By Richard D. Smith

An instrument as old and seemingly simple as the banjo: Could we possibly learn anything new about it? Can anything more be done with it? Yes, indeed. Centuries since the banjo in its earliest forms was introduced from Africa to The Americas, its study and art are in exciting phases, as witness the newly-published Banjo: An Illustrated History (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Corporation) by Bob Carlin.

Carlin, an accomplished banjo performer, instructor, and historian, surveys the instrument’s history right up to the twenty-first century with emphasis on its most influential makers and players. Entrancingly illustrated with gorgeous and detailed color photographs and numerous rare archival images, its text transcends old cliches and myths about the banjo to bring its story vividly to life. As Tony Trischka notes in his introduction: “It stands as a basic primer for the novice, but also has enough detail and rich historical data to entice that person who has had a longstanding, incurable itch for the banjo.”

Says Carlin, “People ask me, ‘How long did it take you to write the book?’ And I say, ‘All my life!’” He laughs, while adding, “But once the contracts were signed, my part was under a year.”

Bob had long wanted to do such a project, “actually a bigger, encyclopedia kind of book. But I didn’t have the time or the money.” However, the opportunity came to create a book with the potential to find an even larger readership. He was contacted by the Elephant Book Company, a small yet busy operation in London, England, specializing in information-rich, visually high-quality books about music, art, and popular culture. They, in turn, successfully pitched the project to the Hal Leonard Corporation for publication by its Backbeat Books imprint. Hal Leonard had already found success with a beautifully illustrated and thoroughly researched book on early Martin guitars (see “Inventing The American Guitar: The Story Of The Amazingly Modern Pre-Civil War Martins,” Bluegrass Unlimited, March 2014). Read entire article »

Illustrating And Illuminating The Banjo
Beautiful Images And Deep Research Highlight A Book
For Both New Fans And Experts
By Richard D. Smith

Randy Wood Guitars — Instrument Construction And Repair
By Lee Kotick

Ben Pearce’s Outlier Workshop
By Ira Gitlin

The Last Pick You’ll Ever Buy
Shawn Lane And iTone Picks
By Daniel Mullins

Jack Hicks — Jack Of All Trades
By Sandy Hatley

General Store
Obituary: Alan Jabbour
Notes & Queries
National Bluegrass Survey
Personal Appearance Calendar
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March 2017 Reviews


THE KARL SHIFLETT & BIG COUNTRY SHOW SHO NUFF COUNTRY Patuxent Music CD-279 In the liner notes to his new CD, Karl Shiflett humbly expresses his hope: “If our music makes you move a little, tap your foot or if it touches your heart, then all our efforts have not been in vain.” No worries, […]

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CIRCA BLUE BELLS OF HOME: A CIRCA BLUE CHRISTMAS No Label No Number Unfortunately, this project was received late last year and we were unable to give it a review until now. Circa Blue is based in Martinsburg, W.Va., and includes Steve Harris (guitar), Matt Hickman (banjo), Malia Furtado (fiddle), Ashley Stewart (bass), and Ryan […]

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SISTER SADIE Pinecastle Records PRC 1200    Writing about an all-female band can be tricky. If I mention that these women—Dale Ann Bradley on guitar, Tina Adair on mandolin, Gena Britt on banjo, Deanie Richardson on fiddle, and Beth Lawrence on bass—kick butt on their instruments, is that a “gendered” remark? Does it sound like I […]

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JOHN LOWELL BAND THE SKALKAHO ROAD No Label JL0101 The John Lowell Band showcases the Montana-based guitarist, songwriter, and singer on its debut album The Skalkaho Road (listen for pronunciation). He also forms half of Growling Old Men with Ben Winship and fronted Kane’s River. His eponymous group includes former New Vintage banjo player Julie […]

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BANJO: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY BY BOB CARLIN Hal Leonard 9781495011245. Foreword by Tony Trischka, 258 pages, hardcover, color photographs, index, $35. (Hal Leonard, 7777 W. Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53213, I have long enjoyed Bob Carlin’s clawhammer banjo playing, both as a solo artist and as a member of the John Hartford String Band. […]

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THE PRICE SISTERS Rebel Records REB CD-1860    There is a phrase used in a lot of places, and it fits in bluegrass music as well: “rolling out the big guns.” This could not be more truer than with the debut self-titled album from The Price Sisters. Not too many first efforts get backing from two […]

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JOHN McEUEN MADE IN BROOKLYN  Chesky Records JD388    There have been a handful of albums that have been responsible for bringing new bluegrass fans into the fold, even if the recordings themselves might not have been mainstream bluegrass. Examples include Old & In The Way’s eponymous album, the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou, […]

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NORMAN BLAKE BRUSHWOOD: SONGS & STORIES Plectrafone Records 824761-17528-5 Over a long career known for his musical integrity and his respect for tradition, Norman Blake has established a singular legacy as a guitarist, mandolinist, songwriter, singer, and session man. His newest recording has the feel of a final statement, as if he’s spent an extended […]

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THE PIEDMONT MELODY MAKERS WONDERFUL WORLD OUTSIDE Vigortone Records VT-2007 The Piedmont Melody Makers (Alice Gerrard, Chris Brashear, Cliff Hale, and Jim Watson) have released a very pleasant 16-cut CD which gently winds through the rural styles prevalent in The South (and elsewhere) in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The […]

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WILDFIRE RENTED ROOM ON BROADWAY Pinecastle Records PRC 1201 One of the best “going home” songs of recent vintage opens the new recording from Wildfire. “Home Again” is a gentle medium loper, very smooth and impossible not to like. It calls to mind the work of The Grascals album of a couple releases back. They […]

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BLUEGRASS EXPRESS ANSWER TO MY PRAYER Plum River Records PRP0816 This is a really nice all-gospel project from Bluegrass Express. The band is a family affair founded by father Gary Underwood (guitar), son Greg Underwood (bass), and Greg’s son Jacob Underwood (banjo, guitar). Rounding out the band is Nate Burie (mandolin). Guests include Tim Crouch […]

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RHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE ALL THE RAGE: RHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE IN CONCERT, VOLUME ONE Upper Mgmt. Records UM010 For any young musician determined to carve out a meaningful and lasting career, it’s hard to imagine a better role model than Rhonda Vincent. With her remarkable artistry, discipline, commitment, generosity, and vast energy, […]

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THE SOMMERS ROSENTHAL FAMILY BAND DOWN THE ROAD American Melody AM-CD-5128 The Americana genre allows for a freedom not always present in bluegrass or old-time music. Where an “outside” instrument or arrangement or song in bluegrass may draw a jaundiced eye or two, in Americana no one blinks. That freedom is on full display on […]

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THE UNSEEN STRANGERS STRANGER PLACES    Adam Shier (guitar), James McEleney (bass), Matt Elwood (banjo), and Mike Mezzatesta (mandolin) are the Unseen Strangers out of Toronto, Canada. This quartet’s third release of progressive bluegrass still has traditional bluegrass at its backbone. The nine original tracks from the mind of Shier include the most popular single, “Buster,” […]

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CLAYBANK PLAYING HARD TO FORGET Rural Rhythm RUR-1137 Often, debut albums come out quietly, but that’s not the case with the new group ClayBank and their release, Playing Hard To Forget. The group launched their CD with a Showcase performance at the 2016 IBMA World Of Bluegrass in Raleigh, and saw the single “Up On […]

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