Thursday, January 27, 2011

Banjovinate Your Soul

Hillbilly music? Pickin' and grinnin'? For years, the sounds of the banjo have been associated with the music that formed within the Appalachian mountains with the Scottish Irish immigrants known to the rest of the world as bluegrass. But there is much more to the sounds of this instrument and how it wound up so far up on the hills in the first place.

The banjo, or "banjar", "banjil", "banza", "bangoe", "bangie" and finally "banshaw", is an instrument invented by the early African and brought over to America during the slave trades. The instrument had it's start in America playing blues and what would be the earliest forms of jazz known as Trad Jazz which was renamed Dixie in the 60's when modern jazz would evolve.

So how in the world did it make it up to the mountains and become such a prominent
instrument with what we call bluegrass today? Like every other kind of music that came to be within America, you can slap yet another gold star on the black man for throwing his hat into the ring.

During the early 1900's and before we could lay railroad track down with machines, black men did most of the work on the rail roads. These men were called Gandy Dancers and they brought with them their music as well as their instruments to the mountains laying tracks over and through the hills. This would be where the legend of John Henry comes from as well as the song made popular by the Gandy Dancers.

The Sottish Irish settlers had their own music which came straight from Europe. They heard the Gandy dancers and became infatuated with the rhythms of the work songs as well as the sounds of the banjo. And there you have it. The thing that makes America that great melting pot serving up a big bowl of bluegrass music which would later turn into country music.

For whatever reason, bluegrass has been sweeping the nation. It began with the success of Alison Krauss in the early 90's and has been picking up steam ever since launching artists like Cadillac Sky, Mumford and Sons and now the hybrid of rock and bluegrass, the Decemberists.

Like young rock and roll artists, there are now young progressive bluegrass players out there winning awards and leading the way to a new but yet, old style of music.

One of these players is a young man from Tyler, Texas by the name of Matt Menefee. A twenty eight year old kid with lightening fast fingers that you can't even see when he picks his banjo. Me being a kid from the 80's, the only thing I can compare him to would be the insanity of Eddie Van Halen.

Matt grew up in Artesia which is in the Southeastern part of New Mexico. When he was thirteen years old, he moved to Tyler with his mom and dad, Randall and LouAnn Menefee.

His musical influences can be attributed to his grandfather who was a bluegrass guitar picker. His grandfather had a friend that played banjo who would join him on front porch jam sessions which Matt became infatuated with at a very early age. So much so that the word I get down at Cliff's Barber Shop is that Matt didn't care much for school. His priorities were music, music and more music. A priority that paid off getting him a scholarship at Tyler Junior College and another one from Belmont which is in Nashville. He took the TJC gig for a while until Bryan Simpson formed Cadillac Sky in 2002 putting a young bunch of boys on the road and soon signing with the Ricky Skaggs family label.

In 2010, they would hit it big and land an opening slot touring with Mumford and Sons from England who are sweeping the nation as well as the rest of the world. 

It never ceases to amaze me what becomes popular music and when I really like it, It helps me to believe that there is actually hope for real art.

I mentioned in another blog about my best musical experiences. It is rare that a musician will tell you that their best musical experience was on a stage. It's always something that happens on the spur of the moment and is never planned. A spontaneous moment that leads into sheer ecstasy and is very rarely seen by the public. You're about to see and hear one of those moments. An alley jam session between Cadillac Sky, King Charles and Mumford and Sons that someone caught on video just by chance.

Enjoy the jam session and go support some real music.

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