Dr. Banjo » Banjo Newsletter » Nick Hornbuckle – Part 1

Nick Hornbuckle – Part 1

posted in: 2007, Banjo Newsletter 0

This article by Pete Wernick originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Banjo Newsletter.

I have admired Nick’s playing since I first heard it on John Reischman’s “Up in the Woods” record in the late 1990s. Besides his solid timing, tone and good taste, he’s original and interesting. His playing always captures my attention without having to scream for it. As I mention in the interview, having heard hundreds of banjo players, I like but am not usually moved too much by playing that rehashes what so many others play. Innovation or acrobatics for their own sake may get attention, but they aren’t the ticket either—I like when the playing suits the material, and sounds appealing and fresh.

Not only does Nick’s playing fit the above description, he’s in a band that consistently fits that description: John Reischman and the Jaybirds. The band, based in the Northwest U.S. and Vancouver, British Columbia, has earned a reputation for well-honed original bluegrass music whose pieces fit together so nicely it almost seems effortless. But as this interview shows, it takes a lot to make things look easy.

Part of what makes Nick intriguing is his having recently switched to picking with just two fingers, due to a mysterious disability. Fortunately, Nick has found his way around the handicap, and applied his considerable creativity toward coming up with a full-blown two-finger style that not only sounds great but fits right into what his band needs. Ever the “band” player, Nick shines on the band’s new “Stellar Jays” CD.

This interview has other intriguing aspects: Nick’s history as a rock bass player, how a kid from the Northwest found his way into a leading bluegrass band, and what it’s like to work with an exceptional band leader.

Pete Wernick: When and where were you born?

Nick Hornbuckle: I was born July 16th, 1962 in Yakima, Washington.

BNL: When did you start playing banjo, and what got you started?

NH: I started playing when I was about eleven. It has always been some sort of mission in our family that the kids learn piano, so my younger brother and I took lessons for several years. Then we moved to the country, and thankfully there were no piano teachers [laughter]. But there was a neighbor who had an old open back 5-string, and when I saw that, that was it. After that I was just consumed by the banjo. This neighbor also had the Sonny Osborne (Mel Bay) book, but I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. But my mother found a teacher, Tom Kneip. I thought he was ancient—he was probably nineteen years old. My mom would take me to his house, and sit in the car while I had my lesson. I only took lessons for about three months, until he left town.

BNL: Were you using your neighbor’s banjo?

NH: I started out on his banjo, and then we heard about the Stew-Mac kits, and so they got me the open back kit, with the promise that if I stuck with it, they’d get me the resonator banjo. My dad and I put the kit together.

BNL: And you’re still eleven.

NH: Yes. And I played that banjo. That’s all I did. I mean, I went to school, and played soccer, but every spare moment was taken up by the banjo.

BNL: What kind of music were you trying to play on it?

NH: The only banjo music I’d ever heard was Dueling Banjo, and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. But my dad is a big Country music fan, and had that Statler Brothers record…

BNL: Flowers on the Wall!

NH: Exactly. And they had a banjo on it.

BNL: And the year you were eleven, 1973, Dueling Banjos was everywhere.

NH: Yeah, So on my first banjo lesson, my teacher asked me what style I wanted to play, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. So he played me something in clawhammer style, and then he put his picks on and played a 3-finger tune, and I said, “That’s the one I want to learn.” He didn’t use tab at all. He would sit me down and say, ‘This is the Stanley Brothers playing Roving Gambler, and we’d listen to the record a bunch of times, and then he’d show me how to play it. And he’d record himself playing it, and give me the tape, and then the next week he’d show me Earl playing No Mother or Dad, or whatever.

BNL: He sounds like a pretty good teacher.

NH: He was great. But after he left town, I went to the library and checked out your book, “Bluegrass Banjo,” and started working my way through that, and in there you mentioned slowing LPs down. So I found a kid’s record player that went down to 16 rpm, and I would go to record stores and find something that had Earl Scruggs on it. And then I got hip to J.D. Crowe, and so I looked for anything that had Jimmy Martin on it. From then I just learned by listening to records.

BNL: When did you start playing with other people? Did you play with your brother?

NH: Not initially. Right before I started high school, there was a teacher named Burt Myer who had a folk club. And my mother drove me out to his house to arrange an introduction. He asked me to play something, so I played Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and he said, “Wow. That’s pretty good.” So I got in a little band with him and some other teachers. We’d play at rest homes and school assemblies, that kind of thing.

BNL: Was that nerve-wracking, suddenly performing at assemblies, with adults?

NH: I was kind of an oddball in school. I wasn’t really impressed by the whole social structure of high school—to put it mildly. And people’s first reaction to my saying I played the banjo would be to make fun of me. But then I’d get it out and play, and I wasn’t great or anything, but I could play. And they’d go, “Oh. That’s cool.” So playing with Burt was a great experience. I had my share of butterflies, early on. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

BNL: So when did you get yourself in an actual bluegrass situation?

NH: Well, that band played at bluegrass. We played bluegrass numbers, but we also played old country music and novelty numbers. But I learned a lot.

BNL: What were that band’s top three crowd-pleasing songs?

NH: Well, after my brother joined the band on mandolin, it was usually the two of us hamming it up, playing behind our heads, that kind of stuff. And I was a huge Jimmy Martin fan, so we’d do stuff like Leaving Town, and FMB, and Dueling Banjos. My perspective on it now is, I could have been playing not very well at all, and people still would have thought it was cool, because of the little kid factor. Then I graduated, and started college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. But before that, when I was about 16, I started playing bass, because I’m a huge Beatles fan. Paul McCartney’s bass playing totally knocks me out. And my folks were not so crazy about that. They were willing to support my banjo playing, but they said I had to get a job if I wanted an electric bass. And at college I couldn’t find anyone to play bluegrass with, so I put my banjo down. I didn’t play it for a long time; I just played electric bass. I graduated from college in 1986, and started playing in rock bands.

BNL: Did you play a lot of Beatles material?

NH: We played a lot of covers, like the Stones, Beatles, and New Wave stuff like XTC, the Police, the Clash.

BNL: That’s a broader background than a lot of bluegrass banjo players bring to the table, in a bluegrass context. The Beatles were so inventive melodically, and with the chord progressions.

NH: One of the things I learned, from playing bass, is that first of all, you’re the rhythm section, and two, how important it is to clearly delineate, or distinguish, the different parts of a song from each other. In other words, if you have a tune that has the same chords in the verse and the chorus, it’s not that interesting to play the same thing all the time. So I’d try to figure out ways to make the verses and choruses sound different. And so, how that affects me now is that I’m aware of that, especially in bluegrass, because it’s a fairly harmonically simple kind of music, and so the more ways you can make stuff interesting—without being “busy” or flashy—but just by clearly delineating the different song parts, the better it will sound.

BNL: Do you relate directly to words? Do you stylize your playing according to literally what the song is about, at each section of the song?

NH: Sometimes, but its not really at the top of my mind, all the time. When I’m playing I’m in the pocket, in the groove, trying to play with (guitarist) Jim Nunally as much as I can.

BNL: So you’re thinking rhythmically?

NH: Absolutely.

BNL: So you were in rock bands…

NH: I moved to Seattle, and got in a really great original rock band called Son of Man, with some friends. This was in the late 1980s, which was when grunge music was happening, with Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, and Sound Garden, and Alice in Chains. And we knew all those guys; we’d play gigs with them.

BNL: So how come you didn’t get rich? [laughter]

NH: I ask myself that too… The band had a very original sound, and we were constantly writing and recording, and we were courted, so to speak, by Columbia and Sony and Island Records. But they did that to every band in Seattle, after Nirvana broke. The place was swarming with A&R guys, who’d take you out to dinner, pay for recording sessions, etc. And we took a trip down to LA to mix a demo tape, and I remember going to the Capitol building, the one that looks like a stack or records, and we spoke to this lawyer. And he presented us with a boilerplate contract that was 30 pages long, and said, you guys have twenty-four hours to sign this. And we told him, “We don’t understand this stuff, we don’t have a lawyer, we just can’t sign it.” And he said, basically, OK, see you later.

BNL: That was your big chance.

NH: If we had taken that shot, who knows what might have happened. But I don’t regret not doing that. Because the way those big record companies tend to work, the artist is always the last one to get paid, and typically with those kinds of contracts, you basically just get screwed. But so the upshot is, by 1992 the band was breaking up, and I was kind of getting fed up playing that kind of music anyway, because in Seattle at that time, and specifically with Alice in Chains, there was a really dark vibe surrounding all those guys. I didn’t know at the time that their lead singer was a junkie, I just knew there was a negative vibe, and I didn’t want to be around that.

BNL: Did you have long hair and look the part?

NH: Oh, totally. No beard. And I was skinny, believe it or not. But so the band fell apart, and then I got a call from Burt, the teacher I used to play with. He said they were having a reunion show, and wanted to know if I wanted to come down. I hadn’t played by banjo in ten years, so I got it out, and started playing, and did the show. Afterwards, Burt said they had a gig in August, and wondered if I could do it. And I said, sure, but where? I thought it was a fair or something. And he said, “Japan.” And I said, “Sure.” So then I started getting serious. I bought a really nice Deering Golden Era, and started practicing. And the interesting thing is, when I came back to the banjo after so long away, after being in the rhythm section, when I started listening to Crowe and Scruggs again, a light clicked on. Because when I was a kid I didn’t understand what Earl was doing; it just sounded like he was playing a bunch of licks. And I figured out the licks and thought, well, is this all there is to it? I didn’t understand he was playing the tune. But when I came back and listened again, I realized what he was doing. So it made it all much more interesting.

BNL: That is fascinating. Your story doesn’t parallel anyone else that I can think of. So how did the Japan gig go? Sounds like you got all practiced up, and it got you back in the saddle as a banjo player.

NH: Yes, to some extent. I’m sure I realized that I sucked, but I could still do the job—the reunion gig, and then Japan, where we played for two weeks, basically to publicize the promoter’s retirement homes. But honestly, I’m just feeling like, right now, I’m starting to get a handle on my playing; like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve always been extremely critical of my own playing.

After that I joined a band called City Limits, which stayed together for a while. And then I formed a band called Northern Pacific; we recorded a CD and gigged around a lot. And at that point I met John Reischman, at a music camp. John Miller (who used to be the bass player in your band Country Cooking) called me up and asked if I could go to his music camp that he had on Vashon Island, and be the staff banjo guy (not an instructor). So I took a week off to go to that camp, and I can still remember sitting in the ferry terminal, waiting to go to Vashon, and thinking, “Everybody is going to laugh at me and tell me to go home.” I was just petrified. But at that point I had to try it. So I get over there, and the other instructors are Kathy Kalick, Orville Johnson, and this very quiet mandolin player, John Reischman. So the day we get to camp, all the instructors go down to the shore to rehearse and put together some numbers to play to the camp. And this is embarrassing, but I’d never heard of John Reischman, but I could tell by the way everyone was deferring to him, that he was a biscuit, a happening guy. So John got out his mandolin, and I’d never heard anyone play one like that before. And I’d thought I’d heard some pretty good players. But he was the best I’d ever heard, and still IS. So we started to play, and he and I hit it off pretty well.

BNL: What is it about John’s mandolin playing that means so much to you?

NH: Well, one of the things I value the most is a musician who plays for the common good, to make the song sound good. My favorite electric guitar player is Steve Cropper, right? And my favorite drummer is Al Jackson. They both play the groove. And so with John, he can play circles around anybody, but you stand on stage next to him, and what he’s doing most of the time is just keeping time, and doing it in a fabulous way. And what that says to me is, he looks at the song in a larger context. Instead of “check me out; look at how hot I can play.” And I really respect that. And he’s also a great human being.

BNL: So you’ve said what John doesn’t do. But what does he do?

NH: I’ve played with John on a pretty regular basis since 1997, and his sense of time, and the groove (when he’s chopping, and also soloing) is impeccable; he never falls off the beat. I think his timing is on a level with Earl Scruggs. It seems that John feels the time in such a profound way that he can’t not play in time. And his melodic ideas are beautiful. If you listen to his tunes on his “Up In The Woods” CD, there’s some very deep music there, and it’s not about being flashy. You know, I love Irish music because its centuries old, it’s deep, and I think of John’s music in the same way—even though it’s not old. He’s coming from that place that is not just, here’s a chord sequence; let’s just blow over it. He writes great melodies.

BNL: That’s a lovely portrait of John, from a close-up point of view. He’s of course very respected in the general bluegrass community, but he’s hugely respected among musicians. The public tends to relate to the flash factor, and also, living on the west coast all these years, he’s not heard as much in the typical bluegrass loop.

NH: Another thing I admire about John is his level-headedness. When I was playing rock and roll, we could do these small tours, and there was always some highly questionable activity going on, if you know what I mean. Not that I’m an old maid or anything, but once I got to know John, I knew that I felt totally comfortable going on a tour with him, knowing that kind of stuff wasn’t going to be going on. John’s a real stand-up guy. I feel safe being around him.

Another thing about John… I’ve played with musicians who thought they were the second coming of Jimi Hendrix, and they could barely string together anything. And then I get to play with this amazing mandolin player who can play anything, and he’s a very humble guy.

BNL: One thing I notice when I’m around the Jaybirds, is that they just seem like mature people who enjoy each other’s company, and are dedicated to music. In show business, just being real can be a bit of an anomaly.

NH: The Jaybirds didn’t come together by chance; John was very choosy about who he wanted in his band. And he had known each of us as people as well as musicians. That just shows he was smart, because there are a lot of great pickers and singers out there, but getting five people together that can gel musically, and spend time together on the road, that’s difficult. And I can’t imagine being in a band where you hate each other, but I know that a lot of the bands that we come across at festivals, they do all hate each other. And that’s such a drag; I’d rather dig a ditch.

BNL: Well said. A lot of banjo players are banjocentric, and not thinking of how getting someplace as a banjo player almost for sure means getting in a good band, which means learning to be a good band member, both on stage and off. And without being in a respected, long-lasting band, it’s hard to get that visibility, no matter how dang good they are. I see that a lot. And so the Jaybirds have had the same line-up for eight years—that’s already way above the norm. Most bands don’t even last eight years. So you started with John by recording six cuts with him on “Up In The Woods”. And the Jaybirds actually come out of that album. All the future band members were on that album.

NH: Yes. A couple of the cuts that Dennis Caplinger plays banjo on, I had actually tracked a banjo part on, but it just wasn’t happening. There’s one tune, Eighth of February [tabbed out in BNL], which is a really great tune, but I don’t play that melodic style of banjo. So, thankfully, Dennis came in and played great on it.

BNL: Seeing the band perform, there is a sense of the whole as being greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve heard a lot of really exceptional musicians, but something that really fires me up, and makes me glow even, is watching people who fit together, and create something bigger than the sum of their parts. Because one of the things that’s most fun to watch is teamwork. Individual virtuosity can be incredible, but teamwork is a human concoction that involves both individual effort and sensitivity to what’s around you, and knowing what not to do, as well as knowing what to do. That kind of interaction is a joy to see. It might not be the first thing you notice, but it has great staying power.

NH: Absolutely. We spend a lot of time in the van together, talking. In these modern times, people can easily feel so separated from each other. And one of the biggest attractions this band is that you have five people working together. And what I feel that does for the audience is to allow them to experience teamwork vicariously, and it’s a very powerful thing. And very attractive. And it’s totally separate from the musical component.

BNL: I do believe it constitutes a message itself. And that’s partly why I’m a fan of your playing, because you play like a team member. Can we talk about how you approach soloing? It’s obvious that you cherish the groove when playing back-up, and listening to anything you’ve recorded, you can hear the banjo helping the groove happen. But here comes your solo, you’re in the spotlight; what goes through your head?

NH: We are all geographically distant from each other; the only time we get together is when we’re touring. And usually on tour we have a day off, and so we’ll convene in Trish’s hotel room, to run through new material. And for the last few years Jim records our rehearsals and burns CDs so we can go home and learn how to play the tunes.

As for what goes through my mind: On the album “Field Guide” there’s the tune Little Willy, which is in C. At that point I’d been getting into Double C tuning, and I was thinking it was a great opportunity to try that tuning out. So what I try to do is to match the vocal phrasing of the singer. There are actually three top factors. I try to play the melody, make things happen rhythmically, and make it all sound cool. And all of those considerations are equally important. Most of the time I’m able to cover all those factors, to my own satisfaction.

BNL: When you say, try to make it sound cool, what are your resources, and how do you do that?

NH: In Little Willy, when you hear Trisha sing, she has a great bluesy quality to her voice. She doesn’t jump from note to note; she bends and slides. So when I was trying to figure out a break to the song, I realized if I were to do a bend in a certain part, it would sound very close to what she was singing. When we’re playing a more up-tempo bluegrassy tune, I try to play more in that tradition. But the Jaybirds aren’t Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. We don’t play hardcore bluegrass, so I don’t usually have to worry about playing in that way. I feel I can be more creative with my playing.

BNL: You don’t feel like you’re bound by the traditions of bluegrass banjo. It’s among your influences, but you don’t feel you have to adhere to it, every moment.

NH: No. I realized this a few years ago: much as I like to play along with “Foggy Mountain Banjo” and “Live at Carnegie Hall,” I’m never going to sound like Earl. There are people who play Scruggs-style really well, like Jim Mills, and Tom Adams. I could spend the rest of my life chasing them, but there’s really no point. It’s like I say to John, I have to let my freak flag fly.

BNL: Quoting Jimi Hendrix.

NH: I have to do my own thing, because I tried for years to copy Earl. But unless you’re playing with Lester, Curley, Josh, Jake and Paul Warren, it’s just not going to work.

Last summer we were teaching at a music camp, and I met Chris Sharp for the first time. And Chris is a very good banjo player, by the way. Chris plays in that Lester Flatt style, with thumb pick and a fingerpick. Chris is a huge Scruggs scholar, and he said about the recordings Scruggs made when he first joined the Blue Grass Boys, that Earl sounded good, but he didn’t really sound like Earl until he started “playing” Lester’s rhythm. Once he started doing that, that’s when his style really began. And I think there may be some truth to that, because there’s a certain feel to Lester’s rhythm that’s really hard to get if you’re playing with a flat pick.

BNL: So what can you say about Earl’s influence, even if you’re not trying to sound like him?

NH: Earl is such a classy musician. He’s a total band player. When it’s his turn to step up, and lay it out, he does, but when it’s his turn to play rhythm, he’s great. He a definite template for me, in terms of tastefulness. And his timing is amazing. If there’s anyone I’d like to sound like, in terms of tone, its Earl on “Foggy Mountain Banjo.”

BNL: What else do you think of when you, as you say, want to “put some cool stuff in.”

NH: To me, the cool stuff is something that sounds distinct. And by distinct I don’t mean it’s going to blow your hair off. When I take a solo, I try to play the melody, pretty close. And some guys can do that great, like Craig Smith. He kicks off a tune like Drifting With the Tide, and it’s the tune. And for whatever reason, I don’t do that. But I’m more of a less-is-more type of guy. And if there’s going to be something distinct, it might be trying to play something as simply as I can.

BNL: My take on that is, a speaker doesn’t need to be breathtaking to be memorable. It helps if they use a phrase that says something well, that hasn’t been said before. So if you say, “Don’t count your chickens…” etc., we’d heard that before. But like Earl once said, he referred to somebody as “one knife short of a full set.” That’s the kind of thing you remember. He got his meaning across, but he phrased it in a certain way that tickles you. And in almost any solo I’ve heard you play, you do something that—maybe the casual listener might not notice it as unique. But as somebody who has heard a lot of players, to hear you play something cool that I’ve not heard before, I’m going to stay tuned, and listen harder at the next solo, because you probably are going to do it again. And sure enough, you do! And that’s the same characteristic that Sammy Shelor and Tom Adams have in their playing. They could just rehash stuff, but they don’t. So you feel like you’re getting something tailored for you, the listener. You’re getting your money’s worth.

And you’re faithful to the tune, and you’re a band player… So these are values that I admire, as well as sounds that I like. And if I feel that my musical values are being reinforced, and not just my ears enjoying it, that’s a pretty complete experience. That’s why I place you high among banjo players, because you do those things reliably.

NH: I really appreciate that.

BNL: Can you add anything about your musical values?

NH: One thing I try not to do is play a lick just for the sake of playing a lick. You know, there’s a ton of great Scruggs licks, and once in a while, in a solo, I’ll put one in as my homage to Earl. And if I could send him a buck I would—but I don’t have two quarters to rub together. And the other things is, especially since being in the Jaybirds—I’m really aware that it’s important, as a recording artist, to have a fairly unique, identifiable sound. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of my friends listen to a lot of Sirius radio bluegrass, and nine times out of ten I can’t tell who’s playing. They all sound to me like guys just stringing together a bunch of Earl’s licks. And that’s totally fine. But hopefully when someone hears me, they go, well, first, “That sounds different.” And secondly, “Hey, it’s that guy.”

BNL: I interviewed Lester Flatt about singing, and he said almost the same thing. Nine and of ten singers sound alike, but when he’s singing you know who it is. And for people like Tony Rice or Earl or Jerry Douglas, those guys all have the problem of having so many people imitating them. And to remain unique, they may try to reinvent themselves. And it’s not so easy, once you’ve invented your own style, to stay distinct from all your imitators. It’s a challenge. And it’s brought about by the incredible appeal of what they did in the first place.

Part 2 in the November 2007 issue

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