There used to be a bit of hostility between the two camps, as in those who love to play bluegrass and those who love to play old-time music. Bluegrass, of course, is the brasher younger cousin of old-time, and the differences between each species are real. Bluegrass features hard-driving rhythms and high-lonesome lead and harmony singing fueled by improvisation and the Earl Scruggs three-finger-style of banjo picking. On the other hand, old-time features inclusive group-oriented jamming marked by the much-older clawhammer-style of banjo playing and is sparked by thousands of fiddle tunes that can be called out at anytime, some of which are two hundred years or older. As you can see from its title, however, both genres are welcomed at the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in the North Carolina hometown of Andy Griffith. Still, up until the last decade or so, both camps looked at each other warily at times.
Mark Johnson is known in the bluegrass world as the inventor of the clawgrass-style of playing the banjo, which is a combination of the three-finger and clawhammer techniques. In 2012, Johnson won the Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass Music and performed on the Late Show With David Letterman with his long-time collaborator Emory Lester, as well as Martin. About the time of the release of his first album, Johnson found himself at the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-time Fiddlers Convention hanging out with musician, TV host, and Doc Watson collaborator David Holt.
“When I did the album Clawgrass with the Rice Brothers and friends in 1994, the guys that wrote the liner notes for that album were David Holt, Jay Unger, and Tony Rice,” recalls Johnson. “In the late 1990s, David invited me up to Mount Airy. When I got to the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention to meet David, he was going around with a film crew from the University of North Carolina. He was filming with them and he said, ‘Mark, go and enjoy yourself a little bit. We’ll meet back here at a certain time.’ So, I took my banjo and started walking around the festival, and I heard this big jam going on in this one area. The people were really rocking and making this cool sound. I went in there and pulled my banjo out and starting playing what I play. I started getting all kinds of looks, and not good ones. People started closing their cases up and walking away and stopped playing. I broke the whole jam up. What I was doing was I was picking leads with my clawhammer style, taking breaks, and playing loud. I was like, ‘Man, what did I do? What happened? What have I done?’” Read entire article »