The Banjo Years - Pt 3
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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Bill Monroe

Sandy Rothman Bluegrass Duets

Flatt Scruggs

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Bill Monroe Sandy Rothman Flatt Scruggs Stanley Brothers
Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Jerry Garcia's Musical Roots:
The Banjo Years - Part 3
by Sandy Rothman©  

During the spring of 1963, when Bill Monroe's band with Bill ("Brad") Keith on banjo came through California, almost every banjo player attending the concerts, including Jerry Garcia, was blown away by Keith's revolutionary playing. Unlike Garcia, Keith had passed through the eye of the Scruggs needle. A musically literate Amherst graduate and member of the Boston-Cambridge folk scene, he had meticulously transcribed most of Earl's compositions into tablature (banjo notation) and could reproduce them with great accuracy. At the same time he was forging his own stunning approach, which had such underpinnings as his early piano and tenor banjo training; much exposure in New England to Don Stover's classy five-string work and Paul Cadwell's exquisite classical banjo playing; and the melodic banjo licks of Nashville session wizard Bobby Thompson and Kentucky banjoist Noah Crasealthough it seems that Keith's melodic style developed independently from theirs.

Garcia reacted to Keith's playing immediately. It changed his life, as it did for a multitude of banjo players worldwide, and from that point on I didn't hear Jerry work as hard on any other banjo technique. He appreciated and extended Keith's subtle rhythmic accents, themselves an extension of Scruggs's syncopation filtered through Stover, and with great diligence he set to work mastering the fretboard "Keith-style." Banjoist and capo inventor Rick Shubb characterized this as "essentially playing a higher note on a lower string." Keith's banjo approach allowed for dazzling displays of arpeggiated (strung-together) passages that swooped dramatically up and down the neck like musical parachute jumps. This newfound freedom naturally lent itself to abuse, and hard-core traditionalists tended to dislike the style. Jerry loved the risk and high adventure of it, taking special pleasure in lines that ascended the scale. And he worked at it continuouslyat home, at gigs, in between students at Dana Morgan's music shop, and even in his spare time after switching back to guitar, which he did a year later.

It's hard to think that all this banjo playing did not inform his evolution as a guitarist. Jerry told Jon Sievert in a 1988 interview: "I put my first real energy in music into the five-string banjo…I slowed the records down and painstakingly listened to every lick and worked them out. Having gone through that process with banjo, when I went to electric guitar I knew how to learn it. My taste in music is kind of informed by the banjo in a way, too. I like to hear every note. I like the clarity and separation of notes." Explaining to Sievert how he felt banjo technique colored his approach to accenting on the guitar, Jerry said: "A certain amount of it is related to banjo playing, where you have problem-solving continually going on. There are three fingers moving more or less constantly, and you have to change the melodic weight from any one finger to another finger. What that really involves is rhythmic changes."

And in the Jones/Pickard interview, when asked if the banjo influenced his guitar work, he confirmed: "Certainly more than my guitar playing informs my banjo playing...I work on the electric guitar, the top strings anyway, like a banjo sometimes. My intention with some of my soloing is to get something that's like the banjo in terms of the clarity." My personal opinion is that Jerry did eventually transfer some guitar sensibilities back to the banjo, mostly in his rhythm playing of the '70s. I hear it in the way he'd back up vocals, including his own, with rich chords and a soulful, chugging, back-beat drive reminiscent of all the great rhythm-and-blues guitarists whose rhythmic accents he loved and internalized.

Jerry was also influenced by the lighthearted banjo picking of Billy Ray Latham, longtime Kentucky Colonels member from Arkansas who was well-traveled on the West Coast folk circuit around the time Garcia was first listening to bluegrass. Watching the Colonelsfeaturing Clarence White on lead guitaras often as he could, Jerry absorbed Billy Ray's up-to-date five-string licks, many of which represented Latham's own take on the new Keith banjo vocabulary. Jerry absorbed plenty of Billy Ray's zany southern humor (patterned after the Opry's Cousin Jody) at the same time. To my ear there is a similarity between Jerry's and Billy Ray's sound: a joyously uninhibited clanginess, as if to say, this is a banjo, damn it, and I'm not going to make any apologies for it!

Years later Garcia was affected by Bill Keith in a different way, as were a number of other banjo players around the country, when Keith took up pedal steel guitar and they followed suit. Garcia's crystalline country steel licks on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's 1970 hit "Teach Your Children" reached a much wider audience than his banjo playing ever did. That track might even contain the most listened-to pedal steel solo of all time.

One result of Garcia's intensive melodic banjo practice was that he developed a rather ornate, linear solo style. He didn't concentrate on reproducing the standard southern bluegrass banjo languageespecially certain conventional "tags" (repetitive end-of-line figures) and other musical punctuationeven as much as Bill Keith had, which was already not as heavily as most mainstream players. Jerry put his own spin on standard licks or avoided them altogether. He wasn't much for clichés or anything he considered gratuitous, whether in talk or in music. It sounded to me as if he paid a kind of musical lip service to most of the conventional banjo phrases; he played themrespectfully, even obedientlybut didn't emphasize them the way a southern banjo picker might. (This was also true of Billy Ray Latham to some extent. They both used the tags, but did them their way, rather than emulating the crisp, punctual delivery of bluegrass banjo pioneers like Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, or J. D. Crowe.) I'd say that Jerry put more attention on the "meat" of his banjo breaks, the musical architecture of the chords and melody lines, if punctuation were to be considered the "trimmings." It wasn't until later that his rhythmically expressive backup playing would emerge. His playing in the early '60s might have been described as note-rich, maybe even overstated at times, but it was always expressive and energetic. Any way you looked at it, it was fancy banjo picking, consistently well executed. He was admired by progressives and staunch traditionalists alike.

For the record, when I told veteran bandleader Vern Williamsa hard-core, straight-talking traditional bluegrass singer in Californiaof Jerry's passing in 1995, Vern said he thought Garcia was "a damn good banjo player."

In the spring of 1964 Jerry and I drove across the country in his '61 Corvair with our instruments and a reel-to-reel tape recorder to immerse ourselves in bluegrass. Jerry was 22 and I was 18. We visited one of our banjo predecessors from Berkeley, Neil Rosenberg, then getting his folklore degree at Indiana University in Bloomington. He took us to hear the Osborne Brothers at a real Ohio bluegrass bar, where we got a good dose of Sonny Osborne's incisive banjo wit along with the whole bluegrass bar culture. As Neil remembers, "Jerry was working hard on the latest banjo ideas, particularly the tricky melodic and rhythmic styling of Bill Keith. We had a lot of fun picking. Bluegrass jamming then (and now) can be a competitive sort of thing but Jerry wasn't into that stuff. He had confidence in his ability and an eagerness to try things that was very appealing."

Jerry and I also drove down to Florida to visit Berkeley mandolinist Scott Hambly (another highly original and accomplished instrumentalist like Jerry, and a one-gig replacement for David Nelson in the Black Mountain Boys) while he was stationed at Panama City's Tyndall Air Force Base. I listened to the two of them picking as we played an impromptu show that Scott had arranged at the NCO club and thought that it would be hard to find two city-based bluegrass musicians better matched for sheer profusion of notes and ornamentation. A flock of notes flew with the airplanes over the warm Florida sands that night.

That season, Neil Rosenberg was managing Bill Monroe's Brown County Jamboree, a country music park in tiny Bean Blossom, Indiana, outside Bloomington. This was one year before the first organized bluegrass festival. We collected and recorded tapes of live bluegrass shows there, like Deadheads would later do of Garcia's performances, and attempted unsuccessfully to audition for Monroe. All bluegrass musicians wanted that musical apprenticeship with the Father of Bluegrass, and Garcia by his own admission was no exception. I felt that Jerry would have been a good choice for the Blue Grass Boys at the time. Monroe liked the Keith stylehaving admitted that a Yankee, and not a southern musician, had been the first to figure out a way to play fiddle melodies note-for-note on the banjo-and was looking to keep that sound in the band after Bill Keith left at the end of 1963. Garcia could do it. He would have been adept at interpreting Monroe's tunes in the style.

I recall Jerry leaning against his banjo case there in the sultry Indiana sun and sometimes wonder how modern musical history might have been different if he had worked for Monroe. It's a grand thought: Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia, two pillars of American musicone from Kentucky and the other from California, like the fabled racehorses in Monroe's song "Molly and Tenbrooksalmost played together. Jerry was confident, but he was still too shy to push himself on a hoss like "Big Mon."

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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Wildwood Boys

Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

 

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