Banjo Newsletter Interview

Alan Friend interviewed me a few years back for Banjo Newsletter. A link to the article plus tablature for my version of Roustabout can be found here, and the article is pasted in below as well.

Joe Newberry

By Alan Friend

Joe Newberry is a multi-instrumentalist and singer and one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.  His old-time banjo playing is outstanding.  He has played with many different musicians and bands over the years; currently he plays banjo with the band Big Medicine, as well as with Mike Compton, Bruce Molsky and Rafe Stefanini as the Jumpsteady Boys, in a duo with Mike Compton, and in the “Law Firm” of Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry.

I first met Joe in the 1990s at Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts when he was the director of folk music week. We crossed paths again some years later at the Augusta Heritage Old-Time Week. He gave me a little gift then, just as I was about to hop into my car and leave for home: a small doll made out of a handkerchief which he would attach to his clawhammer finger with a bit of string so that it bobbed up and down when he played—a banjo player’s limberjack. A really cute idea for playing in front of kids.

I interviewed Joe in 2010 in between sessions when we were both appearing at the Eisteddfod Festival in New York State.

Alan Friend: Are you a full-time musician?

Joe Newberry: No. I work for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources as its Public Information Officer. I get to tell the story of arts, culture, history and libraries, and how they make our state a great place to live, work and raise a family.

OTW: Was there music in your family when you were growing up?

JN: I grew up in a singing family in Missouri. My grandfather was a hunting and fishing buddy of Vance Randolph, the great Ozark folk song collector. My dad went to high school with Max Hunter, who was a successor to Vance Randolph’s work. On my mother’s side, the family played instruments and danced, but throughout, the family always sang.

OTW: I know you mostly as a banjo player, although you play other instruments. When did you start playing banjo?

JN: I started when I lived at the Chez Coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri when I was about 20. I lived with six other musicians. We were student managers. We got a free place to live in exchange for running the coffee house. I had started with guitar when I was a kid, but I just loved the sound of the banjo, particularly the way it mixed and wove itself with the fiddle. I literally said to myself, “I have to know how to do this.” So I started learning. I think it was really lucky that it was at a point in my life when I had the time to really obsess about something. So I would go to my college classes and come back and spend probably five or six hours practicing and playing the banjo. My college living situation at the Coffeehouse was where I got my real musical education. I lived with terrific old-time musicians—folks like Dave Para, John Murdock, Bill Shull, Chris Germain, Heinrich Leonhard, and Bob Atchison. It was an amazing scene, and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. Local banjo players like Cathy Barton, Jim Ruth, and Joel Zemmer were big influences as well. All of these folks were really goodcentral Missouri players.

OTW: Were you learning to play banjo by yourself or did you take lessons?

JN: When I came back from classes, there was always music going on for virtually 24 hours a day. And so all those banjo players I mentioned helped me. And of course there were records which transported me out to the Blue Ridge, and I eventually wound up living in North Carolina. And when I heard a recording of Fred Cockerham, life as I knew it just changed. When I moved to North Carolina I could not believe the number of really great banjo players, both old and young, that I ran into.

OTW: Did you have any other particular mentors or influences?

JN: Yes. I was really lucky to hear some amazing older musicians around Boone County, Missouri when I was in high school and college. Fiddlers like Taylor McBaine, Pete McMahan, and Jake Hockemeyer. They seemed glad that younger players were coming up. And I’m lucky to live around some great banjo players now—folks like Brett Riggs, Andy Cahan, and Marvin Gaster, the great 2-finger player. Some of the older banjo players, like A.C. Overton, are gone and are only here with us now in our memories. And of course, the late Mike Seeger was an important mentor for me. I miss him every day.

OTW: I assume you started with clawhammer.

JN: Yes, and then in later years I started working on finger picking, too. In central North Carolina where I was living, there was a very strong 2-finger tradition as well as clawhammer. Two-finger style banjo is very addictive. It’s kind of like you want to go over to a bunch of people and say, “Hey do you want to go and finger pick?” (laughter). And Dock Boggs was a wonderful 3-finger player. Wow. I started listening to recordings of him every day.

OTW: I primarily play clawhammer but I also fingerpick. Sometimes I’ll switch back and forth, particularly with a song, where I may do 2- or 3-finger when I sing and clawhammer for an instrumental. Or visa versa. Do you do that?

JN: Yes, I’ll sometimes switch back and forth, too.

OTW: Do you do thumb-lead or finger- lead when you play fingerpicking style?

JN: The short answer is yes.

OTW: Speaking of fingerpicking, have you ever tried bluegrass?

JN: I know just enough to get myself thrown out of a really good bluegrass session. But I can do a decent Scruggs roll and I have finger picks.

OTW: Have you played at any banjo or fiddle contests?

JN: Oh, yes. All the fiddle contests you can find in Missouri between March and November were wonderful training grounds when I was younger. The thing about competitions that I like is the chance to hear so many great players. I competed in a couple of fiddle contests, but the majority of my contests were in the banjo category. One of my favorite memories is winning the banjo contest at Clifftop. Over the years, I think I have finished in almost every place in the contest there. I’ll tell you, I was just about as happy with fifth as I was with first, since getting in the finals at Clifftop is pretty cool in itself.

OTW: I know you play many instruments. Can you say a little bit about some of the others besides banjo?

JN: I can play decent fiddle. I tend not to play it very much because I’ve been fortunate to have incredible fiddlers in my bands. But if I need to I can play for a dance. A thing I’m working on now is playing fiddle and singing. That’s a lifetime task. But it’s such an expressive thing. But I love how the fiddle and the banjo are such different entities yet together they meld so well. To have something that was born in Europe and something that was born in Africa complement each other so well is just amazing. And I also play guitar in my band, with my singing partner and solo.

OTW: Your regular band is Big Medicine. What other musicians do you play with?

JN: I play with Jim Watson, Bill Hicks and Mike Craver. I also play with Mike Compton, the mandolin player; we have a duo, and with my singing partner, Val Mindel. Basically, I figured out that I’m turning into one of the old guys, and old guys get to do whatever they want. So, I’m having a ball.

OTW: In Big Medicine, do you play mostly banjo?

JN: Mostly banjo and occasionally guitar. I also write songs. I’m lucky that the folks I play with in all my bands like my new material. I’ve had some success writing bluegrass songs. For an old-time banjo player, to have a song I wrote, Jericho, on the bluegrass charts just makes me laugh.

OTW: Well, bluegrass grew out of old-time.

JN: Oh absolutely, although I’m pretty firmly rooted in old-time.

OTW: What is your approach to writing songs?

JN: What I like is to write a new song that sounds old. The Gibson Brothers recorded two of my songs on their “Ring the Bell” album that won a couple of awards at the IBMA, and they recorded a new song of mine on their latest album, “Help My Brother.” Actually, Eric Gibson called me and said, “I want to talk about that song.” And I said, “You’re still gonna do it aren’t you?” And he said, “Oh yeah, but I wanted to know if it’s all right if we get Ricky Skaggs to sing on it.” So I said, “Uh, yeah.” (Laugh). It’s called Singing As We Rise.

OTW: I love your solo CD “Two Hands.” You wrote some great songs on that, like Missouri Borderland and On This Christmas Day, mixed in with a bunch of traditional material like Roustabout and Rambling Hobo. [Note: a tab and soundfile for Joe’s Rambling Hobo is available]

JN: Thanks. That’s on the 5-String label. Besides “Two Hands,” my band Big Medicine also has CDs out on Yodel-Ay-Hee: “Too Old To Be Controlled,” “Fever in the South” and “Pine to Pine.” And I have appeared on lots of projects by my musical friends and cohorts.

OTW: You play different banjos on “Two Hands.” I especially like the low sounding one; what kind is it?

JN: I play three banjos on the recording. The low sounding one belongs to my bandmate Bobb Head. It has a huge pot with nylon strings, and was made by Tim Currin of North Carolina. I also use my very own Kevin Enoch banjo, and the Bart Reiter owned by 5-String Productions owner Tim Brown.

OTW: Let’s talk about your banjos. What kind did you start with?

JN: A banjo made by a fellow named King from Colorado, very plunky. I stuffed it with rags. I have a very strong, propulsive right hand, and I think one of the reasons is because I stuffed the banjo so much that in order to hear, I had to play hard. And actually, when I got the Enoch banjo…you know when you get a car with a manual transmission you have to learn how to use the clutch? Well, the Enoch banjo is so responsive, I had to really learn to lighten up my touch. I think that did worlds for my playing. When I started unstuffing, the guys that I play with said, “You’re either going to have to sit in the next room or you’re going to have to lighten up.” (Laughter). So I lightened up.

OTW: If you’re playing with a string band for a dance, do you need to play a little more firmly in order to be heard sometimes?

JN: It’s not really a problem. For dances, I don’t do much melodic. The bass is doing its job, but I’m sort of the pulse of the band. That’s how I see the banjo. It’s there to support, especially the fiddle. So I strip down the melody to the point where I can do my job. And it isn’t about me, it’s about the sound.

OTW: How many banjos do you have at this point?

JN: A friend of mine, named Bob Momich, when I lived in Arkansas, made a great banjo for me. I use it now more for finger picking. It’s a very heavy and loud banjo. I have banjos in various states of repair. But I’m not a collector and I’m not a technician. I love the banjos that were made for me, and they’re great instruments, but to me a banjo is more of a tool of my trade than anything else.

OTW: Do you have any particular set-up for your banjos?

JN: Well, the primary banjo I play these days is the Kevin Enoch. I wanted a simple banjo, black lacquer finish. Kevin does beautiful inlay but I didn’t want much inlay, and when Kevin delivered the banjo it had a noknot tailpiece and a fiberskin head. I played plunky for a long time, but then when I started playing with Mike and Jim and Bill, they were used to a brighter banjo sound, and so I thought I’m gonna try not to be restricted to just one type of banjo set-up, so I had my buddy Jim Collier, who has a repair business called the Banjo Spa, put on a Renaissance head and a tension tailpiece which makes it pop a little bit more. The big thing is that I don’t stuff the back of my banjo anymore. I let it ring.

OTW: I alternate between two banjos. My favorite is one which I made at a Mike Ramsey banjo building workshop. It’s great for both clawhammer and finger picking. My other has a brigher sound, a Baldwin, and is especially good for fingerpicking. I’ll stuff the backs of my banjo depending on how much I need to have the sound projected in whatever situation I’ll be playing. It depends whether I want a plunky or ringing sound.

JN: Yeah. I know some folks who will just flatten out and lay a plastic shopping bag in the back. It just cuts down a little bit on some of the overtones.

OTW: When you play clawhammer do you play over the neck? Do you have a scoop in the neck?

JN: I don’t have a scoop, but I had Kevin leave out the top 3 frets. I noticed a long time ago that Earl Scruggs played with his hand in different positions on the banjo to get different sounds. I thought, well I could do the same with clawhammer. For tunes, with fiddle and banjo, maybe over the neck. For singing I’ll sometimes put my hand down squarely over the head. Basically to just get different sounds. I spent most of my youth, when playing banjo, trying to put in as many notes as possible. As I’ve become an older player, it’s the space between the notes that I’m more interested in, taking out some notes but retaining the integrity of the tune. And that’s the other thing about my evolution as a musician, and maybe a human. Maybe not always playing an instrument, but being able to listen. Because I remember driving into a fiddlers’ convention and literally driving with one hand and unbuckling the banjo case with the other, like, ‘get out and start playing.’ I like now the idea of listening; it makes me a better musician.

OTW: What kind of strings and gauge do you use?

JN: I use either D’Addario or Vegas.  Mediums.

OTW: I switched over to a compensated bridge a few years ago, and I noticed that the photo of the banjo on your “Two Hands” CD has one. What are your thoughts about compensated bridges?

JN: I use a compensated bridge because I love to fingerpick up high. It’s really good for keeping the banjo in tune up the neck.

OTW: Do you teach banjo to private students?

JN: I used to keep a pretty regular schedule with students, but life and work and music have sort of made it so I’ll do week-long camps or maybe weekends where I’ll do a one-day workshop.

OTW: When you teach banjo, is it by ear, with tab or both?

JN: I teach by ear. I welcome the era of flip cams and phones, and I always encourage students to take a moment at the end of class to capture the tune that way.

OTW: I remember you were coordinator for folk music week at Pinewoods Camp, and I know you’ve been directing old-time week at Augusta. How long have you been doing that?

JN: I was honored to be asked to be the coordinator for old-time week at Augusta, and I’m coming up on my third year. I have a blast. It’s fun to be the guy with the clipboard. And the other thing about Augusta is, I always teach at least one vocal week course there with Val Mindel. I like cross-pollinating. I like people who play instrumental music and also sing. I’m not just a tune head. Tunes are great, I love playing tunes, but I like a session where you’ll play some tunes, sing some songs, you’ll get a chance to get a good visit in. As I get older, that’s what I really like. I like the notion of community, and making the most of the time we have with our friends. I’m lucky to have such talented friends. So when I go to these places I like visiting until it’s time to play, and then when it’s time to play, I like playing hard.

The thing about these types of camps is, you’ll find wonderful musicians at every one of them. What I like doing at Augusta, and what I try to do, is to make it a tribe. We have a great time and everyone feels safe not having folks crack upon them about their music or their abilities. Every time I have a week-long banjo class I hope to have a left-handed banjo player so I can borrow their instrument and show people that I can not do anything on a left-handed banjo. It’s very good for me, and I’ll try to clawhammer with my left hand, and I can’t do it. It’s real important to show that it’s not instinctive. It’s easy to say, “Oh just do this.” But you can’t forget that for some folks it’s just not that simple. I really like to build an atmosphere where folks will feel like they’re not going to be judged on their abilities but rather judged on their hearts.

OTW: But you don’t actually play left handed.

JN: No, but I say, “Okay, watch Mr. Teacher. I can’t do it.” I remember what it’s like not to be able to do something as second nature.

OTW: That’s a good idea. One of the first things I do with a new, young, beginning banjo student is to find out if they are more comfortable doing a clawhammer stroke or finger picking with the right or left hand. Often, a person new to the instrument doesn’t know. I’m slightly ambidextrous, but mostly right handed. But I’ve never tried clawhamering as a lefty.

JN: Buddy, it will rock your world. It will make you remember all in a rush what it was like. I’ve been playing banjo almost all my life now, but I never want to forget what it was like to be a new banjo player.

OTW: I find playing with other musicians a lot of fun and so I encourage my students to go to jams. I sometimes do jamming workshops with a fiddler joining me, and I talk about the roles of different instruments in a band situation.

JN: And how that role can change depending on the type of tune, type of song, and how it can go back and forth to make the whole. In fiddle-based music, the fiddle needs to have the lead role. In fiddle tunes, I’m going to let the fiddle start the tune. It doesn’t mean I’m a second class guy, but I’m gonna be right there supporting it. Now you mention jamming. One thing when I have a week-long or even a one-day session, I don’t think I should be there just teaching people a million new tunes. There are plenty of tunes they can learn on their own. I’m there to teach technique, and things that will help them not be bored when they play, and things that will stretch them. I like telling people there’s a whole lot of music you can just get playing at the second fret and the fifth string. In lots of D tunes you can get a great part of the tune by not moving above or below the second fret and using the fifth string. What it means for many folks who don’t know as many tunes is that, in a jam session, they can use that technique to pick out the essence of tunes and play along and not just say, “I don’t know this tune so I just won’t play.”

OTW: I love double D tuning, and I’ll often play a tune mostly on the first and second strings, and of course the fifth, and then go down to the lower strings and play it in the lower octave. It gives more variety.

JN: Yeah. But for one of those proto D tunes like Angeline the Baker or Sugar Hill, you can just rest assured that the whole tune can be played on the second fret and the fifth string. I urge people to give it a try. Just don’t slide up to the fifth fret on the first string to get that A note. Stay right there and use the fifth string. I’m just the laziest banjo player you’ll ever see.

OTW: I agree. You don’t need to use the fifth string only as a drone, but you can use it when necessary to get melody notes.

JN: Absolutely.

OTW: Anything else?

JN: Well, sometimes I just get really excited about the fact that I know how to play the banjo, that it’s been a part of my life so long. It’s the instrument I can express myself so freely on. I love guitar and fiddle, but with the banjo, a lot of what comes into my head I can make come out through my fingers. That’s a gift for me to have something that I love so much after all these years.