’re all on that journey so there’s no one who could ever say well you haven’t micro analyzed enough and I have because it’s never enough it’s always gonna be there so so that’s never anything to feel bad about but like this phrase, and this may have been something I was thinking of earlier on but this
that this string versus its head over here and over heels head over heels yeah my new difference but it’s there and
once you leaving out that one little note or shifting
shifting it is still a Gino right. But once you become aware of those things that will drive you crazy because you want them all. So you start thinking oh now I sound better on that because of this one thing. So then it makes you want more of those one things.
Ha cool. We haven’t we also have not talked about your instrument. This is a fantastic sounding banjo which is mostly because of the player of course but guess what you’re playing.
This is a 33 Everyone that I tell that to thinks it’s a 33 it’s a 1930 TV 394 65 Dash 59 And
if it’s owner can only tune it really is a great manager, but I’m lucky to have and it’s got a pre warm ring in it and and it’s got a Robin Smith neck. It was a tenner. Yeah, of course and I bought it in 2000 from Frank neat. Sonny Osbourne helped with that and facilitated that. And I’m just been in love with it ever since. Although I’m about to get a new Deering banjo. Oh, I’m pretty pumped about I’ll have it yet, but we’re working on that. So that’ll be my first endorsement. And many many years I played one of Sonny’s chiefs. And it’s really hard to do endorsements because I love this banjo so much. It’s like my mate. But I played some some Dearing’s that I really liked. And there was one pot in particular that I really thought was a really functional banjo, you know, and it had it did everything I needed it to do so we’re gonna make some alterations, but keep that pot and there bill in the neck and stuff. So something customized. Yeah, it’ll be it’ll be one of their stock models, but just slightly altered. So it’s not like a like Tony’s banjo is is a signature. It’s not like a signature model. It’s not like that, but it will be a slightly customized stock model.
Regarding the customizations, what sort of things are you looking for from that, that maybe it’s filling a gap that this doesn’t serve? Or is it more like you don’t want to travel with this or Well, it’s
just I have just so attached to this that I don’t often run across New banjos that I think I could bear to play. Yeah, honestly. And that and then I found this particular banjo, they sent about five to Yen’s Kruger’s house. So that was a neat day for me. I got to go up and see he doesn’t live that far from us. So I was able to go to his house and, and play a bunch of different matches in this particular pot. I felt like had, again going back to context. I love the F sharp tuned heads and the mellowness and filling up a room that that a lot of people do. It’s not what works for me because of what I do with the band and otherwise, I’m just a bluegrass player. I dabble in other things like the solo banjo crowd and that kind of thing, get a little different. But basically, I’m just a tried and true Bluegrass or so what I need is punctuation and clarity, and separation. And I can not afford to have a mellow sound because I’ll just get absorbed and eaten alive. So this banjo had the punctuation that I felt like would serve me well. So I thought, Well, gosh, I think I think this banjo might be a winner.
Very good. What else on your banjo obviously, we have banjo nerds listening and there are a lot of parts that go into it. So let us know about anything else that you’re partial to in terms of bridges or picks or or any Yeah,
so the best picks, I think I’ve got a lifetime supply the old nationals I made sure I’ve I’ve like a lot of eight years per set to make sure that I can like get to 90 with fix, like I have my own nationals. But that used to be really important. Now we have great fingerpick makers. So I use Yeates finger picks. I also use and love the Hoffmeyer finger picks, I think both those guys are fantastic. And it’s eliminated my you know panic about having enough for nationals, right. And then this is just a Dunlop medium, but also have a blue chip thumb pic that I play with a lot of the time you use GHS strings which are custom said it’s 1011 and a half 13, the JD 20 and a 10. So like a medium light gauge. This is like the only banjo in the world this old one where the tailpiece I don’t know what it is I’ve I’ve never had a tail piece that needed to be this way. But the TLP sits high, and then actually angles down a little bit, which is the total opposite of what it should do to make it sound good. But I’ve I don’t really mess with any of this stuff. But I’ve had it pulled down and angled more, you know, conventionally. And the banjo doesn’t sound as good. So I have this odd angle on this tail piece. But it’s an old Presto tail piece. And then one of the customizations that Derek is making is I just cannot tolerate finish on the neck anymore. This had finish on it when I got it this neck, but it’s 20 years old, and I’ve just worn the forest off. So I’ve gotten so used in the My chief and Joe has no finish on the back. So that’s a that’s a big deal breaker for me, I just can’t do finish next anymore. And then I am not a radiused fingerboard player, I think it works great for single string. And when I do that, I think it’s cool. But I think pull offs are harder on radius boards. And again, going back to context. I know so many guys who can’t live without that. And I’ve just never had it or felt a need for it. I just do the standard five eighths fridge and very traditional setup. You run the hand around G sharp.
I was just gonna ask Yeah, you mentioned having like the F sharp for the prettier stuff. Yeah, but G sharp is what you need for most of the
Yeah, I think so on the drum dial, you know, 8990 Right in there is where it tends to stay
right on. What about performing preferences in terms of like microphones? I guess for recording either do you? Do you find yourself having a preference for microphones or other gear that you might plug into?
Yeah. You know, if as long as it’s compatible with everything else that’s on stage, as you’re 57 is a great banjo mic for live, it sounds exactly like your banjo sounds you’re not gonna get feedback, or you wouldn’t think you would, because you can just crank the gain on. The only issue I have with 50 sevens totally I love just a straight 57. But if the other guys are on condensers it’s hard to compete sometimes. So I think you kind of all need to be on the dynamic 50 sevens and eights or everybody needs to be on a condenser. And there are definitely some mics that I like better than others. But it’s whatever’s there that day because I don’t carry we don’t carry sound equipment. And as far as recording. Again, it goes back to whatever they have. But there are you know, some great Norman Malik’s that are old like UHD sevens and vintage type mics that I have been put in front of that just slay me where I just want to stay there all day. They’re super expensive. So you just make the best with what’s there when you get there?
Well, I think that’s all the questions I have. If there’s not any other words of parting advice, you can offer that but um, obviously I want people to know where to find you and your tour dates and your teaching availability, all that stuff. So yeah, so fill us in.
Thank you for that. I do want to mention one project. Yeah, that is coming up. Well, couple the album I mentioned that will be my first ever album cobuild with my husband. I don’t know why we finally thought that was okay. But we’ve avoided that for 20 plus years of marriage, but we are going to do a record cobuild this time, I think
the better question is, why didn’t you think it was? Okay. burlier?
Well, sure, I think both of us saw it. Well, as great as our marriage is there’s always musically this idea of Ubu. And I’ll be me, right, you know, and, and we’ve never been in the same band, which I think there are reasons for that. Logistics and family and raising our son and all that. But yeah, we have a great marriage, and you’re tampering with it in a major way, if suddenly are in the same band together. So we’ve just not really ever we were not against it. But we’ve never had a desire to do that. So that one’s going to be called Benson, and it will come out. Music will start coming out this year with that, but the thing your listeners may be especially interested in is a book I’m writing for Helen are co writing with Bill Evans. Bill Evans. Yeah, I’ve been hearing about this. Yeah, 25 great bluegrass banjo solos. And it’s an opportunity to evaluate a solo but also 25 banjo players. And it’s a massive project. It’s one that it’s one that we’ve been working on a long time. And I’m really excited for people to have access to some interviews with guys like mill Emerson, Allen money who may maybe haven’t been interviewed a lot in the last 15 years or 10 years and get a perspective fresh from them right now.
That must be quite a daunting task to come up with the 25. What was the process? Yeah, final for STYLE tournament, where you pitted the solos against a
trend that was really tough. And how Leonard certainly had some input how Lennar being the publishing company, certainly had some input into that. And just as a side note, because Bill Evans would want me to say this, I originally was writing the whole book included bill as one of the artists and then realize I wasn’t gonna get it done. So I pulled him in as a co author. So then he was all weirded out because he was in the book, and he was an author, but I was an author, not in the book. And he said, just makes me look weird. I’m like, Well, we’re stuck with it. Because I’m not redoing the chapter. I’ve got yours done. Like we’re not doing another one. And then at the 11th hour, an artist pulled out on us. And he said, and I agreed, it was like, because I knew that I would do the interview for him, and he could ride it. So we ended up in the book he did. biozone, right. And then I did con out of necessity. So that was a little weird, that we’re in it. It feels weird that he and I are in it now but but anyway, it was really tough. Not so much the solos, I mainly let the artists choose the solos. I didn’t do much of that. But the artist, it was hard. So I definitely leaned toward the more legendary players. I could have done it with a totally new crop of players. But its greatest banjo solo. So the assumption is it’s been around long enough to be noted as great. So Norm is the youngest guy in the book and and then leaving here
at this point is actually has quite Yeah. Prolific and he’s
in his 40s I think, right? At this point. He’s Yeah, he’s gotta be pretty darn close. Yeah, yeah. So it’s not like he’s a spring chicken. Exactly. Right. But he’s the youngest guy. So So Noam Beck is who is represented in the book.
Oh, how wonderful. Yeah, I’m excited already. So what is it? It is a transcription of the solo itself, and then also discussion and it’s about section.
Yeah, it’s about 2000 words total. Lot of we interviewed each of the guys so it’s just imagine like a mid sized banjo newsletter interview, and then a dissection of the solo with a tab and recording. We also recorded each of the solos. Oh, wonderful, at 60 beats a minute. So
that’s exciting. When can we expect that? Ask bill when it comes.
Yeah. And and then once it’s in the Hal Leonard Hopper, I don’t know.
Yeah, right. Right. Did you already give us websites and things like that?
KSP banjo.com. Certainly, you can find the grass skulls on Facebook and online. And also my husband’s YouTube channel. Wayne’s World of mandolin. See Daniel here. mandolins and mandolins. Vir great podcast as well. But yeah, that’s the way to catch us.
Wonderful. Well, thank you again, Kristen. Congrats on the award last night another award Word for you, which is all much deserved. So it was great speaking with you.
Thank you, Keith
and that’s going to wrap up this episode of the pinky fingers podcast. Thank you so much for listening. The song clips you heard in this episode were Don’t tread on me by Kristin Scott Benson, Jesse James by Whitey and Hogan. That’s how I can count on you by Doyle, Lawson and Quicksilver and then traveling the highway home by the grass goals. extra special thanks to this episode’s Patreon supporter of the show. That’s Kenneth Johnson. Head over to patreon.com/banjo podcast to become a supporter yourself. Email the show at pinky fingers Banjo [email protected] and of course don’t forget to subscribe to the show. So you can join me next time for the next great interview. I’ll see you then.