Walt Koken was an original member of the Highwoods String Band, a highly influential old-time string band in the 1970s. There, he played fiddle. In the past twenty years or so, he has gotten back into playing the banjo more. Here he plays some fine old-time banjo in a variety of styles. This being his first banjo recording in 15 years makes it a welcome addition to the library of old-time banjo recordings. Koken plays in clawhammer and fingerstyle on his long-time companion, an Orpheum banjo that he obtained in 1966. There is a live recording (a nice version of “Chinquapin Pie”) of him on that banjo from 1967 included on this project, sounding like a field recording of that era.
Eschewing the styles of bluegrass, progressive bluegrass and classic banjo, but borrowing from these styles freely, Koken explores the nooks and crannies of the banjo world and actually eases it into new places. He adapts songs from the older guitar-playing songsters like Frank Hutchison, “Weary Blues,” and John Hurt’s “Frankie And Albert.” He recorded “Peaceful Times” the day after Earl Scruggs died and you can hear rolls that Koken learned from the playing of the bluegrass master. Koken pays homage to Fats Waller with “Strawberry Jam.” An avid gardener, Koken’s “Talking Garden” speaks to the resourcefulness of the independent lifestyle and the richness that one can acquire living close to the land. His original material holds up well with the traditional material presented here.
Having been enamored with and playing the banjo for over a half-century, Walt Koken is a living treasure of banjo knowledge and skill with a thorough understanding of what makes great banjo picking. This recording grows on the listener with repeated listening. The simple recording values, and the honest directness of the performances make this a musical treasure that is bound to please all who like their banjo picking done old-time and right. (Mudthumper Music, P.O. Box 791, Kennett Square, PA 19348.)RCB