The new American banjo festival will be held in Western Mass this weekend
the New American Banjo Festival is not just a celebration for devotees of the banjo’s distinctive twang.
“New American Banjo is about an idea of exploring new styles of banjo playing, or people reinvigorating, researching, and interpreting old styles of banjo playing that aren’t necessarily in the popular realm at this point” , said the organizer of the festival. Michael Nix. “It grew out of my association with an organization called the Banjo Gathering, which is a group of banjo researchers, musicians, players, builders, collectors, who meet primarily in the Washington DC area for a conference every year in order to explore the latest research on the history of the banjo, banjo-making techniques, the banjo as a cultural icon, and the latest musical uses of the banjo.
It’s the kind of atmosphere Nix wants the festival to bring to New England, which took its place on the banjo map at the turn of the century.
“New England was a manufacturing center for quality high-end banjos,” Nix said. “Boston, Groton, Connecticut, had a huge manufacturing base for high end banjos. They are still sought after by collectors today.
Nix says that despite the banjo’s ancient associations, enthusiasts of the instrument have never stopped innovating.
“What we thought maybe 15 years ago like, oh, it’s a country musical instrument, or, you know, it’s something that came out of the hillbilly records of the 20s, is really used in new and different ways as people explore the color, timbre possibilities for the banjo in modern music,” Nix told WAMC.
He notes his prominence in Jane Campion’s Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Power of the Dog,” which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.
Warning: minor spoilers for “The Power of the Dog” ahead.
“In the pivotal scene, where the character of Cumberbatch was exerting his dominance over the female lead, he was doing it musically,” Nix said. “She played the piano and it mirrored the exact same themes on her finger-played banjo.”
Detroit-based Aaron Jonah Lewis, known for this style of play, will headline the festival.
“Aaron is someone who resurrected classic fingerstyle banjo playing, meaning a banjo played with the fingers rather than the back of the hand, like clawhammer or folk,” Nix said. “Well, back then it was called guitar style, and it was heavily influenced by American ragtime music and parlor music composition.
Lewis’ record in 2020 »Banjo Mozart: The Joe Morley Projectexplores the compositions of the British player known for his contributions to classic fingerstyle playing.
“Aaron bases his music on extensive research and performs it in a very entertaining style as if he were one of those turn-of-the-century banjo virtuosos dressed in costume,” Nix explained. “It’s a pretty wonderful thing to listen to. So it’s almost like you’re listening to a banjo through the old Edison horn.
Beyond organizing the event, Nix also performs there.
“I will be playing my new seven-string banjo, an instrument I designed, both solo and in a chamber music situation with Chris Devine, who plays fiddle, viola, mandolin and guitar, and Joe Fitzpatrick, who is a percussionist, and we’ll be playing a number of tracks from my New Classic Banjo project,” he said.
Each installation of the New American Banjo Festival has a theme.
“This year we’re doing the classic finger banjo,” Nix said. “Next year I’ll be looking at women banjo, and there are a number of female performers who play in a number of different styles.”
The 2022 New American Banjo Festival takes place at the Shea Theater Art Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts on Saturday night.