Q&A with Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo

Categories: Interviews

While our profile on Pete Wernick in this week's issue primarily focused on the duality of his roles in his bluegrass/jazz group Flexigrass and with the traditional bluegrass act Long Road Home, Wernick also discussed a number of other things including: what good bluegrass is, his introduction and the resurgence of the genre and his friendship with Steve Martin.

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Read the full interview after the jump, and then catch Wernick this weekend when he performs with both of the groups on Friday, February 12 at Swallow Hill; Long Road Home is also celebrating the release of its debut CD that night. And then the following night, Wernick's due with wife at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder.

Westword: Congrats on winning the Grammy with Steve Martin. How did you guys first meet?

PW: Basically, I was reading an article about him in a banjo magazine, and he started talking about me, even though we'd never met, about how he liked my playing. He was quite effusive about it, and I, of course, was happy to hear that because I've always admired his work on a number of levels.

It was hard to get in touch with him through regular channels, but a mutual friend put us in touch, and at that point, Steve said, "Well, let's get together." Over the next year or two, I visited him a few times at a couple of different homes -- one in LA and one in New York City.

The relationship just grew because I worked with him on a concert that he wanted to put on with several banjo players including Earl Scruggs, and that sort of spun off a television appearance on the David Letterman Show.

That was in 2005, and because of his newness to the idea of performing music -- you know, presenting music on stage, which he hadn't really done except for a prop to his comedy act -- he started leaning on me for assistance on how that is done. I gave him some help with his autobiography, and he called on me to provide the music for his wedding a few summers ago.

So we had done these collaborations and different things I've helped him with. He had this idea to do the record, and he called me into the production team as sort of an adviser, and I played on a couple of cuts on the record, and also co-wrote one of the tunes on the record with him.

He and I have been staying in pretty regular touch, and, of course, he went out and did a whole tour behind the record, and I got to play with him at Carnegie Hall and at the Paramount Theatre in Denver.

WW: Definitely sounds like your staying busy with your various projects. The new Long Road Home album is coming out?

PW: Yeah. It's already out. I'm very proud of the record. It's the first bluegrass record I've been on as a principal artist in quite some time.

WW: Really?

PW: Well, yeah, because the only bluegrass band I've been a part of since the 1970s is Hot Rize. And Hot Rize did a lot of recording in the '80s, and then put out something in 2002, that was based on some live recordings we had from the '90s.

But Hot Rize hasn't been in a studio as a band for all this time, and hasn't put out any new product. Well, we're on a couple of cuts ... one of the albums nominated for the bluegrass Grammy was by Bryan Sutton, who's the guitar player in Hot Rize now, and he had us play a couple of cuts with him. So that's like the first Hot Rize in quite a long time.

Even though I've been playing bluegrass with different people, my main band for years has been what I call Pete Wernick & Flexigrass, which is not really what I would call a bluegrass band because of the instrumentation. It involves clarinet, drums and vibraphone. You just cannot call that bluegrass. It's not fair to bluegrass. We're very influenced by bluegrass, but it's not a bluegrass instrumentation, so I call it Flexigrass.

I was really getting lonesome for playing bluegrass. Long Road Home had already started a few years ago, but they needed a banjo player. When Justin, the fiddle player, asked me about who I would suggest to player, I said, "You should get me." He said, "Really? You'd really play with us?" I said, "Yeah. You're good and I'm really missing playing bluegrass."

That was two years ago. The bass player is another guy who's roughly my age named Gene Libbea. He's a veteran of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and a great bass player. So we're the old guys, and there's three guys in their twenties in the band. It's a great combination. Everybody pulls their weight in this group, and we get along good, and we all have a good comparable vision of the way good bluegrass should sound. We're trying our utmost to make that kind of sound.

WW: What really makes good bluegrass?

PW: I'm glad you asked that because some people are only sort of aware of bluegrass, and haven't really studied it. People who really care about bluegrass and who've been deep into it for a while, say it's got to have a, well, there's a pure form of energy that comes out where the notes are clear, the rhythm is tight and clean, the vocals and the harmony are strong and sure of themselves, and underlying it all is a sensibility of what bluegrass is all about.

And bluegrass is a form of country music. It is not really best suited to being ultra fancy. It's a demanding and it's a virtuosic kind of music in a lot of ways, but it doesn't try to be overly complicated to where it goes over people's heads. It's not like modern jazz can be where it's hard to understand. It needs to be very direct and sincere and real.

The singing has to really show that, the way we present ourselves and the way we act. It's all about trying to do right by the traditions of this great kind of music that grew up in the southeast, but it's really an international form of music now, with devotees all over the world and great musicians who play it in many different parts of the world. So we're part of the Colorado contingent.

WW: It seems like there's been a resurgence of bluegrass over the years.

PW: Yeah. It's been sort of a slow, steady growth. Hot Rize was the first group out of Colorado to make a pretty big splash nationally, and we became one of the best-known bands in bluegrass, and we were based in Colorado. But when we retired from full-time playing in 1990, there were still quite a few good bands around here.

Then not long after we stopped our touring, you know, Leftover Salmon came along, and those were bluegrass guys who also knew how to play rock, and so they blended bluegrass and rock. String Cheese Incident did a similar kind of thing. Yonder Mountain is more of a bluegrass band rather than a bluegrass/rock combination.

But those three bands did a huge job to put Colorado on the map of what we might call progressive outgrowths of bluegrass. Only one of those bands would be called a bluegrass band, but they were still advancing the cause of bluegrass. And they were all influenced by Hot Rize. When they were asked who influenced them, they'd all say, "Hot Rize." That always made us proud to think that we helped stuff get going.

But in the meantime the core kind of bluegrass -- as opposed to the Telluride Bluegrass, which is not what I would call core bluegrass -- Planet Bluegrass also runs the Rocky Grass Festival, which is a more of a pure bluegrass festival. The picking that goes on there, the campground, the academy they put on there before the festival, the other activities they have out there -- Planet Bluegrass has been part of what nurtured this all along.

KGNU radio has had bluegrass show running continuously since 1978 in Boulder. That's been an important part of the scene. The Colorado Bluegrass Society have been running since the '70s. Those are some of the pillars of Colorado bluegrass edifice you might say.

And there are a lot of fans a lot of young talent coming up in the state, including these three young guys that I've been playing with in Long Road Home. Two of them are from right around here, and they grew up playing bluegrass.

WW: Did you grow up playing bluegrass?

PW: Well, pretty much. I'm 63, or I'm going to be 64 this month. I was fourteen in the year 1960, when folk music was coming on strong. I'd never played an instrument before, but that was year I started playing banjo. I was inspired by people like Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio and groups like that.

But Flatt and Scruggs were very much on the scene back then. It was right before the Beverly Hillbillies theme got recorded. I was nuts over Scruggs' playing and since I'd already started to play some banjo, I decided to make a study of what Scruggs was doing. There was no instructional material to help you do that, but I sort of figured that out by listening to records a lot and experimenting with it.

After a few years, I was able to play pretty good bluegrass on the banjo. I was in New York City, and when I got to college, I started a bluegrass radio program, and then I became acquainted with some of the most talented people in New York City, which, at the time, included people like David Grisman and some other people, who are roughly my age, who were great players, and they helped me learn.

And by having a radio show, I also learned. So by the time I was twenty years old, I was very deeply steeped in bluegrass, even though I was from New York and I'd only been doing it for six years. But a lot of what I still have is my knowledge base and my understanding that music goes back to when I was in my teens. I was 19 when I attended the very first bluegrass festival, in southwest Virginia, in 1965. I brought my tape recorder and interviewed some of the stars. The interview I did with Don Reno is on YouTube!

WW: With Flexigrass, you're throwing some jazz into the mix. How do you describe it to people?

PW: I used to just use the word Flexigrass to just say, "Look, I've been bending the rules of bluegrass for a long time. Unlike some kinds of music there are practically ... Bill Monroe, who was generally acknowledged as the father of bluegrass music, was fond of stating what belonged in bluegrass and what didn't belong in bluegrass.

So he had this very clear idea of rules of what was bluegrass and what wasn't bluegrass. And I understood those rules, and I was willing to abide by them, but there were times where I wanted to try other things. In my opinion, that might be good music, but it wouldn't be called bluegrass.

When I moved out here in mid-'70s, I was experimenting with using a phase shifter on my banjo. My first solo album has various other experimental aspects to it. The very first cut is a banjo/flute duet, which was not a very bluegrass thing to do. It was the '70s and part of what I thought I needed to do, was sort of make my own pathway and salute the greats of bluegrass, and not act like I was rejecting them. But I just had to figure out my own path.

I've always been trying different things outside of the box. Hot Rize was 98 percent inside the box, but I still kept using the phase shifter. I started calling my deviant behavior "Flexigrass." This band that's now called Flexigrass -- I had a different name for it at first called Pete Wernick's Live Five, but I decided it wasn't descriptive enough, and Flexigrass gets more commentary, and people sort of understand more what I'm after when I use the word "Flexigrass."

So that band started when I just wanted to see what happened when I combined Dixieland-style clarinet with jazz vibes with sound of bluegrass banjo. There's a great drummer, Kris Ditson, who I knew back east, and he turned out to be living in Boulder. And I had already wondered if I'd be able to play with a drummer in that style, and look at this, he's living ten miles from my house.

I got all that together in the early '90s, and I've kept the band going continuously all this time, with just a few personnel changes. The band has really great players, and most of them have been in the band for ten years or more. The newest member is Greg Harris, who is a great young vibes player. He's just a great addition to the band and a great creative force.

We cover anything from Benny Goodman to Flatt and Scruggs. I make up quite a few original tunes that have a variety of flavors to them, everything from rampaging and jazzy and moody and bluesy. One of the latest tunes of mine is called "Googling Around," which is kind of a cute, snazzy little tune.

WW: Do you guys stretch out and improvise at all?

PW: Well, there's a little tension between exact arrangements versus improvisation because improvisation sometimes sounds better than exact arrangements. But exact arrangements are much more likely to sound really good together and everything's in place. So I try to blend the two.

Greg Harris, the vibes player, and Bill Pontarelli, the clarinet player, they're really advanced musicians and they know to play it straight, but they're always compelled to try new things. I'm always excited to hear what they come up with, but I also say, "Would you please stay closer to the melody," especially for your first solo where people are still learning the tune.

If you're already embroidering a tune they haven't learned yet you might be losing the audience. You have to remember to play for the audience and not just other musicians, and they sort of understand that, but I'm always having to remind them, you know, in a friendly way, because I really respect them.

I feel especially blessed to have musicians of that caliber to play with and under my direction, actually.

When I joined Long Road Home they'd already established the protocol that they wear suits to every concert because that's like the traditional bluegrass garb. Hot Rize did that. And the older guys who play in Flexigrass, we try to look nice, but none of us has never worn a suit to play with Flexigrass.

I'm going to have bring to two different outfits to play in these two different bands. That's symbolic for the fact that I'm walking a fine line. Some bluegrass people expect you not to do anything that's not bluegrass, and if you do it, it means you should be kicked out the tribe or something.

I've never seen it that way. Just because you might like steak doesn't mean you might not also once in a while go in for some tofu or something. If you like steak it doesn't mean you only eat steak. So I'm trying to be interesting without annoying people musically.

I try to show them that there's always something new to be discovered whether it's within the bounds of a fairly well defined tradition -- you can still always find new and different things -- and then it's fun to totally break the rules and see what you can come up with that has a whole different feel about it.

WW: Do you approach playing with Long Road Home and Flexigrass differently with different mindsets?

PW: Yes. That's a good launching point for what goes on in my head, when I'm with them. In Flexigrass, I'm the bandleader, and almost all the material that we do, I bring to the band. My wife is the lead vocalist, so she brings some songs to the band. But how we arrange them and what happens when -- it's just up to what we decide to do. It's a collaborative process, but I'm in charge of it.

In the case of Long Road Home, that's a band that I joined. They already have a lead singer and an ongoing style. It's a style I'm very much at home with, but I feel more like a cog in the machine than the designer. I like it that way because I respect everybody in the band.

The bandleader is Justin Hoffenberg, who's actually the youngest guy in the band, and the lead singer, Martin Gilmore, is the second-youngest guy in the band. Those are the two most creative forces in the band, and I'm glad to fit in around those guys as fits rather than say, "Okay, I'm the most experienced guy here, so here's what you should do."

I like having dual roles in the two bands. This is the first time two bands are combining for a show. I'm excited that I get to do both things the same night, because I love them both. It might be interesting, especially for banjo players, to watch how I approach the different roles. With Flexigrass, I'm the emcee, and I wrote so much of the material; it's sort of my band. In Long Road Home, I'm one of five.

What I'm supposed to do in the two different situations is really often two different templates. So rather than seeing one band one night and the other band one night, the idea that one follows right after the other. I think that could be pretty interesting for somebody to watch how the banjo fits in different ways in the band.

WW: Do you have anything in the works?

PW: Yeah, definitely. For one thing, Hot Rize is going to be playing Bonnaroo, and Telluride and also recording all in the same week. We're also going to tour. We haven't done a tour in a long time, so this will be the first time in the 21st Century that we're doing a tour, and we're going to hit a bunch of places this fall, and sort of put ourselves back on the map of bluegrass, because we've been gone a long time.

It's pretty clear that we've been missed. Every time we appear, we get a lot of encouragement that people have been missing us. So we're going to show up more places this year.

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