Cover Genres: Banjo

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Apr 212023

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.


Yes, it’s true–banjo isn’t really a genre, per se, as it encompasses more than one musical style. Way more. But this category could use a kickstart, and what better instrument to provide the kick with?

Now, I love the banjo, but I know full well how many don’t. Indeed, only the bagpipes and the accordion have been the butt of more jokes. My goal, then, is to take you the reader beyond the backwoods and blue grass, and to show you the other vistas where a banjo can not only play, it can also rule.

So then, banjo, do yer worst!

Hayseed Dixie – I Believe in a Thing Called Love (The Darkness cover)

Arguably the best of the bluegrass blindsider bands, whose idiosyncratic take on rock music is blended through an Appalachian mountain music hillbilly vibe. They had the mythology, too, claiming to come from Deer Lick Holler in East Tennessee, their career starting as band member Barley Scotch chanced on an abandoned car on a forgotten highway. Inside that car was a bunch of records, duly appropriated and played on Grandad’s wind-up Victrola. The records were by AC/DC, hence their bastardized name and their first album, a tribute to the Australian band with not an electric instrument in sight.

“I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” by UK hair metal clowns The Darkness, is right up Hayseed Dixie’s alley. When the time for what would otherwise be the guitar solo in this song arrives, the call out for banjo is just perfect. The band have made a slew of recordings, even going as far to cover some of their own material. A fact I love, and a true one at that: Barley, aka John Wheeler, is the second cousin of Lester Flatt.

Run C&W – Papa Was a Rolling Stone (The Temptations cover)

Run C&W preceded Hayseed Dixie by quite some time, and made little secret of their true identity. Sure, their artwork listed a whole lot of fake IDs, along the lines of the Traveling Wilburys, but they were actually well-seasoned veterans of the country and Americana circuit, the best known being Bernie Leadon, erstwhile Eagle, and Russell Smith of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. Concentrating on a more R’n’B angle, they ran off two albums before the joke wore flat. The featured song may not be their best, but it displays best the head-on car-crash conflict of the project.

Dead Grass feat. Vassar Clements – Mexicali Blues (Grateful Dead cover)

Before it becomes tempting to write off all these projects as spoofers and pranksters, please be reassured there is a serious side to such translations. This is most widely developed in the so called Jam Band community, where, broadly, the music of the Grateful Dead meets the mountains. Plenty of country flavors in the Dead, but these bands, and there are many, take the traveling band ethos further, often with extended freeform improvisation bulking out any performance. Bands like the Infamous Stringdusters and Leftover Salmon might be good examples of the more rarified high banjo count end of the spectrum, but it extends also sideways into the blues, with Govt. Mule and Widespread Panic. Indeed, bluegrass guitar prodigy Billy Strings allies himself more with this movement than any orthodox Nashville oriented pull.

But I like to think the seeds for the movement sprouted, in part, from the imagination of fiddle maestro Vassar Clements. He was as happy with the blues as he was with the grass of that color, bringing in hues of rock and jazz into his free-ranging excursions to the limits of acoustic hillbilly fare. Having played with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on their seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, he also became an associate of the extended Dead family, playing with Jerry Garcia in Old And In The Way. But the song featured above comes from Dead Grass, a project of exclusively Dead covers. Incidentally, the banjo comes from the black African American, Reggie Harris, as if the insult to redneck orthodoxy weren’t enough.

(Dead Grass the album should not be confused with Deadgrass the band, who, years later, picked up the idea as their own, running with it still, and finding a home on the Jam Band circus.)

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones – River (Joni Mitchell cover)

Fleck is a mighty, mighty name in banjo spheres, in part because, like Clements before him, never has he confined himself to any stifling genre apartheid. So, yes, he has stuck to “tradition,” within New Grass Revival, but he’s also gone totally off the trail with his band, The Flecktones, who could bring jazz-rock fusion into their remit without ever losing sight of the instrument their leader played. (Blu-bop is the name they christened this baby.) Fleck also does a nice line in classical banjo.

De Dannan – Hey Jude (The Beatles cover)

Let’s cross the ocean, so there will be no danger of us forgetting the quite different Irish banjo. Rather than being a rhythm instrument, it has a role to play the melody, often hand in hand with vocal or any other lead instrument. That is well displayed here by Charlie Piggot, with the group De Dannan, a version of which still exists. A mention is also worthwhile for the considerably less traditional Pogues, who were nonetheless faithful to that use of the instrument. Not that you could always hear it in the mix (to wit), but who cares, as it is so great to see both Shane McGowan and Joe Strummer together, the ex-Clash man having been a later live replacement for the increasingly unreliable McGowan.

Otis Taylor – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)

Now let’s cross it back again. For the blues. Now, arguments exist as to whether the American banjo is derived from the Irish or whether it comes from Africa, along with those that played it, way sooner than adopting the guitar. It is probably only because of the ridicule for the instrument, arising from hokey blackface minstrel bands that led to the early bluesmen to switch their allegiance. Otis Taylor is a latter-day blues musician who has tried to redress the balance, especially with his 2008 LP Recapturing the Banjo, from which the above is taken. Others have followed his path, notably the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with the individual players, Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla, continuing to promote the use of the instrument after the demise of the trio, always promoting the old times music of their forbears.

Dan Walsh – Couldn’t Get It Right (Climax Blues Band cover)

Someone, maybe the editor, is going to call me out for this sprawling piece [Editor’s Note: No, we’re good], as I try to sing the praises of this humble musical tool across myriad ventures, when the brief, nominally, was for one. Not my fault, it is the ubiquity of the instrument. But, what and who better to close this cornucopia of covers, in the vids and in the links, than Dan Walsh. Walsh is a banjo prodigy from Stafford, England. He don’t care whether it’s country, folk, or what; he just plays it, across all and every style. Enjoy his and every other selection here.

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