LeMars, Iowa…..Perhaps the only well known banjo player in the entire state of Iowa, is Bob Black, a former member of Bill Monroe’s Kentucky Bluegrass Band. According to Bob Everhart, President of the National Traditional Music Association, headquartered in Iowa, “We seem to have a real ‘lacking’ of banjo players in our state. We do a lot of old-time acoustic music, and we now have a brand new group in Eastern Iowa starting a bluegrass club, however we are still far behind other states in building a bluegrass presence in this genre of music. Bluegrass music is actually the very best of traditional country music combined with the very best of the instruments that play it. Mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, and the obvious ‘major’ instrument of bluegrass music, the banjo. It can be played many different ways, however the finger picking method created by Earl Scruggs for Mr. Monroe, is the ‘standard’ by which all bluegrass banjoists strive to attain. Another instrument that draws heavily from it’s old-time country ancestors is the Dobro, a kind of Czech created slide guitar that originally developed popularity from Hawaiian style playing. Put it all together and you have an incredible complimentary style of playing, and a musical genre that is strictly, all American.”
Everhart has been a traditional music mover and shaker in the state of Iowa ever since he started his acoustic music festival in 1976. He records for the Smithsonian Institution, with six successful releases (one a Grammy nomination), as well as another six albums on Prairie Music Records. “I love bluegrass music,” Everhart said at a recent gathering in California. “It’s a very American musical art form, however our homestate of Iowa is a little slow in adopting it as a genuine popular musical genre. Our population is also leaning toward the older side of fifty, and that means they probably like Lawrence Welk more than they do Bill Monroe. However, Monroe has an interesting ‘connect’ to Iowa. This is where he met his wife, while performing his early mountain music on KFNF radio in Shenandoah. Actually that was his first ‘paid’ performance, so we’re a little bit proud that happened for him and his brother Charley, but we’re a little disappointed that we haven’t been able to advance the ’cause’ of bluegrass music more than we have. There are several bluegrass festivals in Iowa, but they usually rely on out-of-state bands to make it work. We’re doing the same thing at our acoustic music festival this year in LeMars, Iowa. Now in it’s 39th year, we’re on overload so far as regular old-time country, folk, mountain, and cowboy music is concerned. One of the ways we’d like to encourage bluegrass music in our state, is to have an additional program called the “Banjo Jamboree” at our event. Dates for the festival is Aug 25-31, with a free gospel warm-up show and pot-luck on August 24th. That’s eight days of acoustic music, and it’s still a mind-blower after all this time. We start at 9am in the morning and quit at midnight every day, and have ten stages for performers. We still can’t get everyone on that wants to be on. Tons of celebrities come to support what we are doing, keeping old-time acoustic music in general alive. This year, however, we have an open invitation to banjo players to come share with us. We want to have performances, workshops, contests, jam sessions, anything we can do to create interest in this instrument. We’ve had a little help from an unlikely source, the Great British Banjo Company.”
The Great British Banjo Company are the leaders of the pack in the United Kingdom. According to them, “There was a time when the banjo was pretty much relegated to country, mountain, and bluegrass artists, but the popularity of the instrument is growing internationally, with more and more artists picking up the banjo for its beautiful sound, easy to find, and it’s versatility and different styles of playing. Even though we continue to live in the trough of recession and music stores and companies have been struggling, the global guitar, and fretted instruments, which includes the banjo, has a market somewhere near $1.3 billion dollars. The biggest banjo maker-dealer-seller in the USA is Deering Banjo, who just made its 100,000h model. There is a great resurgence of interest in the banjo in Britain these days. Banjos are cool again, and we have been overwhelmed by interest in our product. The banjo is being played by bands in folk, bluegrass, country, old-time, pop, even in some rock bands.”
According to Everhart, “We’d really like to see the many different styles of banjo playing at our festival this year. Bluegrass 5-string of course, but frailing banjo, drop-thumb banjo, tenor rag-time banjo, 4-string banjo, there’s many options and we’re prepared to welcome each and every one of them that cares to be with us. As a matter of fact we are going to start the festival with banjos, with one of the fastest players alive, Larry Gillis, who heads up Swampgrass, from Georgia. David Davis and the Warrior River Boys will also be with us on Monday, Aug. 25th, and his banjo player, Robert Montgomery is an incredible banjoist from Alabama. Perhaps the most interesting of the participants is Ronny Cox, not a banjo player, but a guitarist who as an actor portrayed the guitar part of the song “Dueling Banjos” in the movie ‘Deliverance.’ We’re going to have workshops through the entire week of the festival, at two locations, and of course the banjo will be part of that on a daily basis, featuring some of the best banjo players from around the world, including Jenny Blackadder from New Zealand a noted 4-string tenor banjo player.”
More information about the ‘Banjo Jamboree’ and it’s participants is available at http://www.ntcma.net/ The festival is a fund raiser for the Pioneer Music Museum, located in Anita, Iowa, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit endeavor at saving the upper Midwest’s old-time acoustic music, all of it, one song at a time.