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Seven Banjo Players on the 40th Anniversary of Deliverance

June 8, 2012  |  12:40pm

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the screen adaptation of James Dickey’s Deliverance, as famous for its Grammy Award-winning instrumental song “Dueling Banjos” as its unsettling “bet you can squeal like a pig” scene. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to banjo players, associating the instrument with ignorant hillbillies while raising its profile in the music world. We asked seven banjo players about Deliverance, “Dueling Banjos” and how they discovered the instrument.

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1. Noam Pikelny, Punch Brothers
“I started playing banjo because my brother was playing mandolin,” Pikelny says from a taxi cab. He’s on his way to have his banjo serviced before embarking on a solo mini-tour in California. “My brother had heard a bluegrass band at his school and started taking mandolin lessons. After a couple of years of lessons, I guess I got jealous of his hobby and wanted to learn an instrument for myself.” At the suggestion of his mother, Pikelny decided to try the banjo. “I wasn’t terribly familiar with the banjo. But the banjo was something related enough to the mandolin that I thought my brother and I could play music with each other, so I kind of just agreed.” Around his eighth birthday, Pikelny got his first banjo—a Harmony banjo, which was a rental from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.

“I do have a vivid memory of my dad renting Deliverance and fast forwarding it without me in the room to the one scene where the two guys encounter the young boy playing the banjo on the porch, and I remember watching that and not being very moved one way or the other and more just being confused as a child as to why there is this movie with this banjo that I can’t watch.” Pikelny would eventually watch the movie in college; however, as he told me, “I didn’t fully appreciate the movie Deliverance until I watched it using only the French-dubbed audio. I highly recommend that experience for somebody who wants something incredibly unique.”

Pikelny believes many banjo players he encountered growing up despised the song because of the stereotypes that had been associated with the movie. “The stereotypes weren’t really affecting me because I was growing up in Chicago. When I played my banjo as a 10-year-old in Chicago for my friends, if they didn’t like it, it wasn’t because they thought it was hillbilly. It was because they were more interested in MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice at the time.”

“There are still these jokes but I don’t know that they sting as much as they use to. So much has gone on since then, and there is a widespread appreciation of banjo music.”

Pikelny will be touring the rest of the year with the Punch Brothers, as well touring this summer promoting his album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail.

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2. Tony Furtado
Furtado, an accomplished banjo and slide-guitar player who won two National Bluegrass Banjo Championships (in 1987 and 1991), has collaborated and recorded with artists including Jerry Douglas, Taj Mahal, Derek Trucks, Alison Krauss, String Cheese Incident, Greg Allman, and Jim Dickinson. He began playing banjo at age 12. “I remember when I first got into the banjo,” he says. “I got into it because of a report I did in sixth grade.” He made his first banjo out of items found around his house—a pie tin painted with white latex paint, a straight piece of wood, a rubber band for frets and fishing wire. “I even tuned all the strings to one note.”

Furtado was only a child when Deliverance was released, but he does recall “hearing the tune on the FM radio,” and “Dueling Banjos” was one of the first songs he learned after he began taking banjo lessons. “I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand, it brought a lot of people to enjoy banjo music, but it also painted a picture in people’s minds about what a banjo player is. It brought about the hillbilly banjo picker image.”

Furtado recently released his DVD/CD Live at Mississippi Studios and will be performing with Scott Law as the band Banjo Killers at the Northwest String Summit in Oregon in August.

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3. Chandler Holt, Chatham County Line
Holt was 19 and in college at North Carolina State when current bandmate, John Teer, lent him a bootleg recording of J.D. Crowe. “It just flipped me out. I think Tony Rice was in that band and maybe Ricky Skaggs. I kind of just fell in love with it at that point and basically just went out and bought a banjo immediately,” said Holt.

Holt remembers seeing Deliverance several months after he began playing banjo. “Honestly, I thought that track was bitchin’. I don’t want to sit around every night and play it for an audience and have some dude keep telling me a thousand times to play it.” Luckily for Holt, most fans of the band know what they can expect. “I think everybody who knows us, especially at a ticketed show, knows we just don’t play that stuff and those people don’t want to come hear that anyway. We have great fans for that reason. They just know it isn’t going to get played. People still love ‘Rocky Top’ – that one still is the crown jewel – that is the ‘Freebird’ of bluegrass.”

When asked if he thinks the movie is responsible for the hillbilly stereotype, Holt said, “No—I mean there is a ton of shit out there like that. You had Hee Haw, and I love Bucko more than anybody. Hee Haw probably did more to plant that kind of hayseed image. Honestly, people like Bill Monroe and Flat and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, with the way they dressed and the way they performed, did everything they could to make sure people didn’t feel that way about the music because they weren’t hayseed kind of dudes.”

Chatham County Line will release their first live U.S. DVD/CD in June, and the band is in the process of preparing for their next studio album.

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4. Alison Brown, Alison Brown Quartet
Brown, a Grammy Award-winning, Harvard educated, banjo player, is also the co-owner of Compass Records, which has been called “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade.” “I first heard Earl Scruggs ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ from my guitar teacher,” she says. “I was taking guitar lessons at the time, and my dad made me a tape of that record and labeled it ‘hillbilly music.’ So my perception of the banjo as hillbilly music preceded Deliverance but I never thought of that as a negative thing. But that’s how I first got started on the banjo. I heard that record and my parents said I could take banjo lessons.”

Brown believes the stereotype has been synonymous with the banjo since people started playing it with old time music and then bluegrass because it’s an instrument associated with rural culture and Southern Appalachia. “To me, I never thought the hillbilly was necessarily a derogatory connotation. To me, that’s part of what I really liked about it because it was so different from what I knew growing up in Southern California. Right at the same time and even before Deliverance, there are all those reruns of Hee Haw, so you can’t really blame Deliverance. It is certainly not solely Deliverance’s fault; it’s just kind of a connotation that has gone hand in hand with the instrument for a long time.”

And as far as the song “Dueling Banjos” is concerned, Brown believes “anything that shines the spotlight on the banjo is probably a good thing at the end of the day, and it is that track that got a lot of us interested in the banjo in the first place. It’s a great song. People react to it so how can you not like something that people react to.”

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5. Eric Gibson, The Gibson Brothers
Eric Gibson and his brother, Lee, grew up on a dairy farm in up-state New York. “We weren’t really from a musical family,” says Gibson. “Our family loved music but nobody really played. My dad, who I think was a really frustrated musician, would have like to have played, but he worked like a man since he was nine years old. He would go to an auction and might buy a fiddle, and he ordered a banjo from Sears. He also ordered a guitar, so there were instruments around the house but no one knew how to play them. And when I was 12 and my brother, Lee, who was 11, came home from school one day, and dad was sitting at the kitchen table, he said, ‘Well, you’re going to start lessons. One of you will play banjo and the other guitar.’” Gibson soon started taking lessons and remembers his teacher giving him a cassette of Earl Scruggs at Carnegie Hall. According to Gibson it made him “want to play that banjo more than anything in the world. When I heard Carnegie Hall, I wanted to sound like Earl, and I still do, and I can’t.”

Gibson remembers hearing the song early on, thinking it “was a neat little song” and remembers learning how to play it. “I remember playing it at a talent show in high school, and it got a good response. Then I saw the movie when I went to college and I was horrified, and I thought, ‘My god, I hope people don’t think that because I play banjo this is what I’m into.’”

“I think it was good for the instrument and good for bluegrass,” he adds. “I think even though there are negative stereotypes attached to that movie, overall it was a really good thing for banjo music and bluegrass music in general. We need a shot in the arm like that every so many years. I use to run from the term ‘hillbilly’, but now I like it. I wear it with a badge of honor. I like twangy stuff like banjos.”

The Gibson Brothers recently returned from their European tour and will be touring throughout the United States and Canada this summer.

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6. Ryan Cavanaugh, Bill Evans Soulgrass; Ryan Cavanaugh and No Man’s Land
Against the admonitions of his father, Cavanaugh found his father’s banjo, one that belonged to his great uncle who emigrated from Ireland to New York City in the early 1900s. “When he came home, he found me playing around with it. He said, ‘If you’re that interested in it, let me show you how to hold it, let me show you how to play it, and how it should sound.’ He played me an Earle Scruggs record, and it just kind of went from there.”

Cavanaugh was living in Chapel Hill, NC, struggling to make a living and tired of playing archetypal bluegrass music, when he was discovered by one of his heroes, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, in 2006. “I emailed him out of the blue,” says Cavanaugh. He explained to McLaughlin how he wanted to bring the banjo back to jazz. Cavanaugh concluded the letter with, “If I don’t hear back from you, I’m going to keep sending you emails and bug you so you better just email me back to save yourself the inconvenience,” and then he signed it the ‘banjo avenger.’ McLaughlin responded and put Cavanaugh in touch with Miles Davis alum, Bill Evans.

Cavanaugh remembers seeing Deliverance for the first time the same year he began playing banjo. “A friend of my parents told them that I should really see the banjo part in Deliverance and gave us a copy of the movie,” he said. “I was transcribing that music from the movie, so I didn’t watch the movie past that point even though my parents were preoccupied and didn’t really care if I finished it.” It took Cavanaugh a year to transcribe the tune, but when he finished, as a reward to himself, he decided to watch the rest of the movie. “And here I was, 11 years old, and I was seriously disturbed.”

For Cavanaugh, the irony of the instrument is apparent because “everyone considers the banjo to be this racist, white redneck thing. When you trace its origins back to the Congo, it is the funkiest instrument known to man.”

Cavanaugh’s irritation with the stereotype attached to the banjo does not stem from the movie and the song; rather, the genre of music generally associated most closely with the banjo is at the center of his annoyance. “Wouldn’t it be great to go to a jazz jam session with all these cool, funky guys playing jazz and have them think I’m funky while playing the banjo? I didn’t want to break the stereotype for people who hate the stereotype, but I wanted to break it for the people who were ignorant to the banjo. I wanted to play the banjo for a person and have them say, ‘Holy shit, I thought that was a hillbilly instrument but man you broke the mold.’ I was tired of that stereotype but I don’t blame it on Deliverance.”

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7. Jeff Mosier, The Mosier Brothers; Blueground Undergrass, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarian Rescue Unit
Mosier was surrounded by bluegrass as a child growing up in Tennessee but did not start playing the banjo till he was in high school. A friend of his, who stopped playing music to go on to become a decorated fighter pilot, was the one who got him started on the banjo. “He gave me the banjo and let me have it for a day, and I was just mesmerized,” he says. “I don’t know why but I loved drums, and at the time, I was doing a lot of theater in high school. My brother was already playing guitar, and I just think I gravitated to it because it was interesting.”

Mosier has strong feelings about the song and what it has done for the instrument. “You can sit and play an entire set of music—real original music, off-the-chain music, great shit—and [an audience] won’t respond to anything else but ‘Dueling Banjos.’ I’ve had that happen for years. I’ve had it happen after a beautiful night of music; someone comes up and says ‘you know, I was kind of disappointed you didn’t play ‘Dueling Banjos,’ and they are very serious… My brother use to have to grab me when people would say that.”

However, Mosier recognizes that the movie “gave the banjo press it would have never gotten. It got people thinking about the banjo who would have never thought about it, and it helped people hear a banjo roll constructed live in a major motion picture.”

The Mosier Brothers will be touring this summer including playing a four show mini-tour with Peter Rowan later this month.

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