by Bill Donaldson
(The following appeared in the February, 2004 issue of Pow’r Pickin’)
Suppose you set out with the objective to have a positive influence on the human condition. Would you strive to be sociologist? Or a bluegrass banjo player? If you were Pete Wernick, a.k.a. Doctor Banjo, you would do both. Pete has credentials as both a Doctor of Sociology and a renowned banjoist who has delighted listeners around the world for the past thirty plus years. Thus, the Doctor Banjo moniker really means something.
Pete started out a product of New York City, growing up during the Eisenhower years in the Bronx where he was drawn to the banjo from listening to Earl Scruggs records. He was there in 1962 to see Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall. It was the first time he had seen them live.
“While in high school,” Pete explains. “I discovered the banjo and bluegrass. I had friends who played folk music, and I started playing an instrument just to fit in with my friends. Lucky I had great personal friends who I grew up with in the Bronx.”
So, if home was “da Bronx,” you may wonder why his vocal inflection doesn’t remind you of Tony Soprano. “I made it a point to lose the accent when I was in junior high school because people thought it sounded awful.” Wemick tells of listening to people down south. “I liked Elvis. I liked rock-a-billy. I liked Fats Domino. All these guys are from the south, and a lot of our best music comes from the south. Language is more musical down south.”
A sheepish grin crosses Pete’s face. “I really liked the banjo, and I realized it would help get attention for me. And, well, the guy who was doing better with this particular girl that I was interested in, he played the banjo, but he wasn’t really that good.” Wernick reasoned that he could work up some skills on his banjo and make a better impression with the ladies. “I thought, well I’m going to play better than he can.” Apparently that was enough incentive. It didn’t take him long to get real proficient.
He started hanging around with other musicians who were into bluegrass. “There was enough interest in bluegrass in New York City, there would be jams in the park between two and six on Sunday afternoons, he says. “I’d go down on the subway with my banjo and play with these people. That’s were I met David Grisman. I got a bluegrass education playing with the small number of people who played around the New York area.”
While still in high school, Pete was hosting New York’s only radio program dedicated to bluegrass. “In my radio job, I got to talk to and ask questions of Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and Bill Monroe,” His mother, though, was concerned that he was spending too much time on his radio show. One hour a week. “I just couldn’t believe she wouldn’t want me to do the bluegrass radio show because it was so cool.”
The radio show was also a learning experience for Wernick. “My friends would listen to the show and tell me what I had done wrong. David (Grisman) took it upon himself to educate me. He said he was fed up with my not knowing enough about Bill Monroe.”
Pete went on to school at Columbia, but he continued to play his banjo and host the radio program on the side. There was an influential professor at Columbia who heard Wernick play at a Christmas party. “He was a really famous dude and I was a first year student. He told me, ‘Give up the sociology. Play the banjo. He was saying I would do more good in the world with music.”
Following graduation from Columbia, Pete further pursued academia earning his doctorate in sociology from prestigious Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
It was while traveling across the country in 1969 during a hiatus in graduate school that Dr. Banjo met singer/guitar player, Joan “Nondi” Leonard, in Boulder. “Nondi,” Pete explains, “is an African word that means ‘sunshine.’ It was a great name for her because sunshine fit her personality.” Pete was on his way to California at the time. “But I stayed in touch with Nondi by letter and by phone. About the middle of the summer I was in a band in California, but really wanted to see more of her, so I went back to Colorado from Berkeley. By the end of that month I had to head back to New York for more graduate school stuff. I invited her to come with me.” She agreed to travel. Pete and Nondi stopped in North Carolina on the way back to New York to attend a bluegrass festival. It was the same weekend as Woodstock.
“One of the things that is really wonderful in my life,” Pete says, “is that (Joan’s) appreciation of bluegrass is very similar to mine. She doesn’t like stuff that doesn’t come from the heart. That’s what 1 like, too proficiency is where it ends. Proficiency is a tool. That’s what’s special about bluegrass; there’s a lot of heart and soul flying around. Tim O’Brien certainly can do that. He’s got the great instrument, but he also knows how to sing with feeling. Bradford Lee Folk, right here in Colorado, is that kind of singer. Glenn Zankey is another.”
While at Cornell, Pete started a band, called Country Cooking, with Joan as the lead singer. When a new record company, called Rounder Records, opened for business with an eye toward producing roots music, Pete approached them and worked a deal to record Country Cooking.
He was working at Cornell as a research associate studying population growth. Music was still an avocation. A friend had written a book and suggested Pete should also take a shot at writing. “I said just as soon as I finish my doctoral thesis, I’ll write a book. So I wrote my second ‘thesis’ right after that. It was a rather large book.” Naturally, his topic was playing banjo.
As it happened, the book, Bluegrass Banjo, came out at the same time as Dueling Banjos and Will The Circle Be Unbroken. “A lot of people then wanted to learn banjo,” Pete says. Bluegrass Unlimited included Bluegrass Banjo in the Book of the Month Club, and it became a best seller.
He followed that one up with his Bluegrass Songbook. Also a best seller. “So I had these big fat royalty checks coming in for a while. It was more than I was making at Cornell. And I realized that in academia, the people are well, musicians are more fun than sociologists.” That’s when he decided it might be better to focus his attention more on music.
“In my college days, all my friends were musicians. Not the people I studied with for class. They may have been friends, but not my buds.” And then there was the goal of making a positive impact. “As a sociologist, I really wanted to help change the world, but I found that no politician is going to listen to a sociologist. When I had a chance to bolt, I did.
“I left academia partly because I felt the musical community was more my kind of people — more diverse kinds of people. And musicians can do a lot because people relate to musicians. In the early seventies, musicians were really leading the way.”
By 1976, however, Pete and Nondi were growing weary of the “cloudy, rainy, humid New York weather,” and were thinking of other places to go. The choices were narrowed down to Colorado or Boston. Pete says,
“I didn’t want to live in the city. And I really wouldn’t have wanted to move to Colorado except there was a good music scene there with the Denver Folklore Center, I thought, wow! This was a happening place. Charles Sawtelle was there. I thought any town that can support a thing like this has got to be a good town.”
They took up residence in bucolic Niwot. “Two and a half acres with a creek running through it.” The Wernicks found their home and have remained ever since.
“Two weeks after I moved to Denver, I was playing at the Folklore Center regularly with Charles Sawtelle and Warren Kennison.”
Wernick continued to hang around the Folklore Center and meet new players. In 1978, he looked to bring together a band that could make a couple records and play for one summer. “That’s how Hot Rize started,” Pete tells us. The band comprised Wernick, Sawtelle, Nick Forster, and Tim O’Brien. “We were full-time right from the beginning. Hot Rize took on a life of its own. That one summer turned out to be twelve years.” And Hot Rize has continued as an occasional band for the past thirteen years
“None of this was exactly planned,” Pete says. “Hot Rize worked very hard. We played a lot, of cheap and sometimes undignified. gigs just to keep working. Charles talked us into buying a Cadillac to travel in. It turned out we had a great bunch of know-how in the critical areas. Charles was a genius on sound. Our motorhead was Nick. I was the guy who could do phone calls.”
Tim O’Brien. thought the band would be better if they included some variety, a little breakaway from non-stop bluegrass. Wernick thought maybe adding a little Dobro might be a nice change of pace. Instead of a Dobro, however, he got a deal on an electric steel guitar and Hot Rize began to include what they called the “steel stuff,” honky-tonk and swing tunes that utilized the “electric table,” i.e., the steel guitar
One thing led to another. Jokes were added. A change of wardrobe. Sunglasses. Before you could say, “mighty fine, and a. great big western howdy, “Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers hitched a ride in the back of the bus and spelled Hot Rize for one set each night.
“We really felt Red Knuckles was another band,” Pete says. “In our own minds we were not thinking of ourselves as Red Knuckles. They were them, and we were us. I’m not Waldo.”
What about the charge from some quarters that the humor wasn’t appropriate in bluegrass? “Some of the only bands that presented stuff that was fun were Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley did skits,” Pete explains. “FIatt and Scruggs had, comedians. Ralph Stanley would have Ernie Thacker dance on stage. All the copy bands were too scared to have any fun-happen because it was like it wasn’t respectful to the music. They didn’t seem to have noticed that their heroes were entertainers and not just musicians.
“The Kingston Trio had what they called the “X Factor.” They let the audience know they didn’t know what was going to happen next, and they didn’t care what was going to happen next, except that it was going to be fun. The audiences loved it.”
Pete tells of the extra effort he took to be sure the TV viewers on Austin City Limits knew he was having fun. “I practiced smiling while I played, mindlessly smiling because a lot. of people: don’t get it when they see a banjo player not smiling. They think something is the matter. It has to look like it’s fun.
One little ethic Within Hot Rize is if there is any way we can do it better, let’s do it. A lot. Of bluegrass bands come out as hobbyists. And that’s okay. It’s a wonderful hobby. But they will pick material that’s jam session material. They don’t do anything special. They don’t try to do hard-to-write material. As the Riders in the Sky would say, it may be the easy way, but it’s not the cowboy way.”
Pete ran his first five-day banjo camp in 1980. He has had a banjo camp annually for the past twenty years. At this year’s camp, there were students who, traveled from England and Italy to learn bluegrass banjo. “I always ask at the beginning of the class, who thinks they will be the worst player in the class. About half usually raise their hands.”
Pete’s goal is to instill enough ability and confidence in the students so that they can jump into a jam and feel, comfortable and feel that they belong. “My mission now in life is to get other people to fulfill their dream. Then I’ll be happy to know the bluegrass world is a better world, and I honestly believe if the bluegrass world is healthy, the whole world is healthier. Bluegrass is an art form that is. also a wonderful community. A bluegrass festival at two in the morning is the best place in the world. l’ve met some really nice people in those situations.
“You should see the peace and love, that’s going on over at my banjo camp. Those people are high with the experience of playing Worried Man Blues, and it works.
Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) is now in its eleventh year of playing a blend of Dixieland and bluegrass, what Pete calls “flexigrass.”
“I’ve just always loved Dixieland music,” he says. “It’s a tremendous sound, and I think it’s really tragic that Dixieland is sort of passé. It’s great music, and it’s much more related to. bluegrass than most bluegrass people know. These are great players. I would think, wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if a Dixieland player would get in a bluegrass band?
Wernick acted on the idea and brought together some jazz musicians to record some tunes. “And it would have lived and died right then except a lot of people, when they. heard some of the stuff, said I should do a whole record-of this. Tim O’Brien said I should do a whole record, and so did Jerry Douglas.”
After Hot Rize, Pete was not eager to do another bluegrass band with another twelve year climb to the top. “I was still loving bluegrass and wanting to play it, but I just got into wanting to play music with these guys. We got to play MerleFest and we went over real well.”
John Hartford would tell me, “Do what you love. Then even if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted your time. “I enjoy (playing with Flexigrass) so much I don’t want it to ever stop because they’re so good.”
Of the Colorado bluegrass community, Pete says, I just think CBMS is the greatest thing. I think Mike Dow should get some major award, and all the people who. have worked on CBMS, B.J. Suter, for example.
“Think of the great things that have been concocted by human beings. I think of the Beatles. I think of great art. People are capable of wonderful, incredible things. I think bluegrass music is a very positive thing on Planet Earth.”