About Me And My Banjo Sojourn

Well, my parents say I was born ( not hatched out of a buzzards egg as some have speculated ) on the south side of Chicago in 1955. My father worked as a tradesman by day and music teacher by night, giving instructions on organ and occasionally accordian. I remember in 1962 seeing a new tv show and hearing the licks of the banjo-master Earl Scruggs for the first time. The show of course was The Beverly Hillbillies. On occasion, Id see Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on the show. I also saw Roy Clark put in appearance or two. I remember hearing the bluegrass of The Dillards ( as the Darlin Family ) on the old Andy Griffith tv show. I was fascinated by the intricate melodies, and countermelodies flying as quick as lightning over the strings of all these men playing.
Of course I was taking accordian and organ lessons, but in the last part of the 1950s and early 1960s accordians became highly unpopular losing its mass appeal, due to the plethera of really rotten accordian players in the world. It is a good instrument in the right hands, but thats another story. Meantime the organ was growing in popularity in modern bands, but it was tough to pack up and take with you.
When I was in highschool, there was a short lived period where folk music really peaked. Everyone was playing guitars, so I bought a banjo. A tenor, 4 string banjo. I didnt even know enough to know there was a differance in banjos. Well I learned to strum it and had fun with it, but I really wanted to play like Earl and Roy, so I saved my money and got me a 5 string. I self taught myself some basic stuff. I learned a few basic rolls, I had fun playing in some folk community sing alongs and then like all the others bought a guitar. I tinkered with learning that and adapting my organ and accordian lessons to piano. The effect from this was, I was stagnat in my learning the 5 string for a few years.
In time I ended up working in a new car dealership with a couple players. One fellows name was Bill Adams. I noticed him polishing a resonator from a banjo one day at lunch time. We got to talking and I found out he also picked the 5 string so we arranged to jam during another lunch.
Now at this time (1975) in my developement, I probably knew the lead for 2 songs. Many fellow employees gathered round. I was nervous, I had performed both madrigal and barbershop music in high school, but this was a whole new baileywhick for me. Bill had his banjo, a gibson, and I had my cheapo beginner, he told me to go ahead. I played my first tune. He smiled and strummed along with me. Afterwards he said play another. So I took off on my second song, he liked it and strummed along. He then said play another, at which point I said, well those are the only ones I know. He laughed and then said ok, Ill play one. He started picking as well as anyone Id ever heard before. My mouth dropped, he blew my doors off.
When he finished I asked him, who taught you to play that well? He then asked me if Id ever heard of Doug Dillard, to which I replied, it sounds familiar but I cant place it. He said, they used to play the Darlin family on the old Andy Griffith show, then I remembered. I answered, I remember them. Well he said, Doug taught me and this banjo is the very one he used while playing on that show. Bill also played doghouse bass. He was a good musician and a nice guy. I lost track of him a few months later.
At the same time we were working there, there was a younger kid named Tim Owens working as a car washer. (All this took place in Crown Point Indiana). Tim was only 16 at this time. Tim also was playing the five string in a band. Bill said he was pretty good, I never heard him play, but Bill said his style was too radical for a die hard bluegrass man. I then had another period of no growth on the banjo.
I went to Idaho for a few years, but upon my return I decided I was going to really learn how to play that banjo. There was a new program out on tv now Dukes of Hazzard, and the banjo was becoming very popular again. I looked for a teacher and came across an old familiar face. Tim Owens. He had spent the past two years playing on the road with The McClain Family Band. Tim had made a few albums with them. Tim was the best picker I've ever heard. I had the chance to hear in person Larry Mc Neely and Doug Dillard in bluegrass festivals out west, Tim was as good and better on some things. Unfortunately, at that time, he didnt possess very good teaching skills. Don't get me wrong Tim has probably forgotten more than I will ever learn about playing a banjo, but passing knowledge on is another matter. I took about 7 or 8 lessons from him, he did teach me how to read tablature. From there I was on my own. Having been somewhat experienced in music, I picked things up pretty fast. Tim tinkered in a few more bands, and even had his own radio show for a while. I heard he left the music business entirely, a real shame not using all that talent.
Life sometimes takes you places you dont expect, and I ended up in Utah for a few years. I was suprised to find a huge number of bluegrass fans there in the Wasatch Mountains. I thought it might be prudent to take a couple more lessons, but after my first lesson with a local banjo teacher, he told me I was beyond his abilities, and he recommended I teach. He began sending me students, and well I ended teaching a bakers dozen while there. Amazing how scarce banjo pickers are, I was offered a job touring with a group from Utah in Canada, however being married with a child, I thought it prudent to keep my day job.
I then moved to southern Illinois and opened a business which did very poorly. The only good thing that happened there was I met some excellant musicians and got a chance to hone some of my banjo skills. I played in a few bands, got to meet and play with Hank Williams Jrs fiddle player, a fellow from Benton Kentucky. We had some great jams. There were many great local musicians there as well. Some of them had played with likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. A few of them had played on stage with Little Jimmy Dickens and Grandpa Jones. Our lead singer had performed with Sherry Davis and Loretta Lynn.
One of the bands I played in the most was a little 4 piece band. The bass player also played pedal steel, so I learned how to play bass and we would switch off during our shows. During bluegrass he'd play bass, during country I would. It gave me a chance to learn another instrument.
Although financialy for me it was probably the worst time of my life, musically it was great. I know several of those folks down there who play as well as any in the world. It was a great time playing with them.
After suffering being poor for about 3 years, I moved back home to the Chicago area where theres always work. I needed money and needed to work and was lucky in finding it. I looked for a few years to find people to play music with, and discovered there are only a few scattered about the millions who live here that can or want to play bluegrass or country music. It seems Jazz and Blues are the popular flavors of the day here.
Now as someone who played keyboards, I had been watching the development of the new synthesizers and keyboards that were becoming available around 1990. I had a particular interest in those with devices known as sequencers. They allow you to pre program music. Since I was unable to find others to play with I bought one and began to program it to accompany me on the five string. Not as good as live, but better than solo, it was fun. Then in 1993 I bought a pro board with many capabilities. It not only served me in providing an excellant back up but gave me a great deal of artistic freedom to compose new music. I began composing in great quantity.
In 1994 I determined to try to learn how to play fiddle. I found the fingering easy even with my bear like paw sized hands, but that bowing, thats something I've never gotten a hold on. I can fiddle ok, but I'm still working on playing a violin. I mention this in passing there might be a few of you a bit older in life tackling a new instrument. Even though I play several other instruments well, there are only about 4 songs I'll play in public on the fiddle at this point but, you can still learn as a seasoned veteran, (sounds better than saying old as dirt) the wheels do turn a little slower sometimes, but they turn.
I went online for the first time in May of 1997 and by sheer chance met a lyricist one Julie Ferris. We have since written several songs together, mostly in a country genre. Recently we have had three of our songs picked up by BSM, a Nashville publishing company. We also have recieved some encouragement from another publisher of some repute as well. So we are keeping our fingers crossed. Julie writes with other composers and set up her own webpage and encouraged me to do the same. We have been displaying our wares on the net, and soliciting as we are able. Anyone involved in this business knows it's a shot in the dark at best. It's not a question of how good you are, it's more like who do you know. It may be we never sell anything, but we also realize it gives us a measure of contentment from the personal satisfaction we recieve from going through the process of creating something from nothing. ( now does that sound like an artist or what? never the less it is true)
In the last part of 1998 Julie and I purchased equipment that would allow us to produce demo quality recordings of our work. This has given me the freedom and ability to create recordings of acoustical music with vocals of profesional quality. After spending a few months in the newsgroups alt.banjo etc. I saw a need for basic instructions and information for beginners. Thats why I created this site. Playing the banjo has been a great deal of fun for me. From those community sing alongs in high school to racing with Hank Williams Jrs Fiddle player on Devils Dream,(to see who could play the fastest) it's been a hoot. I think the best is yet to come too. Enjoy this website.