by Erin Frustaci

(The following appeared on, 4/19/2006)

Banjo’s prescription for a healthy bluegrass music scene is soulfulness and musical mastery.

That’s a diagnosis the veteran musician, Pete Wernick, has developed after years playing and teaching the art of bluegrass music.

The world-renowned musician, who got his start in 1971 with the band Country Cooking and has since earned the moniker Dr. Banjo, has made a lasting impact on the industry through his talent, instructional books, CDs and banjo camps. He began playing the banjo as a teen, listening to the likes of Earl Skruggs and Bill Monroe.

“The original pioneers had a powerful urgency to the music that is easy to lose in the translation of the music,” Wernick said. “I hope whoever picks up bluegrass will take it seriously and work for mastery and soulfulness. I don’t worry that it would die out, but that the most essential aspects of it might get diluted.”

Wernick, 60, of Niwot has lived in Colorado for the past 30 years with his wife and music partner, Joan Leonard Wernick. He continues to perform both nationally and internationally, in a duet with his wife and with the band Flexigrass. Wernick’s wife is also the vocalist for Flexigrass.

Wernick and Flexigrass performed April 12 in LaPorte and perform again May 5 in Fort Collins.

Flexigrass, formerly known as the Live Five, began in 1992. The group infuses traditional bluegrass sound with jazz elements including a vibraphone, a clarinet and drums played with brushes.

“I’m very proud of the high level of musicianship in the band and the fact that we do a lot of original material. No band sounds like us,” Wernick said. “I love the sound of jazz vibes and the swing style of the clarinet.”

Wernick has played with and founded several bands, including Hot Rize in 1978, and he said there are numerous benefits to playing with multiple musicians.
“You get to flex your muscles musically in a variety of ways,” he said.

His advice to young musicians is to make every note count.

“If you are going to perform, make sure you’re giving the audience plenty of reasons to watch you perform,” he said. “Make sure the material is not just something you know how to do well, but is intrinsically good and then you do it in such a way that it is compelling.”

And he is a man who should know. Last year, he made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, along with Steve Martin, Earl Skruggs, Tony Ellis and Charles Wood.

“It’s exciting to even imagine that there’s an ever-growing pool of music talent,” he said. “I love that a lot of younger people are picking up on it and putting their own spin on the basics of style. My only concern is people make a point to understand the roots and know whose shoulders they are standing on when they are playing bluegrass.”