by Sean McCormick
(The following appeared in Bluegrass Bulletin, from the Central Texas Bluegrass Assn. May, 2006 Issue)
Pete Wernick, “Dr. Banjo,” is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to Bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize, respected author and teacher, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Our own contributing editor Sean McCormick had the opportunity to sit down ask Mr. Wernick ten questions.
Sean McCormick: Who were your biggest influences musically growing up?
Pete Wernick: My radio favorites were Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Webb Pierce, there in the mid-50s when I kind of discovered the world of music. Then some of my friends got into folk music, which eventually led to me starting to play banjo Pete Seeger style, and then I got really into Bluegrass, with Scruggs especially, and then the wider world of all the different Bluegrass bands. By the time I was 18 I had a Bluegrass radio show and got to hear a lot of the great early records.
Sean: Was the banjo your first instrument and what other instruments do you play?
Pete: Yes, banjo was the first instrument I learned to play. I picked up guitar after I could play some banjo and taught myself to fingerpick and later play Bluegrass rhythm. I’ve written a bunch of songs that came about when I was playing guitar. I can play a bit of steel guitar, but I let Waldo Otto use my steel and then he put his name on it and wouldn’t give it back. I can chop chords on a mandolin and play simple bass till my fingers wear out.
Sean: Growing up in New York City, what was the Bluegrass scene like?
Pete: I like to say, “In the sixties in New York City, about one in a million people were really into Bluegrass.” In that metropolitan area that made about sixteen people, and some of them were pretty powerful musicians, such as Jody Stecher, David Grisman, Winnie Winston, and Steve Arkin. They were some of the mainstays and had bands that I would hear. There weren’t a lot of gigs, but aside from the various concerts and coffeehouses, there was a weekly jam in Washington Square Park. You could meet the different players there. The first time I heard local players was at the first Bluegrass show I ever went to, Flatt & Scruggs with Joan Baez opening January, 1961. There were maybe 2-3 shows a year in the general New York City area where famous acts from the south would come. I saw Monroe, Jim & Jesse, Red Allen, and various others.
I started the only radio show that played Bluegrass in the NY City area in the sixties. It was an hour a week, then went to two hours. It’s still going all these years later, though the name has changed to the Moonshine Show. David and Jody and I did some recording at my college radio station. I was in a couple of bands that would play a few gigs a year and be respected within the folk crowd that flourished at the time.
Sean: Many people are familiar with your work in the group Hot Rize. What was it like to perform with such great musicians as Tim O’Brien, and Charles Sawtelle?
Pete: Tim is a real powerhouse, in a pretty mellow package. I have always felt a kick of energy when Tim chops mandolin, and his singing sets a good strong tone for whatever the song is about. Part of the Hot Rize unspoken code is just putting out. Swing hard and stay alert. Charles was into understatement and then occasional overstatement. He was very attentive to the tone, rhythm and texture, and he was always glad to be supportive. He would use the word “pro” to indicate his standards. Nick has a very complementary style. That is, he can detect a wavelength, get on it, and ride it. His alertness to the needs of the audience also helps keep the focus in a good place. Having the teamwork that we experienced for over twenty years has been a cherished memory. It’s very satisfying to be able to tap into that even after Charles is gone, and I’m glad we still get to do it.
Sean: What inspired you to start your very popular Jam Camps?
Pete: I had been teaching various banjo camps, and kept noticing how people were not very good at jamming, even some pretty well-practiced players. So many people have wanted to start playing and have been spoon-fed an exact way to play a variety of instrumental pieces, as though instrumental reciting were what it’s all about. So at my banjo camps, I would teach jamming skills, and then one time I decided to invite people playing instruments besides banjos. A lot of people showed up. So I tried an entire camp for all instruments, and a lot of people showed up. It was a hit. Now I’m doing ten a year, and a lot of people are still showing up! I’m kind of surprised how long it took me to catch on that in Bluegrass, jam skills have to be learned just like teamwork in any endeavor. It’s not just a matter of solo study. I’ve got three Jamming DVDs now, and hopefully other teachers will catch on that they need to be teaching jamming, not just soloing.
Sean: Do you have a memorable moment you’d like to share from one of your Jam Camps?
Pete: I have often showed people that they can sing in tune, even those who’ve never been able to carry a tune, and have been told they are tone deaf or some such. In one such case, the guy was so moved, there were tears in his eyes and he kept shaking my hand. A few minutes later I passed by a jam and he was in there singing away on I Saw the Light. That was pretty cool.
Sean: You also have several instructional videos and DVD’s available. Tell us a little more about them.
Pete: The jamming DVDs are at very moderate speeds, so that a person can play along with a real group and see what happens. The first DVD is super-slow, and uses a lot of two chord songs. No picker left behind! The player follows the chord changes by watching a guitar player’s left hand on screen. On two of the DVDs there’s a place in every song where the player at home can try a solo.
Aside from the jamming DVDs, I have a very elementary banjo play along called Get Rolling, and then my main best seller, Beginning Bluegrass Banjo. That’s been out over 20 years and still going strong. For more advanced players who want to learn the neck, I have a two-DVD set called Branching Out on the Banjo. I think of that set as a large pile of building blocks and a demonstration of a bunch of ways to use them. All my instructional materials are described in detail and can be ordered from DrBanjo.com
Sean: Let’s talk about your group, Flexigrass. Not many banjo players who can say they perform in a group featuring clarinet, vibraphone and brushed drums! How did the concept for this group come about?
Pete: Hearing Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain play, I would often think how cool it would be if they could play in a Bluegrass band. Same with some vibes players like Gary Burton or Lionel Hampton. In the late 80s, while Hot Rize was still going, I wanted to experiment with the sounds of drums and banjo. I started getting together with Kris Ditson, whose style of Bluegrass drumming I’d liked for a long time. I asked him if he knew any vibes or clarinet players, and he landed me two good ones. We have different players now, but Kris and I are still at it.
Sean: With the unique combination of instruments, how does it affect the way you select material?
Pete: It opens some doors, like tunes from the jazz era, such as Alabamy Bound, or Sweet Georgia Brown. My kind of banjo playing can fit into those tunes pretty easily. When it comes to Bluegrassy stuff, not everything seems to apply to this kind of instrumentation. Clarinet and vibes are just not “country” instruments, and don’t really work with a “back porch” sound. But a lot of Bluegrass is uptown, or just hot music, or bluesy songs that work just fine with a bluesy clarinet. So it’s been interesting to experiment and see what kind of material we can play and make it our own. We just started doing Blue Train, that the Nashville Bluegrass Band did, and it’s pretty cool.
Sean: You also perform with your wife, Joan, as a duet. What approach did you take when finding material suited for a duo, versus a trio or quartet?
Pete: In our duet, Joan pretty much chooses the material. If she has enough feel for singing a song, it will work. We have some that are acappella, some with just bare banjo and guitar accompaniment, and some that swing or drive pretty strongly. It can be quite a challenge to use the banjo to enhance a wide variety of material. That’s been good for me. If the song lends itself to duet harmony, I try to put it in there. A husband and wife can express some things in singing that are pretty special, and probably our best material involves appreciating the passing years.