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Tony Trischka - Friend of the DFC

Banjo master Tony Trischka sat down with us to talk about playing for live audiences again, his musical collaborations, his latest album and lots more.

Performing Live Again

Before the pandemic, Tony last performed live in Spain on March 12, 2020. He says returning to performing live felt … strange. “I thought, is this what I do for a living? Yeah, it is. The audiences were great because they were starved for live music. It’s good to be back to normal - good normal as opposed to weird good. I can’t even explain what was weird about it, it was just odd.”

Musical Collaborations

Having played with some amazing musicians over the years like (former student) Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss and Steve Martin to name a few, it’s pretty clear Tony enjoys collaborating. “I’ve worked with the Violent Femmes over the years. I’ve done recordings with them and they’ve graciously been on my recordings. We’ve done live shows. They’re great guys and Gordon Gano plays a little banjo.

“Working with Steve Martin has been amazing. He’s a great guy, hugely generous. I first met him in 1974 when we shared billing at a club in New York City. He was an up-and-coming comedian and playing some banjo, so we talked about that. There was a four-night stand – two nights with him and then the Buckingham Nicks (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks), this up-and-coming group. Whatever happened to them?

“Many years later I wanted to do a double banjo record for Rounder Records and I wanted Steve to be in on it. He had been playing more seriously and agreed to play a couple tunes on the album. It’s a lot of work to learn the repertoire of other musicians, but it’s fun and the older I get the more thankful I am.”

How Things Have Changed

Tony has been around the music scene for quite some time and says things were a lot less complicated back then. “In certain ways it was easier back then. Like, you could book five nights at one place. From 1973 to 1975 I was in a group called Breakfast Special and we played Gerde’s Folk City in the Village five nights in a row. It’s not like that now - you do one at a time these days. In terms of bluegrass festivals, in 1973 we made two phone calls and booked the entire summer. In those days there weren’t that many festivals, so one festival would hire you for three days. Now you’re there for a day, maybe two. And then there were only two festival promotors – Jim Clark and Carlton Haney. We called both of them and they each gave us five weekends. In that sense it was a lot easier back then.”

Today’s musicians also seem to take their careers a bit more seriously. “Things are a little more professional these days and with the internet it’s easier to promote yourself. People are more concerned about earning a living. In 1970 I was in a group called Country Granola, in the days when there was only crunchy granola. The guy who ran our band (it was a sport’s rock band – don’t ask) … the rap on our publicity material was something like These guys hate themselves and their music is engineered for you to hate them also. I mean, what? Who would do something like that? It was just much looser. It’s a different time now and everyone is a little more business minded.”

shallwehopeShall We Hope

Tony’s latest album Shall We Hope was inspired by the Civil War era. “It took me about 12 years to put it together - it sort of evolved organically. And this is all vocals with one instrumental (he wrote most of the lyrics himself). I had written a song about Wild Bill Hickok on the album before (Great Big World) and I was sort of in the head of writing some lyrics. I decided I wanted to write a song about a riverboat gambler in the 1800s, then I had another idea to write a song about a great train robbery that happened during the Civil War. Then I thought … maybe this is turning into something.”

He also wanted to have an aspect of slavery on the album. “I was in Asheville, NC, and Rayna Gellert (a great fiddler from the band Uncle Earl) and her husband (a historian at Warren Wilson College) invited me to stay with them. The next morning he told me his class has been cleaning shrubbery from a slave graveyard next to an old church, and would I like to go over and take a look. It was a really powerful experience. In this 1840’s graveyard there are just rocks on the ground, no inscriptions - it was like these are just slaves so there’s no reason to have names on them. It gave me inspiration for that part of the project.”

A Project in Progress

Poetry is the inspiration for one of Tony’s current projects. “For years I’ve been slowly working on taking Emily Dickinson’s poems and putting them to music. I had a chance to do a podcast from the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA, five years ago. On the way to the house I thought I should take one of her poems and put it to music, which I did and performed it. They wanted to bring creative people into her bedroom to perform, because that’s where she wrote her poetry. The unfortunate thing is I sang it, and I don’t have much of a voice. I’ve recorded four songs so far with Abigail Washburn, an incredible singer, Martha Redbone, and some other folks too. That’s going to continue.”

For more information about Tony, including his upcoming performances, visit his website HERE. And did you know he has an online banjo school? The site has over 250 lessons from absolute beginnings (how to hold the banjo) to really advanced information. It takes you gradually from point A to point B. You can even send Tony a video and he’ll respond – one-on-one personal attention. There are also over 50 interviews with folks like Steve Martin, J.D. Crowe and Alison Brown. Check it out today!