Bob in North Carolina writes:
I’ve been really frustrated lately. I’ve been playing banjo since 1965. I’m almost 60 and can hold my own on the 5-string. I also play rhythm guitar and pretty good fiddle, sing lead and baritone. I’ve been fronting my little band since 1978, but in the past few years, it’s languished. I can’t find any talented dedicated pickers to get the sound 100% tight and right. Various members of my little troupe have fallen by the wayside and are mostly too old or too limited to do any serious picking. We still jam once in a while, but nothing serious erupts. I do instrument repair and set-ups.
Many people have asked me why I never did anything with my music and why I “never made the big time.” Frankly, I have spent my entire adult life scraping for a living, being a farmer and truck-driver, so I never had time to pursue my musical dreams. A friend who played in my band back in 1978-79 went on to be a professional musician, guitar for a long time with a famous country act. I often wish I had gone with him. I chose, however, to stay close to home.
So at this stage of my life, my dilemma is this: I want to play music professionally and see what I can accomplish. I have never felt like I was as good as some of well-known pickers, but lately I find myself challenging that notion.
Problem is that I would like to get a job with a really good band, but don’t know how to go about it. I should be better-connected than I am, but I seem to be pretty much unknown and invisible. I am not one to kiss
any body’s backside to garner favors, nor am I one to be a hanger-on or leech like I’ve seen so many pickers do.
I am pretty much retired and have some money put aside, so I really don’t have to work a full-time regular anymore. My life’s dream would be to appear on the stage of the Ryman at least one time.
So, I’m wondering what is a good approach to find out who might need a banjo picker and how to let anyone know I’m interested and available
I sympathize with what you’re feeling. You’re of the age when it might seem like the train is about to leave or has already left.
I am assuming your music ambitions are not so strong as to cause you to relocate. (If you were, it would broaden my advice.) If you aren’t going to relocate, you’ll need to find people in your own area. How close? Well, how much driving can you stand to do, to rehearse and be around the band a lot?
While it’s not impossible for bands to have members who don’t live near the others, it’s a lot harder, and a less stable situation. You need to be around the other members on a pretty regular basis to be a tight band. Sometimes you’ll rehearse or jam on a whim, or take a low-pay local gig just to be playing.
The standard thing I’d tell someone of any age is to network as much as possible. Go to bluegrass festivals, talk with as many good musicians as you can about what you’re looking for. The key people are band leaders, who are often the lead singers around whom the music revolves. If you can impress a really good lead singer with your “value”, they can be the key to your desired situation.
Every working band in your area just may be about to lose their banjo player. You can investigate every one that you think you’d like to play with.
All of the above takes a lot of proactive communication, some of it possibly embarrassing (“I’m available…”). Many of the most promising prospects may be youngish musicians who are young enough to be your kids. You might be able to get something symbiotic going with them — your experience and contacts make you more valuable, and their energy and appeal (face it, no one is actively looking for 60 year-old musicians) are of value to you.
It’s probably good to get out your Bluegrass Unlimited and some local bluegrass publications and do some research, make a list of people to talk to, and make some calls. If you have any blabbermouth friends who respect your musicianship and are around a lot of musicians, let them know what you have in mind, and they may get a few possibilities going. Some people like being put onto a job like that.
Hope those ideas are helpful. Patience is required of course, but that can be in short supply. But persistence is the real key.
Best of luck. Let me know how it goes.