by Steve Lipsher
(The following appeared in the April 6 1997 issue of the Denver Post)
Known to fans as “Dr. Banjo”, Pete Wernick has helped bring bluegrass music to the ’90s with a unique blend of picking finesse, showmanship and humor. He dispels the myth that the traditional music is “Grandpa with no teeth on the porch picking a banjo.” As a principal in the semi-defunct, Grammy-nominated bluegrass band Hot Rize, Wernick proved as polished as the likes of legendary bluegrass wizards Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Through the band’s nutty alter-ego group, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Wernick demonstrated a sense of humor that poked fun at popular C&W, generated tons of audience fervor and merchandise sales (Red Knuckles’ official flyswatters and “I’m a Knucklehead” bumper stickers were particularly hot sellers) and all the while played some accomplished but tongue-in-cheek western swing.As musical innovator, teacher and tireless advocate for bluegrass,Wernick brought together the unusal combination of his Gibson banjo, Dixieland clarinet, vibraphone, bass and drums in the critically acclaimed Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) continues to be a dominant force in bluegrass production and performance.
From his home near Longmont, Wernick, a 51-year-old with a doctorate in sociology, talked about life after Hot Rize, how beliefs in humanism helped him cope with being in the 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Iowa and why bluegrass hasn’t gained mainstream popularity.
Q: Let me start by confessing, I’m a Knucklehead.
A: Yeah, I hear that a lot. It’s wonderful to be remembered. It’s a treasure, as far as I’m concerned, to have a piece of a lot of people’s minds. And they don’t forget. I have people today… saying, “Boy, it was a sad day when I heard that you guys weren’t going to stay together,’ and “When are you going to get back together?” Considering it’s been seven years now since we broke up and we’re still remembered well by people is just, it’s very heartening.
Q: Last year, Hot Rize played several reunion shows. Are you planning more?
A: All of us, even though we have a lot of other commitments and busy schedules and so on, want to do it. And we want to do it not only for our fans, but for ourselves… We spent 12 years together, which I remember one time realizing that, “Gee, that’s the same time that people go from first grade to graduating high school.’… In a certain way, we were brothers to each other and had all the spats and rivalries that you might have, but an awful lot of loyalty and a tremendous amount of really good time together, too.
Q: You guys especially seemed to enjoy clowning around as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
A: It brought a little bit of Halloween into every part of the year,which is a good thing…. For 15 minutes at a time, it’s kind of cool to just completely get outside yourself, expecially when it’s expected for you to be outrageous and you’ve got a certain amount of adrenaline and audience participation egging you on. It has led to some really pretty funny and enjoyable moments. For most people, you know, it’s not part of your job. You go and you sit at your computer or you have some meetings, and there doesn’t come a time when they say, “Well, it’s a quarter after 11. Let’s put on our outfits and everybody go nuts for 15 minutes.” That would be good, though, if everybody would do that.
Q: So what kinds of projects are you working on now?
A: I’ve been working a lot with my band, Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five), which started as an experiemental band… My wife, Joan, and I perform together as a duet, which goes way back to when we were first together… A month from now I’ll be performing in North Carolina with a kid, a 16-year-old kid named Chris Thile, and he is just a one-of-a-kind prodigy brilliant musician… I’m producing a record for a Colorado bluegrass band called High Plains Tradition, and I’ve gotten to do some record production, which interests me. It gives me a chance to mold somebody else’s presentation and help somebody else do what they’re trying to do…. Plus I conduct instructional camps… A lot of this wouldn’t be possible if Hot Rize were still together.
Q: How did you get started playing the banjo?
A: Well, I’d always liked music, and I liked the sound of a banjo. A friend of mine in the Bronx, which is where I grew up, said, “Hey, check this out.” He had an album that featured Earl Scruggs, and it just dazzled me so much I didn’t even know what to make of it. It didn’t occur to me that I could ever learn how to play that way. In fact, it amazed me that he was only a single person make a banjo sound that way. It seemed too impossible, too dazzling. And the same friend gave me a rudimentary lesson or two, and from there on it was just me working on my own with almost no kind of help, no instruction… just a lot of determination.
Q: The banjo is such a happy instrument.
A: It’s happy, evocative, American– the square dance. And thanks to the movie “Deliverance,” it’s the inbred, suspicious, goofy thing too. It’s actually a bit of an image problem. “Deliverance” actually had some good playing in it, but a lot of country stations completely shunned the banjo, shunned bluegrass.
Q: Do you ever get frustrated being a big fish in the commercially small bluegrass pond?
A: Many people consider bluegrass music out of step with popular tastes, and there’s a good and a bad side to that. I think if bluegrass became a mass fad, the kernels of gold– well kernel of gold, that’s a mixed metaphor. The nugget of corn. That’s closer– the true essence of it could get buried. On the other hand, it’s practically a tragedy that some of the most talented bluegrass musicians get discouraged from continuing a career in bluegrass because of the unrealized commercial potential that it has.
Q: What other music do you listen to?
A: My big favorite over the years besides bluegrass has been the Beach Boys. They had this ethereal, very beautiful multilayered harmony, a sense of melody and a purity in the singing and also a soulfulness that’s somewhat comparable but rather different than the singing of bluegrass… I’ve always loved the Beatles, as well.
Q: What has been your reaction to surviving the plane crash?
A: I learned that you don’t know when you could die. You could die driving home from here. I could die of a heart attack right now… The randomness of who died and who didn’t die was a very hard fact to ponder. Some people said, ÒYou didn’t die. Somebody up there must have wanted to keep you alive.’ But I find that very insulting to the peole who did die. Does that mean somebody didn’t want to keep those people alive? People who died were fathers, mothers, children. I learned that everybody is needed and valued by somebody and to me, if anything, after the plane crash I wondered how could a loving God allow that to happen. To me, that’s the proof that there isn’t any loving God.
Q: So your religious beliefs– or lack of them– have helped you cope?
A: I’m very interested in humanism. I think humanism is a great belief system where compassion and realism are primary. It includes the fact that we don’t believe in God or the supernatural. This week, I’m printing a 40-page book I co-wrote called “Humanism for Kids” that for the first time will tell the humanist worldview in very understandable terms for kids and maybe give them a chance to build some beliefs that will work very well for them and will not have to include these concepts that I think are doomed because they’re just not right.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I’d like to be remembered as somebody who’s a good person. If they remember me as a talented musician, that’s fine. But to me, there is no more self line than “He tried his best” or “He tried to be kind.” To me, if it’s a choice between that or being the best banjo player on Earth, it’s no choice. I’d rather be that.