Any casual string player this side of El Paso knows of Dr. Banjo. In a era of entertainment that is known more for its loud guitars and drum machines rather than musical substance, Pete Wernick and his bluegrass associates have kept their music honest and traditional – proving along the way that there are still musicians who let their fingers do the talking.
On the behalf of XMFan, it is our pleasure and great honor to present to you an interview with “Dr. Banjo” Pete Wernick.
XMFan: What is your first significant memory of music in your life?
Dr. B: I started listening to the radio when I was about nine years old. There was a piano tune on there that was actually a number one hit in 1955 called The Crazy Otto by Johnny Maddox. I thought it was the most incredibly happy, cool-sounding music I could imagine – just a ragtime piano piece basically – that got displaced with the Davy Crockett song as the number one hit. (Laughs) I was really into Elvis, Fats Domino, and Webb Pierce the country singer – I just loved listening to those three guys on the radio.
XMFan: At what age did you realize music would be such a big part of your life?
Dr. B: It continued to grow, but at about the age of fourteen I started to actually play music. I grew up in The Bronx, and quite a few of my friends were getting into folk music at the time. Several of them had their own guitars and banjos, and I happened to have a banjo in the house. One day someone showed me something on it, and within a month or so I was playing music with my friends at an easy level for folk music. I saw Earl Scruggs shortly thereafter and really wanted to learn what he was doing.
I may have been a bit on the obsessive side when it came to trying to figure things out – there was no written instruction to be found, and it was definitely far from the video instruction days! Tape recorders were just coming out as a consumer item. You’d mostly have to listen to records over and over and then try to play along with them.
At this point music became my principal hobby, over things like sports or any other things I may have been doing. In my senior year of high school I got in to a folk band that gave me a chance to play, and allowed music to become a real focus in my life.
When I lived in a college dorm there really wasn’t the opportunity to practice the banjo because of the noise, so I developed an interest in learning to finger pick the guitar. It’s something I still do, but just below the professional level.
XMFan: Name a few artists past or present you consider influences.
Dr. B: My biggest influence by far is Earl Scruggs because his style of banjo is such a complete style of what bluegrass banjo should be. If you just learn what he did years ago – which is no small trick – it really leads you in to what it takes to play the bluegrass style. Others like J.D. Crowe and Bill Keith had variations on the Scruggs sound that I found interesting. I played in a band with Tony Trischka for a good while and was under his influence you might say.
Two other people who were good mentors to me while I was still growing up in New York City were David Grisman and Jody Stecher. I had a radio show on my college station that was heard throughout the metro area, and these guys would set me straight on anything I needed to get filled-in on. I played music with them and still do sometimes. I’ve learned a lot from each of them.
XMFan: You were active in the local music scene during your college years at Columbia U (B.A. and PhD in Sociology). At that time did you have an idea which path you would choose career-wise?
Dr. B: I had a very clear idea. Around my third year of college I was getting interested in Sociology and made it my major, deciding it would be my career. It took me a while to find the kind of career you can even have as a Sociologist, because they didn’t teach you anything on that level – so I started a Sociology Club just so we could invite in Sociologists just to see what the heck it was they actually did. There are a lot of things that need researching using sociological methods and techniques, which was the career I was headed for.
At about the age of 28 I jumped to being a full-time bluegrass musician. During the Vietnam War years there was every incentive to continue my education because I didn’t really want to be fighting over there, and my Doctoral Program gave me five years of deferment. I then worked at Cornell for a few years, and during that time had launched the bluegrass band Country Cooking that was able to make records. This helped us to get on the national radar – luckily a new record company, Rounder Records, started up right where we lived. We were the third album they ever released. The record did surprisingly well and even became a Book of the Month Club selection.
XMFan: How and when did you meet your wife Joan?
Dr. B: We met in Boulder in 1969 during a block of time between finishing my classroom studies and passing my oral exams at Columbia. I traveled around the country and visited friends. Even though she was very appealing to me I continued on to California, where I became involved in things there – much of it being musical. I had been keeping in touch with her, so in the middle of the summer I decided to go back and pick her up. (Laughs) When I drove from California back to Colorado was when we basically started our life together.
XMFan: Would you tell us how Hot Rize came together in 1978?
Dr. B: My wife and I decided it would be nicer to live in Colorado and moved there in 1976. Within a couple of years I had made a solo album and started Hot Rize, which became my main focus for the next twelve years. I had known Tim O’Brien for a good while and was impressed with him as a singer, though he was playing fiddle or mandolin in a swing band at the time. Both of us had used guitarist Charles Sawtelle on other individual albums. The three of us decided to get together and play some gigs, and a few months later joined with Nick Forster. The four of us would stay together for twelve years and is the lineup everyone remembers as Hot Rize.
We just started locally, and knew this was a band that was good enough to go places if we had an aggressive agent. I became that aggressive agent – made a lot of phone calls, established ourselves locally, and established contacts to get gigs back east. We really had a ball during these early years and got quite a musical education in the process. Though we weren’t making a great deal of money we were enjoying the ride, eventually having the opportunity to travel to 47 states and 11 countries.
XMFan: As a leading author of countless music-related instructional books, CDs and videos, would you tell us about your materials and whether you are still actively involved in the teaching of music?
Dr. B: On the heels of finishing my Doctoral Dissertation I wrote my first bluegrass banjo instructional book. It was a great break for me. A lot of people were wanting to learn banjo in the early 70s thanks to Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record Will The Circle Be Unbroken. My book did very well because it really got in to the basics of how to get started in the style – it gave a lot of detail in breaking down the mystery of the three-finger banjo style. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to figure out on your own.
One of my larger pursuits right now is teaching what I call “Bluegrass Jam Camps.” I get so-called closet pickers together, people who are intimidated or nervous about jamming – or have never done it at all – and put them together. They have been wanting to play with other people but feel like they wouldn’t know what to do. I show them what do, and get them jamming together almost immediately on easy slow-tempo stuff. I help them realize it’s easy enough to play music by just knowing a few chords with your left hand, and your right hand technique doesn’t need to be anything special – just enough keep time together – and if you change chords at the right time you are playing music. It’s a great way to start in with a foundation of playing music with others.
Many teachers have young musicians start by learning much harder stuff, such as how to take a solo. Playing rhythm is really much more important when you are playing with other people. I’m on a lifelong campaign to change the way bluegrass music is being taught – you need to just learn to play along, and when your abilities take hold you can begin to move up from there.
XMFan: What’s the scoop on your current band The Live Five?
Dr. B: You can find a complete schedule on my website at www.drbanjo.com. What I’m most excited about will happen later this summer, when we return to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. We’ve played there before and will be featured there. We are still heavily based on the bluegrass sound, even with a vibraphone and clarinet.
The very next week we’ll be in Ireland and open for Earl Scruggs at the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival. This is exciting for me because exposing new audiences to this band’s unique sound, and combination of instruments we have put together, is groundbreaking.
XMFan: You were featured on XM a few weeks ago as a performer at Merlefest. Any thoughts on the Merlefest experience?
Dr. B: You have a chance to interact with people from other musical genres – they do have rock bands, Celtic bands, individual blues musicians, a whole tent dedicated to old-time mountain music. I have performed with just about any of these people in one context or another. At Merlefest they love throwing you together with people you haven’t played with – half the performance is playing with the band you came with, while the other half is being grouped with different individuals from different bands.
It’s amazing trying to fit everything there in to four days. When you’re done you realize everything you’ve done the past four days would have fit well in to two weeks. (Laughs) I have enjoyed performing every year at Merlefest since1988.
XMFan: Do you have any current studio projects in the works?
Dr. B: Joan and I are towards the end of making our second album. We started playing music together 35 years ago and I’m really proud of the way we have grown together musically. I’m especially proud of the material we do and the way Joan sings it – she is a really outstanding singer. It’s also challenging for me because I have to take all the instrumental solos and do the instrumental backup.
XMFan: How did you come to play a gig with Phish?
Dr. B: Tim brought Mike Gordon to one of our Hot Rize reunion gigs. I was surprised to know that Mike also plays banjo, and we sat down a couple of times and traded a few licks. I got invited to play with them at their show in Denver several years ago. It’s funny – you work so hard doing the things in your small musical world, but every once in a while you’ll get pointed to someone who’s in a much larger loop. When Phish invited me to play with them onstage I was up in front of 19,000 people. The reception was unreal to me – I’ll just say if banjo players could get a reception like that on a regular basis we’d be the rock stars. (Laughs) It was very generous of them to bring me onstage.
XMFan: What are a few of your favorite pastimes outside of music?
Dr. B: I live on a beautiful piece of property in Colorado and this is the time of year when it is most beautiful. If I mow all the weeds on the same day the place looks like an estate, comparable to a golf course. (Laughs) It’s a delight to take care of the land. I’ve been a father for the past twenty-one years – I wouldn’t exactly call it a pastime – but it has been a very rich and rewarding part of my life. I’m a family man with a son of whom I am very proud. Often when Joan and I are on the road we will build some extra time in to our schedule, just to drive around and see the beautiful scenery and get to know people. It’s a great pastime to have when you are a traveling musician.
XMFan: Which kinds of information might fans find on your website, www.drbanjo.com?
Dr. B: I have loaded the website with a lot of instructional material to include basic theories on what to do, as well as what not to do. There’s a whole page that references information aimed at beginners, especially banjo players. How to find other musicians to play with, the “ins and outs” of jamming, and other topics of interest are available there for free. Anyone interested should feel free to print the info right from the site. My webmaster thought it would also be cool to include lots of photos and old articles written about me, so there’s a ton of that. We also have a schedule of upcoming shows as well as recent news, such as our music being played on Mars. (Laughs)
Anyone interested may also buy associated learning materials right from the site. We even have a t-shirt that says, “Let’s pick!” and shows bluegrass instruments being played. If a person goes around wearing a shirt such as this they may find themselves running into people who pick, even some they may have known for a while, and didn’t realize each other played bluegrass. That’s what happens with closet players. A simple shirt like this can lead to lots of things that may otherwise not happen.
XMFan: As a renowned teacher, entertainer and friend, what bit of advice might you give to an aspiring musician regarding today’s music scene?
Dr. B: Just last night I mentored a young band of college-aged kids who are entering a band contest. I showed them how to tighten up their singing and how to arrange their songs a bit better. These particular kids were fairly well trained but didn’t yet have a sense of pouring their personal selves in to the music – here were the words and they were singing them. They needed to get in to what the words were about, then sing them with the feelings a person would have if they were really living those words in their lives. Many of these themes cannot just be recited, but need to be sung with feeling while being in the moment.
I encourage both musicians and music fans alike to get in to music that feels real. There’s way too much unreality in this society. Bluegrass music is honest music with its feet on the ground. I really like when the music isn’t about the costumes and gyrations. I think music should sound great and mean something.
Luckily, XM Radio gives people lots of choices. Bluegrass music used to be hard to find, but thanks to XM, the internet, better record distribution, and the many bluegrass festivals held around the country each year, everyone can connect. Just because it’s not on TV that often doesn’t mean the music isn’t great. The rich folks who run the media such as TV do not run the bluegrass scene – the musicians and people who fully understand the music run it. It’s much more pure, sensible, natural and hands-on than the plastic TV world, and all these violent and vulgar movies. I can’t recommend enough for anyone who reads this interview to go to festival, and maybe even take that old guitar out of the closet. See what it’s got for you.