Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Mach 5-String

Two tunes with people playing banjo much, much better than I ever will

I don’t think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is what made me want to learn to play the banjo, but it definitely solidified any vague notion I might’ve had earlier.

I always hated pop country music, and coming from a fairly small city in Georgia, I wanted to resist anybody’s attempts to brand me as a redneck, so I just avoided anything that seemed even vaguely countrified. But bluegrass played well is sublime. Every time I saw Hee-Haw at my grandparents’ house, all I remembered was the corny jokes, and it was only as an adult that I realized how genuinely talented Roy Clark and Buck Owens were.

I got a banjo not long after O Brother came out, but I still haven’t practiced enough to get any good at it. I can play a slow and tortured version of “Cripple Creek,” which I think is the equivalent of claiming you can play the piano because you know “Heart and Soul.” It’s looking less and less likely that I’ll have a free decade or so to get good at all the stuff that I’ve been meaning to get good at over the years, so maybe I need to invest that time into learning to enjoy doing things even if I’m not good at them.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people who are good at playing the banjo, and they like to show off by playing it extra fast.

One of them is Dave Carroll in Trampled By Turtles, and you can hear him and the rest of the band showing off in “Wait So Long”, which I can’t hear without also hearing my middle school band teacher yelling at us that we were rushing.

But I think my favorite bluegrass performance ever is Alison Krauss & Union Station playing “Choctaw Hayride” live, with Ron Block on banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro. If you’ve never heard their live double album released in 2003, I encourage you to listen to it as soon as possible. Every song is better than the studio version, the energy of the crowd is fantastic, and their personality and sense of humor come through as much as their obvious talent. Plus they do a performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow” when it was at its most popular.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *