Author: Martin, George

The most amazing banjo solo of all time

There are a lot of great banjo players in the world, we all know. I guess if you had to pick one as the Very Best you’d have to go with Bela Fleck. A few weeks ago I watched a live stream on the internet from Nashville as Bela performed his own concerto for banjo and orchestra with the Nashville Symphony. That was very impressive. And he plays jam-rock and jazz and excellent Scruggs style as well as amazing melodic.

If God tapped me on the shoulder and told me I could suddenly play like any banjo player, I think I’d pick Alan Munde. He has that wonderful melodic style and can play jazzy, swingy stuff with ease. Once at a CBA music camp I listened as he was messing around on a guitar, and he can play that instrument just about as well as he plays banjo. That same week, on the first night when the instructors give an impromptu concert, Kathy Kallick sang a Jimmy Martin tune, and Alan’s banjo break was as hard-driving and Scruggsy (well, maybe J.D. Crowe-y) as anything. And I suddenly remembered, oh , yeah, before Alan got a rep as a melodic expert he was Jimmy Martin’s banjo player.Possibly my favorite banjo break is the one Bill Keith did on “New Camptown Races,” recorded by Folkways (now Smithsonian Folkways) on a Red Allen and Frank Wakefield recording. Bill blends melodic and Scruggs styles so beautifully in that break, I can listen to it over and over. In fact I did, and my vinyl album got a big skip in it. Fortunately the entire Folkways catalog is available by mail order now, and I have a CD of it now.

My nominee for tastiest backup “break” is the one the late Bobby Thompson did on Ray Stevens' recording of “Misty,” the Errol Garner tune that was a big country hit for Stevens. It’s so bouncy and sweet, I only wish they had let Bobby have at least half the instrumental break instead of giving it to the steel player, who in all fairness did nail it.

But I digress. My nominee for best banjo solo of all time goes to a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” performed 40 years ago by Little Roy Lewis.

Little Roy isn’t especially well-known on the West Coast. Right now he is performing as the Little Roy and Lizzie show with a young woman named Lizzie Long, who is no slouch as a banjo player herself. Roy was just a youngster when his parents and siblings began touring as The Lewis Family in the 1960s.

The Lewises were a gospel band that veered about as far toward the Southern Gospel side of things as you can and still be considered a bluegrass band. Roy’s three sisters had big hair and voices to match and sang amazing harmony. “Pop” (actually Roy Sr.) Lewis played bass and sang, if memory serves. Little Roy was the cut-up, a role he played long after he wasn’t “little” anymore.

The Lewis’s music is full of tempo shifts, key changes, and other complicated things. I recommend anyone curious go to YouTube and search for their videos. Listen to “I’m Just an Old Lump of Coal.” It is so good.

The family played Grass Valley once, sometime around 1980 I’m guessing. I chatted with Little Roy a bit that weekend. “Do you play?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “but not like you do. But I’m a good enough musician to know that what you are doing up there is really special; you aren’t just standing up there and singing gospel songs.”

“Well, thank you,” he said. “We work hard at it.”

Around that time I came into possession of a cassette tape of the Lewis Family performing at a bluegrass festival somewhere far away. The tape was made right around 1976, and Little Roy introduced his solo (in his very musical Georgia accent) this way: “When I learned these songs I had no idea they were going to be my Bicentennial medley. But they is.”

And he went into the two songs, in a wonderful arrangement, combining Scruggsy licks with two-string counterpoints at a couple of places. I was really excited about the tunes and decided to try and track down the vinyl LP they were on. I can’t remember how I found it, I would guess County Records in Virginia had it, but eventually the record (it’s titled “Gospel Banjo”) showed up in my mailbox.

After listening to it a few times I picked up my banjo and started trying to figure out what key it was in. I was having a really hard time finding the notes, when it suddenly hit me: HE’S PLAYING IN D TUNING!

Now, most every banjo player picks a few tunes in D tuning. “Lonesome Reuben” is in D tuning. You can play a nice version of “Home Sweet Home” in D tuning, using your Keith tuners if you have them. Ralph Stanley’s “Hard Times” is in D tuning. But those are simple, two- or three-chord songs that were either composed on the banjo or very easily adapted.

“America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” were not simple tunes written for banjo, and Little Roy was all over the neck. What seemed like a very good banjo solo was, in reality, a tour de force that not one banjo player out of a thousand could duplicate.

And that’s why I nominate Little Roy for Most Amazing Banjo Solo of all Time.
Posted:  10/13/2011

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