In 1966, 17-year-old Tony Trischka journeyed from his home in Syracuse, NY to Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Destination: the Gaslight Cafe, hub of the folk music universe, and an engagement with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Tony’s real goal was to see Monroe’s banjo player Bill Keith, whose radical style had already dazzled him at festivals and on the radio. He’d even exchanged some letters with Keith, who was good enough to write back to an inquisitive banjo-obsessed teenager. Maybe at the Gaslight, Tony would get a good seat and be able to watch Keith’s hands and glean some secrets. Then something better happened.
“We went to the folklore center before, me and our guitar player. And we're just picking, waiting for the show to start down the block. And who walks in but Bill Keith,” Trischka, now 71, says in Episode 156 of The String. “I just almost fell over. And he sat down with me for an hour and showed me all these things. So he opened up the banjo for everybody. Because he was on the Opry with Bill Monroe and recorded on Decca Records, and suddenly the banjo world changed almost overnight. And it was a huge influence on me, you know, being able to play fiddle tunes note for note, and throwing licks into songs and that sort of thing. It was a game changer.”
The banjo has traveled farther and evolved more prolifically than any of the string band instruments. Since arriving in North America with the enslaved peoples of Africa, it has adapted uncannily to the intuitions and needs of groups and individuals, techniques passing from player to player, on porches in the South, music stores in Manhattan, or online video lessons in the 21st century. Tony Trischka, like so many others but more than most others, took his early banjo lessons and added his own personality and musical interests that spread from Charlie Parker to Charlie Poole, Aaron Copland to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He passed some of what he knew on to a young Bela Fleck in the 70s, launching another visionary banjo career. And in his own understated way, Trischka, working briefly out of New York and then most of his life out of northern New Jersey, has become one of the giants of this fascinating, versatile instrument.
Trischka’s latest project, out Jan. 29, looks backward for a change, at least as far as his subject matter goes, with a concept album about the Civil War and its aftermath. He calls Shall We Hope a “dramatized listening experience” and a work of “historical fiction” featuring roles sung by a curious group of collaborators, including New York bluegrass hipster Michael Daves, veteran blues fusionist Guy Davis, Nashville-based Irish roots singer Maura O’Connell and voice over from John Lithgow. The story is non-linear and sketch-like with glimpses of a drummer boy and his parents and an enslaved grave digger and Union soldier. The music is more contemporary than the setting, with styles that range across string band and folk, with sonic scenes from a battle or a riverboat as interludes. Trischka has worked in musical theater before, so this departure from newgrass instrumentals isn’t all that shocking, but the project is a surprising (and sadly timely) rumination on what tears a nation apart and how long healing can take.
What Trischka took from Bill Keith was the ability to grow from traditional Earl Scruggs bluegrass rolls to the so-called “melodic” style, which lets the player trace out tunes or play jazz in any key. It set him up to find his own style, based on his ecelctic interests as a young guy. He says: “And so I just felt like well, you can do anything on a banjo. You can play classical music. You can play jazz. And I was working up some Charlie Parker heads and that sort of thing. But then when I joined the band Breakfast Special (in 1973), we were all of like minds all, you know, schooled in bluegrass and could play Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs solos note for note, (but) also bringing in Middle Eastern music and, and jazz and all these other things. And so it was just this natural progression. We gave ourselves permission to do that sort of a thing.”
That set the tone for a career that never stayed in one place very long. Trischka has made solo albums for Rounder Records in every decade from the 70s through the 2010s. With the band Psychograss he made heavy West Coast string band music with members of the David Grisman Quintet. With the Wayfaring Strangers, he took a more refined approach to modern folk interpretation. He produced Steve Martin’s Grammy-nominated Rare Bird Alert album with the Steep Canyon Rangers. He was musical director for the 2011 PBS documentary Give Me The Banjo. And he’s been a leader in formal online music instruction, hosting his banjo courses at ArtistWorks. Among other things.
We cover a lot of it in this wide-ranging conversation.