Tony Trischka: Not Just Another Banjo Player

Tony Trischka
Tony Trischka

Bela Fleck was sixteen when he called me,” Tony Trischka says when asked about his connection to the more well known banjo picker. “My first album Bluegrass Light had just come out and it was a fairly progressive album. He was already playing some bluegrass and wanted to get into the more progressive stuff so his teacher at the time suggested he call me.” Even a talented picker like Trischka recognized Fleck’s abilities quickly, he says.
“It was clear pretty soon that he didn’t need lessons, so we just sat around and picked,” Trischka says, “Neither of us can remember now how long it lasted, but it wasn’t much more than a few months.”
Trischka takes the inevitable questions about Fleck in stride, though his own career has been just as widely varied, if not more so. He does acknowledge one difference between them, however.
“I’m not a jazz player—I listen to it a lot, but I never made it a part of my style; he can play jazz, obviously,” Trischka says. “I took the freedom of jazz and applied it to what I do.”
What he’s done is some pretty amazing work as both a band leader and a sideman over the years, redefining the banjo in musical terms that everyone can relate to.
“I have focused on making the banjo a truly musical instrument,” Trischka says. “People think of it as ‘Dueling Banjos’ or ‘Beverly Hillbillies’, that’s the mass consciousness of it, but the very first thing I played on a banjo was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy’, because I knew the notes and wanted to hear what it sounded like. I play Bach on it, too.” To Trischka, it’s all just music, no matter what you’re playing it with.
“It is a musical instrument, so you play with the technique and the sound you can get out of the instrument—I just did a recording session with these jazz players just so they could have that flavor of the banjo on what they were doing; I play with country artists too, but sometimes they don’t want the banjo because it makes it too bluegrass.”
Trischka began playing banjo in the 1960s after seeing the popular folk group the Kingston Trio, and the instrument wasn’t that unusual to find on the radio at the time, he says.
“It was that time where folk music included bluegrass and they were doing folk music albums, hootenanny albums, to cash in on it for good reason,” Trischka says. “I heard the Kingston Trio and searched for more stuff like it and found Flat and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers.”
From there, he played in a number of bluegrass bands with names like the Down City Ramblers, Country Cooking, Country Granola, and Breakfast Special. A trio of solo albums were issued in the 1970s, after which Trischka spent a year as the musical leader of a Broadway show, The Robber Bridegroom. A good chunk of the 1980s saw him playing with the progressive bluegrass act Skyline and working on movie soundtracks for Foxfire and Driving Miss Daisy. Since the 1990s Trischka has released a string of solo albums and appeared countless times on public radio programs such as Prairie Home Companion and Mountain Stage. To Trischka, it’s all in a day’s work.
“I’m just really eclectic in my musical taste,” He says, “The heart of what I play is bluegrass, though I’ve played more progressive things. I was listening to the Beatles, Hendrix, the Beach Boys, but also to jazz—Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and classical composers like Aaron Copland. I’ve been playing now for forty-five years—if it was just bluegrass I couldn’t have done it that long. I need a little variation. I’m not like Earl Scruggs, who has been playing Scruggs style since 1930, he’s still coming up with new stuff.”
Trischka’s last two projects, 2007’s Double Banjo Spectacular(Rounder) and 2008’s Territory(Smithsonian/Folkways) are typical of the genre-bending appeal his performances bring, jumping from old-time to classical and through bluegrass, country, and more.
“I had done a couple of electric albums for Rounder and wanted to do a more traditional album,” Trischka says, “They suggested the double banjo concept as a marketing thing, to sell more albums, but it was a great excuse for me to assemble a dream team of people like Earl Scruggs and Steve Martin—everybody I asked to do it was into it.”
And yes, before you ask, it is the same Steve Martin as the actor and comedian. In addition to his more well-known comedy work, Martin has been a serious banjo player for forty years. He and Trischka play a couple of songs together on the double banjo disc, including a Martin composition, “The Crow.”
“Steve is very serious about it,” Trischka says when asked about his famous friend’s musical abilities. “He writes his own tunes, and they’re beautiful—intelligent, fresh, and different.”
A comical moment of sorts occurred last year when Martin played with Trischka’s band on the television show Ellen. After their performance, the hostess came out to do the traditional post-song questions, and with her back to Trischka proceeded to pose her first queries to Martin, who politely and graciously turned the conversation toward his friend, who after all was the guy on stage with an album to promote.
“Hey, it’s Steve Martin,” Trischka says when reminded of the moment, “I’m just a banjo player.”

For ticket information on this week’s show, see the online feature at www.free-times.com, in the music section.

Here’s Trischka in action, with Steve Martin AND Bela Fleck–the guy on guitar is Michael Daves, who is playing the duo show here in town:

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