Monday, March 25, 2013

The Dadline: Bananas over banjos

Southwest Virginia, home of bluegrass and old-time mountain music, is a sweet spot for the instrument's growing popularity among teens.

The Dadline

Ralph Berrier Jr.

The Dadline

About The Dadline

Veteran Roanoke Times features reporter Ralph Berrier Jr. Ralph became a father nearly five years ago, and has since learned, um, something about parenting.

He will share insights, trends and just plain funny stories by talking to people on the front lines. Questions? Find Ralph on the Roanoke Times Facebook page to share your own parenting stories.

Molly Cardenas likes sports, has been an honor-roll student and is basically your typical 13-year-old kid - except for the fact that she asked for an unusual present last Christmas.

She wanted a banjo.

Now, the eighth-grader from Cave Spring Middle School is taking lessons at Fret Mill Music Co. in downtown Roanoke, where instructor David Cannaday has been teaching her the banjo basics.

"The sound is just really different from other instruments," Molly said after a 30-minute lesson last week. She meant that in a good way.

She told her mother: "I just wish I could play something other than 'Yankee Doodle.'"

Molly wanted to learn to play the banjo because she digs "newgrass" bands such as Railroad Earth and she begs her parents to take her to the Floyd Country Store to hear old-time music on Friday nights. She has gone from the honor roll to the three-finger roll.

Now, it seems Molly's affection for the five-string banjo is not that unusual for a teen, after all. All over the country, kids are going bananas over banjos. Some have called this the "Mumford Effect."

Rocking, neo-folkie bands such as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and the Avett Brothers have inspired a generation to strum on the old banjo. Each group incorporates the instrument into its sound, although the style of playing ain't exactly your Grandpa Jones's method.

These dudes strum, pluck and bash the instrument like a guitar. Scott Avett, who comes to the Roanoke Civic Center with brother Seth and bassist Bob Crawford on June 20, chunks guitar-style power chords from his banjo, although he can delve into some pretty melodies that are finger-picking good.

After Mumford & Sons performed during the Grammy awards in February, when they won two awards, online searches for banjo lessons spiked. Searches for guitars, mandolins and banjos increased 25-fold from before the Grammys.

Southwest Virginia, home of bluegrass and old-time mountain music, is a sweet spot for banjo-mania.

"Looks like the banjo passed the mandolin as the hot instrument," said Fret Mill owner Ken Rattenbury, whose Salem Avenue store carries tons of acoustic instruments.

Rattenbury said banjo sales doubled at his store in 2012, with many of the instruments going to young people.

"Got people wanting to play the banjo in all shapes and sizes," he said. "Kids, younger women รข? it just appeals to them now, partly because the banjo is featured in a lot of Americana alternative music."

It isn't just banjos that are growing in popularity because of the "Mumford Effect." Floyd musician and teacher Scott Perry said many of his young guitar students bring him songs by Mumford and the Lumineers that they want to learn to play. Perry, a blues guy, has been forced to listen to those bands because that's what his students are listening to. For him, it's all good.

"In Floyd, we have two camps: the natives and the alter-natives," Perry said, alluding to Floyd County's distinct mix of rural culture and counterculture.

"The natives come from families who have lived a while in Floyd County and are willing to let me guide them. The alternative crowd is more tuned in to FloydFest."

That means a lot of students want to learn how to play "I Will Wait" by Mumford & Sons and "Ho Hey" by the Lumineers.

Perhaps even more significant than the "Mumford Effect," especially for girls, is the "Taylor Swift Effect." Many of Perry's female students were inspired by Swift to learn the guitar. He says they could do worse.

Swift "writes her own songs and has worked hard to become a better singer," he said. "Whatever gets the kids to pick up and want to learn to play an instrument is fine by me."

Sarah Koch, a 15-year-old student at Faith Christian School, is a big Mumford & Sons fan who is taking guitar lessons at Fret Mill.

"I'm actually learning 'The Cave' next week," she said.

For those who don't know Mumford & Sons from Sanford and Son, "The Cave" is a Mumford song that features a nifty finger-picked guitar hook.

Still, not every kid learning the banjo or guitar wants to be the next Scott Avett. Take 13-year-old Stacy White of Bedford County. His inspiration is Earl Scruggs, the late, great pioneer of bluegrass banjo.

Last week, Stacy, wearing a sideways camouflaged ball cap with a fish hook in the bill, tore through a crackling version of the banjo standard "Cripple Creek" and worked on the Scruggs classic "Foggy Mountain Special" with Cannaday. He already can tell you the difference between the 1949 version of the tune and its later re-recordings.

When a girl at his school said she wanted to learn the banjo because she saw Taylor Swift play one, Stacy was perturbed.

"First of all, it wasn't a real banjo," he said. "It was a guitar shaped like a banjo."

As for the new bands, he said, "I don't know who Mumford & Sons is."

He went back to practicing the Scruggs-style double roll.

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