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Picking the Bluegrass Life

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“Dr. Banjo” Pete Wernick left an ivory-tower job for a rural musical style more in tune with his spirit.

By ED WILL | The Denver Post
November 13, 2005

LEFT: Banjo legend Pete Wernick likes to practice in a tiny cabin that he built near a small creek behind his house in Niwot, where he often performs.

Judy Banfield had lost contact with childhood friend Pete Wernick until she saw him at a summer reunion last year.

Yes, she knew Wernick became a professional bluegrass musician in the mid-1970s. But that was about it.
Then an e-mail arrived. Wernick had a gig in Spokane, Wash. He planned to drive the 150 miles from there to Nelson, British Columbia, where Banfield lives. Could she find out if the community had any interest in him performing?

Banfield relayed his request to a woman involved in the local bluegrass scene.

“You grew up with Pete Wernick?” the flabbergasted woman asked. “You, like, grew up with Dr. Banjo? He is like the king of banjo. Everyone in North America who has learned the banjo learned it from Pete Wernick.”

So that’s what happened to Banfield’s old friend.

Americans seem to have a knack for living lives that take them all over the map. But a journey that carries someone from the Bronx to Niwot, from a brilliant university career to the top echelon of bluegrass music, is a tale worthy of Mark Twain.That the man also walks away unscathed from a mangled airliner in Iowa seems to stretch even the bounds of fiction.

Wernick, 59, has lived in Colorado for 29 years and probably is best known here as the founding father of the seminal bluegrass band Hot Rize. Bluegrass binds his life together, taut as a banjo’s D string.

“It took me a while to evolve from a person who thought the life of humanity revolved around New York City into realizing that life is really based on nature. And cities are what people build on top of nature,” he said in a recent interview. “Bluegrass is a tonic for a lot of what modern society is about.”

“Of all the endeavors I’ve seen, I see less pretentiousness in bluegrass than anything else.”

Wernick is also acclaimed as a banjo teacher and all-around guru for the instrument. His seminal book “Bluegrass Banjo” has sold nearly 250,000 copies since 1974. He has taught thousands in private lessons and banjo camps and via instructional videos and DVDs.

A recent appearance with comedian Steve Martin and banjo icon Earl Scruggs on “Late Night With David Letterman” exposed him to millions more.

It wasn’t exactly the plan. 

Wernick grew up as a Jewish kid in the Bronx, not exactly a hotbed of the high lonesome sound from the hollows of Appalachia. His math professor father and librarian mother stressed academics. Both Wernick and his older sister have doctorates in sociology.

“My parents really grieved that I left 5,000 years of heritage behind,” Wernick said. “And my problem was that I didn’t see how any of it really connected to my own real life. Instead, I embraced this kind of music that grew up in the rural South, which I had almost no exposure to as a kid except through the wild music that was coming through the radio and originating in the South.

“That wild, free-sounding music just spoke to me. It finally sucked me all the way in.”

His father owned a banjo and a guitar but played neither. A close-knit group of neighborhood friends nurtured Wernick’s interest in folk music.

“We were all from very political backgrounds, very left-wing backgrounds,” friend Albi Gorn said. Wernick was the only one whose parents were not radicals. Gorn thinks that’s why Wernick was the only one who fell for bluegrass.

While they all enjoyed the music, Gorn said, the others considered it a few notches below folk. Bluegrass, invented whole cloth by Bill Monroe in the 1940s, was nonpolitical. It was the music of Saturday night and Sunday morning, hill-country style. Like jazz, its purveyors and fans prized technical proficiency and improvisation.

Wernick first heard banjo icon Scruggs on a record at the home of Jake Koenig, a musician friend.

“There was no special reason for me to pick banjo,” Wernick said.

“But what happened was when I was about 14 (Jake) said, ‘You want to learn something on the banjo?’ If he said guitar, I would have learned guitar.”

Wernick dug out his dad’s old five-string and soon joined the group’s jam sessions. Koenig, Gorn and another childhood friend, Martin Bresnick, said Wernick had no natural affinity for the instrument.

“Nobody thought he would ever be able to play the banjo, none of  his friends,” said Koenig, who lives in Mexico City. “But Pete has an amazing persistence and incredible self-discipline. He worked on it and worked on it and worked on it.”

Wernick’s sister, Sarah, can’t forget his dogged practicing.

“Listening to the banjo, the unaccompanied banjo being played by someone who is learning it and repeating things can be a difficult experience,” she said. “So he was sent down into the basement.”

“Genius of his teaching”

Today, Wernick practices in a cabin he built next to Left Hand Creek, which runs through the Niwot property where the family home sits.

He and his wife, Joan Leonard Wernick, moved there in August 1976, about two years before he formed Hot Rize. They have one child, Will. He is 23 and a filmmaker and University of Colorado student.

From Niwot, Wernick watches over his musical empire. Not that he calls it that – no one gets rich in bluegrass. “It’s not corrupted by money,” he said. “Money is a factor of course. We all have to make a living.”

He does that through teaching and performing, both with Pete Wernick and Flexigrass, a band mixing bluegrass and Dixieland jazz, and Pete and Joan Wernick, a country duo. She plays guitar and sings.

Wernick and Flexigrass, with Joan Wernick as vocalist, perform the first and third Tuesdays of each month at the D Note in Arvada. Both acts play nationally and overseas.

Their annual fall homecoming concerts are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Left Hand Grange Hall in Niwot. Wernick also makes money off his five instructional books, seven how-to videos and sundry banjo and bluegrass camps.

“Probably the genius of his teaching about bluegrass is to show you that with very few simple tools you can actually be playing real music,” said Rick Saenz of Kentucky. “He has stripped down bluegrass to its essentials. He says all you really need to know is three chords.”

Saenz and his son Chris, 16, attended their first jam camp two years ago with virtually no musical experience. Six weeks after that camp they played their first open-mic gig. A year later they started booking paid dates.

A scholar and a legend

Wernick earned a doctorate from Columbia University in New York City. But even while toiling in academia, he lived another life as a bluegrass fanatic.

He spent his Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park, which drew bluegrass pickers from all over the city.

“That is where I met some of the best bluegrass musicians in the city, including guys who are friends of mine today, David Grisman and Jody Stecher,” he said of his fellow legends.

He played with the Morningside Mountain Boys and started a bluegrass music show on the university radio station.

Joan Leonard Wernick met her future husband at a party in Boulder in summer 1969. She was studying at the University of Colorado. Wernick was traveling the country playing music with friends.

“I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for anybody,” said Joan Wernick, raised in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. “I was not at all on the lookout for anybody.”

The couple spent most of the next two days together.

“Then he went to California and then came back six weeks later or so,” she said. “And we have been together ever since.”

She returned with him to New York. By the time he was finishing research on his dissertation, Wernick was pondering a future in music.

“I was really interested in seeing society better itself, and I still am,” he said. “Back in 1974 when this kind of all came together, probably musicians were doing a lot more to change the culture than any sociologist was.

“Finally, the community of bluegrass people seems a lot more attractive to me as a community than the academic community did,” Wernick said.

His band, Country Cooking, recorded a hit album. “That got us all taking ourselves seriously as musicians that had something to contribute on the national scene,” he said.

Then he was hired to write what became “Bluegrass Banjo.” A bluegrass songbook followed. “I was making more money from those royalties than I was from Cornell,” Wernick said. “I thought I could bolt from academia and not go broke in the process.”

Giving all at each show

One of the most personal songs Wernick has ever written is “A Day in ’89.” It’s his story of July 19, 1989. Wernick and his family were among 181 survivors of United Air Lines flight 232, which crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people.

He wrote the song six years later. It details “how it started off as a very normal, ordinary day. We were just taking a plane trip, and little by little this unbelievable situation unfolds.”

Wernick realized that the crash affected his music, at least in one respect: If he finds himself onstage playing too conservatively, he reminds himself he could die tomorrow.

If it’s to be his last concert, he wants it packed with innovation and risk, not hedged bets.  That daring is why one fan in Nelson, British Columbia, told Banfield that if Dr. Banjo came to town, “people would get down on their knees and kiss his feet.”

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