Before there was Bela Fleck, there was Tony Trischka. In the late 1960s, Trischka started taking the five-string banjo out of its strictly-bluegrass holster and letting it fire at will.
He is a beloved musician, a tireless educator, a fearless innovator, a multiple Grammy winner and a top record producer whose work includes, among others, Steve Martin's acclaimed Rare Bird Alert.
Just how significant a character is Tony Trischka?
He was Bela Fleck's banjo teacher.
Trischka's in town all week conducting a series of acoustic music workshops, alongside mandolinist Mike Marshall and others, as part of the Savannah Music Festival.
He'll play several shows, too, accompanied by Appalachian fiddle ace Bruce Molsky.
Abigail Washburn is here this week, too, raising the banjo bar. The 32-year-old Illinois native picked up her very first banjo in 1996, but she has since proven to be one of acoustic music's most intreresting and genuine talents.
For one thing, she is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and in the folk music and culture of China, and her music is a breathless combination of old-time American, bluegrass, folk and sweet, unexpected flourishes of the Orient.
(True story: Washburn was within weeks of immigrating to China - she had been accepted into law school in Beijing - when music, unexpectedly and unequivocably, became her all-consuming passion.)
She's played the Savannah Music Festival twice before: In 2007, as part of the all-woman bluegrass band Uncle Earl, and two years later as part of the brilliant Sparrow Quartet. This band also included cellist Ben Sollee (a frequent and most welcome visitor to Savannah stages), violinist Casey Driessen, and none other than Bela Fleck on banjo.
Washburn and Fleck got married not long afterward.
We spoke with both Trischka and Washburn this week, about all sorts of things. Of course, we all paid our respects to Earl Scruggs, the banjo pioneer who passed away March 28, and without whom there probably wouldn't be a Tony ... or an Abby ... or a Bela.
Tony on Earl Scruggs
"He's so pivotal you can't even put it into words. Because the banjo had got in this deep decline after the turn of the century, and was only brought back in the mid to late ‘40s by Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger. Indeed, much more profoundly by Earl Scruggs because he had this sound that was so elemental and contagious that everyone had to play with it. No one had ever heard anything like it before. He didn't invent the three-finger style, but he took it and ran with it. As Porter Wagoner said, he was the Babe Ruth of the Banjo, just this iconic, absolutely pivotal figure. And in our own, humble ways, guys like Bela and I, and Noam Pikelny, we've taken what he did and gone with it, taken it where we want to take it in our different ways, but it all in the end comes back to Earl. Every time I pick up the banjo, it's unconscious but the first thing I just play Earl licks rather than my own licks, or my own tunes. I play ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown' or ‘Shuckin' the Corn.' It just comes out because it's elemental. It's just a part of it. It's part of all of us who play the banjo, in bluegrass and beyond."
Abby on Earl Scruggs
"He was so cool, so cool. A man who does not need to say too many words either, which I really respect. We'd go over there and sit with him, play some music, just ‘be company' after (his wife) Louise died. He was at home a little bit more, his sons were with him a bunch ... they'd welcome people over to shoot the shit and play some banjo. He just had the coolest stories. And it wasn't like he just rattled shit off - you'd have to sit there, and just be with him, and things started to open up real slowly, like you're sittin' around a fire in North Carolina or something. I asked him a lot about his family, and about being on the road, those sorts of things."
Tony on Bela
"He never stops. He's interested in all these different things. I think it's really important to move those forward, because he can reach a lot of different people. Years ago, I remember listening to our local radio station, and they were doing a fundraiser. They said ‘If we don't get however many dollars in the next hour, I'm going to play some banjo music.' As a threat. Now, here's Bela putting out this very legitimate classical album. Plus, he wrote this banjo concerto. So he's teaching people in a very visceral way that the banjo is a musical instrument, it's not just for bluegrass or old-time music."
Abby on Bela
"It was all super-new to me when I met him. So I didn't even understand, really, how important he was. Maybe, in a way, that gave us a leg up on me not thinking he was some kind of god, and I was a minion! In the end, I think nobody wants to be seen as more than human, unless they're some weird narcissist. He's just a lovely human being, and I was really attracted to his amazing work ethic, his amazing talent as I got to know him more, and the way he's made so many things happen over all these years, and had really loyal collaborations. And I would say that the sort of celebrity piece of it is great, because people get to see how special his work is. But it's really a very small piece of the puzzle."
Abby on her start
"Somebody put on a record of Doc Watson playing ‘Shady Grove,' and I heard everything in a new way. I heard it in this way of ‘This is American. This is beautiful. I've had my head up in China's grove this whole time, and I've been kind of ignoring where I come from, and what's special about my country.' That was the moment when I just said ‘I need to buy a banjo.' I said ‘I need to learn this old-time music, and I need to take it with me to China, so I can have this piece of America with me when I move to Beijing and I live there for the rest of my life."
Abby on innovation
"I was in the women's a capella group when I was in college, but I didn't play an instrument. The banjo's my first and only instrument. For me, innovation is just stumbling on ideas that come from me intuitively. It's not really intentional. Maybe in Bela's or Tony's case it's a little more intentional, they're thinking about the traditions of banjo, and how can I change the patterns and the ways of thinking about the banjo to move it forward into this next century. I wouldn't call myself a terribly innovative banjo player; I would call myself maybe a ... creative collagist? I just take what I can learn from each of the clawhammer banjo traditions, and I apply them to songwriting. And sometimes I apply them to Chinese traditional songs. As long as it sounds good, that's what I'm looking for."
Tony on teaching
“I think it’s a genetic thing, because my father was a physics professor at Syracuse University. It took me a while to figure out ‘Oh yeah, I teach too. I’m a chip off the old block.’ So there’s that. I really enjoy sharing the information. It’s fun to do, because it’s something I’m passionate about and it’s fun to share your passion. And also, I learn a lot. Because I can’t stand just teaching the same thing over and over again. So I’m always transcribing new Earl Scruggs solos, or developing new exercises. So I learn while I teach. And I have this online instructional website now, where there are about 200 pre-recorded lessons. That’s all done; I don’t have to re-do those. I can do new stuff. With my music, I always like to do something new, something fresh - for myself, to keep me interested. In my teaching, it’s the same thing. I like to keep things fresh, and new, and moving forward.”
Savannah Music Festival
At 12:30 p.m. April 5/Morris Center
Tony Trischka & Bruce Molsky, Abigail Washburn
At 6 and 8:30 p.m. April 5/Morris Center
Tony Trischka, Bruce Molsky, Mike Marshall, Julian Lage and 20 students
At 6 p.m. April 6/Lucas Theatre