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Published: 1999/07/15
by Bob Makin

Tony Trischka: Where No Banjo Has Gone Before

BM: Other than the fact it features performances and writing by permanent band members, how else is ‘Bend’ different from anything else you’ve done?

TT: I don’t know. I’ve tried a lot of things over the years. ‘The Early Years,’ which is my first two records (compiled on a 1997 Rounder CD), basically set up the format, the template for this band. A couple of tunes have more of an electric feel with rock ‘n’ roll guitar, but everybody else is very much into a jazz thing, so that format was established back then and reflected my interest in fusion, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and Weather Report really influenced me a lot. I had a similar attitude that I don’t have to play what’s expected of me. They were like, ‘I can be like Charlie Parker and play what I want.’ So they fused rock with jazz and there were no limits. That’s why fusion excited me. It was all just music. As Duke Ellington said, there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad.

BM: Is the first album on which you’ve had vocals or as many tracks with vocals?

TT: I have one album out the a group called Big Dogs that was mostly traditional bluegrass. It was in the early ’90s and there were more vocals than this album. The Christmas album (1995’s Glory Shone Around) also has vocals. I love having vocals. I hope to have more on the next one. But I don’t think of these as vocal songs. The new songs on the new record are mostly instrumental and in a section, like in the middle, we’ll have a vocal thing. But I do have an anti-war song that I’d written before the recent situation in Yugoslavia that is a vocal song. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.

BM: Comment on the influence that Bill Keith, who put progressive bluegrass music on the map in the 1960s, has had on you?

TT: Bill Keith is a huge. He developed such a melodic style for fiddle tunes. He’s one of the heroes of the ’60s who still sounds great. There’s an incalculable debt that I owe him. He opened it up for everybody.

BM: When you recorded Fiddle Tunes for Banjo with Bill and Bela in 1981 before Bela had joined New Grass Revival. Then the rest, as they say, is history. Did you have a banjo teacher who had as much impact on you as you had on Bela Fleck?

TT: In a sense. His name was Hal Galtzer from New York City. I was going to school in Syracuse, and I was this 14-year-old twirp who saw ‘Hootenanny’ on television. I said, “Hey, I have to do this.” So in the space of one lesson, he opened the doors. I studied with him for six months. I leapfrogged off him. He showed me the traditional styles of Bill Keith and Earl Scruggs as Bela leapfrogged from my progressive stuff and took it from there.

BM: How did you become Bela Fleck’s banjo teacher? How has that relationship evolved as far as teaching each other new things?

TT: I lived in New York City in 1973, and he gave me a call when he was 16 years old. I took him to see banjo people like Eric Darling who used to be in The Weavers. We’d play fiddle tunes. He was interested in learning the tunes off my first records. I spent six months showing him whatever I could. Every little bit that I could come up with, I’d impart to him. He gobbled it up fast till I said, “You’ve got it. Go on.” We’d get together and jam after that. We go back a long way.

I’ve learned more from him than he learned from me in more recent years. He has new techniques that are great that I’ve been able to steal and make my own. The shoe’s on the other foot now. When we play together, we tend to move toward each other musically speaking. He’s been so influenced by me and in more recent years, I’ve been so influenced by him, that we blend together to make a unified sound even though we’re both soloing. He’ll get off on a single line of music which he has great command of, and I don’t solo that way. So our solos are different. I play harder than he does. I have to tone down so I don’t overpower him. We move to the middle.

BM: Did the chemistry of the Bela’s band, the Flecktones, inspire the formation of Tony Trischka Band?

TT: Not specifically, although I’d make a case for that on some levels. Bela finally had his own band and was really putting his music out there. He’d never done that at that level. I suppose on some level it inspired me. All these records, making music, I’ve never put band together. I’ve had a lot of other great musical experiences, but it’s exciting to have a band now. I just write something I think they can play. Maybe we’ll play for the big bucks. Yeah (laughs).

BM: How do you feel about Fleck getting more mainstream attention than you for being an architect of progressive banjo music?

TT: I’d be less than honest I said I didn’t have some feelings about that over years, but at this point, it’s fine. Years ago had those feelings gee I do that 1973. Wasn’t jealousy toward him because he so generous over years. He’s really great in interviews about mentioning my name. Time magazine called when he told them about, so that’s really good. And we’ve toured over the years. Once a year, it’s great for me, because it exposes me to his audience. We just played down at the Merle Watson Festival down in North Carolina. There was a workshop/concert with 400 people, most of them his audience. He went out of his way to tell people how he learned from me. That’s beyond gracious. That’s very generous, sharing the wealth and helping to make my name more well known.

He has a great business sense and a great band, so he’s deserved everything he’s gotten. And he’s got his head screwed on straight. He’s not a big star when he gets up there. He talks to his audience all the time, so that keeps him straight and keeps him human. At the end of the night, he hangs on the edge of stage until the last person is gone. He doesn’t just retreat to the dressing room.

BM: Fleck has gotten a lot of attention from performing with Dave Matthews. Does he have a proportional effect on enlarging your audience?

TT: I hope. I’d love to have a mainstream audience. I’ve been doing this a bunch of years. It would be nice just to get above the level I’ve been on. It’s not just the bluegrass constituency anymore in my audience. A number of different people come to the show. The bluegrass scene is somewhat static and heard to break through. It helps that Bela is nomadic. He has that Dead audience. Those who got into New Grass Revival when they opened for Dead. For their last concert they opened for the Dead and he played with Jerry on stage. That association brings out a younger audience that is looking beyond what they’re being fed on MTV. Their ears are more wide open.

The last time we toured with Bela, there was this 19-year-old guy there who asked me what our my 10 favorite banjo records that he should check out. Now I told him more obscure things that he’s not going to get out of Rolling Stone or off MTV. I realized that these kids are hungry for other kinds of music. It’s great. I’m finding at my own shows, I’m getting some of the older folks, like myself, and then the younger crowd too.

BM: Tell me what you think of the following acts and the impact they have on the kind of improvisational, rootsy music that you have been performing for more than 25 years: Dave Matthews Band.

TT: I like them. The first time I heard Dave Matthews Band was when Bela was playing in Hackensack in Jersey. The next day, he asked me if I wanted to go into the city. He was going to Electric Ladyland Studios. So I go in there to hear the latest cuts on this record he just did, and it’s Dave Matthews. It sounds wonderful. Then I saw him at Madison Square Garden. I like it a lot. It’s not as compelling to me, as say The Beatles, because older, and it’s hard for any band to grab me at this age. I’ve got kids now, and he’s writing about the concerns of young people. I’m a little more settled in my life now. But I think it’s a really good band.

BM: Phish?

TT: I like their stuff too. I respect what they do and appreciate it. I think if I was 17 or 18, I’d be gonzo over them. But I’m at a different point in my life. But I really respect what they do and I think they’re really good.

BM: On ‘Bend,’ I especially like the Allman Brothers-Lynyrd Skynyrd-flavored ‘Feed the Horse’ written by your southern rock-weaned guitarist Glenn Sherman and the New Orleans groove of ‘Moonlight Trail.’ I think that those tunes will really go over well among fans of the jam scene, because there’s so much common ground there. How do you feel about the jam band scene embracing you and the kind of music that you perform?

TT: That’s one of the places I’d like to go with my music. Rounder took out an ad Relix magazine and Bluegrass Unlimited, where my long-term audience is. I’m doing more festivals this summer, more jam-band kind of stuff, like the Berkshire Festival up in Massachusetts. We’re going to be getting into that market more with the CD. I’m attracting that kind of audience anyway. I’d love to see things become more mainstream. I feel like we can do that.

BM: If Bela was the next Tony Trischka, who is the next Bela Fleck?

TT: Tony Furtado. Although he sort of focusing more on slide guitar. He started out as a hot-lick banjo player, but he’s getting away from that. But technically, he’s the next generation. He has a lot of technical powers on the instrument. We have the same agent. He’s attracting that jam band audience too.

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