6-String Banjo (no guitars involved)

2009.11.17

I’ve read about 6 and 7 string banjos over the years (that is, banjos with 5 or 6 long strings and a short drone sting – not guitar-banjos/guitjos/banjitars etc.) and thought it would be good to have the extra range to be able to play the high part of a tune an octave down, or to give the effect of Tommy Jarrell’s ‘John Brown’s Dream’ tuning (with the low D tuned down to G). Well, after finally hearing a 6-string played, by Chuck Levy courtesy of the internet, I decided to get one. A little hunting and I got a 7-string beauty made by J. Viner, I’d guess from the 1880s or 1890s, which needed a little work. It was missing a tailpiece and bridge so I made those. Someone had glued a piece of an old bone domino in place of the nut but had never cut it down or notched it, so I worked it into something useful (and a good story!). I have it set up as a 6-string. I’d put 7 strings at first, but you need pencil size fingers to play it that way, the strings are so tightly spaced. The action is horrible but I’d have to recut the heel to fix it and I don’t feel like doing that yet. Here are some pictures, and below that a video of ‘Tater Patch’ on it, going down into the lower octave.

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

7-String Banjo by J. Viner

Here’s the video of ‘Tater Patch’ in the equivalent of gGDGBD (actually tuned down to around E with minstrel gauge Nylgut strings plus a classical guitar low E). The danger with it is I get so used to the spacing that going back to a normal 5-string discombobulates my hand! I end up drop-thumbing to the 1st string instead of the 2nd that I’m aiming for… (May 2012: after a few years that’s not a problem anymore, but it did take some getting used to!)

New CD Reviews

2009.11.12

Several reviews have come out recently on my new album with Casey Joe Abair If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Yodel-Ay-Hee 074):

From Tony Spadaro, aka Old Woodchuck, over at Rocket Science Banjo:

“If You Want To Go To Sleep, Go To Bed”. Is the title of the new cd by banjoist Hunter Robertson and fiddler Casey Joe Abair. And it is obviously a work that involved a lot of late nights for a long time before any recording equipment was ever set up. When the players know each other well, and have put in many hours together, fiddle and banjo duets can catch fire, producing an event that is more than the sum of the two instruments. Abiar and Robertson obviously know each other well and know how to throw ideas back and forth in a way that brings the listener a new insight into the music. If that all sounds a bit “classical”, well perhaps it is. The banjo fiddle combination is does not have the full sound of a string band, it is more like a chamber group, where the communication between instruments and players is more important than a full group sound. Listeners can really hear the two instruments because they differ in range, timbre, attack, sustain, and so many other ways. It is almost as if the fiddle and banjo go so well together because they have so little in common.

Banjo and fiddle is also one of the most exacting and dangerous combinations to record. Unlike a full band, fiddle and banjo will not cover mistakes for each other. Each player is fully responsible for every note he produces. This is not music for players who need the safety net of guitar and bass.

The selection of tunes is heavily weighted toward the old tunes played with the fire and enthusiasm they really deserve but seldom get these days, but there are some less common tunes that work beautifully in the duet setting. their “The Devil’s Dream” is from Hobart Smith and very different than the one I play. It is actually considerably more “band” friendly and the tune is closer to John Brown’s Dream.

“Fort Smith Breakdown” doesn’t show up on many jam lists but is a super tune from a 1920s recording by Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters. Here Robertson is playing a fretless Harmony ResoTone in Old G (gDGDE) tuning. “Run Slave Run” uses the same tuning and probably the same banjo.

“Hog Eye Man” aka “Sally In The Garden” is frequently played crooked, but Abair and Thompson seem to have found a whole new crooked way to do it. I’m going to try it out, but I won’t attempt to show it to my jam groups.

Some of the selections are great “trance” tunes where the two instruments seem to float around the melody passing it back and forth until you feel it has been the background music to your entire life. I was very surprised to read that “Tater Patch” and “Sandy River Belle” were each only about four minutes, as was their rendition of “Sail Away Ladies”

The album is Yodel-Ay-Hee number 74, and you can order it direct from Hunter Robertson’s website: http://www.hunterrobertson.com, where you can also watch videos of Abair and Robertson, and even buy a copy of Robertson’s solo album “Hunter Robertson Sings Songs For The Masses.”

From Gadaya over at Times ain’t like they used to be:

“Here’s a quick review for an excellent new cd i received a few days ago. Under the evocative title “If you want to sleep, go to bed” (A saying by banjo-player Charlie Lowe, who was a major figure of the Round Peak old-time musical tradition and who liked his music fast…) it contains almost exclusively fiddle and banjo duets by two young musicans, Casey Joe Abair and Hunter Robertson. The fine art of fiddle and banjo duets is the core of american old-time music and the two musicians gives us an excellent and energetic selections of instrumental tunes, some well-known, some more obscure, along with a few old-timey songs sung in the expressive and rough vocal style of banjo player Hunter Robertson. The contrast with the delicate voice of his wife Fereale who join him on three numbers makes a delightful combination (it reminds me of some Blind Willie Johnson numbers where the rough street singer sings with a woman).

An elegant and tasty packaging along with some fine liner notes (the source and tunings are provided for each track) to boot makes this cd a must-have for every fan of authentic and deep appalachian old-time music.

Go to Hunter Robertson’s website to hear some samples of it. You can order the cd directly from the website or from various places like ITUNES, AMAZON, ELDERLY…”

And from Rambles.NET, by the ever astute Jerome Clark:

“The title quotes the wisdom of old-time banjo player Charlie Lowe of North Carolina. The message: if you don’t like lively music, get lost. Though Lowe is long gone, Casey Joe Abair (fiddle) and Hunter Robertson (banjo, lead vocals) carry on the fiery tradition of Southern mountain music. Neither man, however, is a Southern musician. Abair hails from Vermont, where the California-born Robertson was living when this was recorded. Since this past May he has resided in France.

Robertson’s music came into my life with his striking Songs for the Masses (a tongue-in-cheek title if ever there was one). I reviewed it in this space on 5 July 2008. Masses was not just another accomplished oldtime-revival album but something that sounded as if delivered intact (but for the rare electric guitar) from some remote provincial outpost in the 19th century. I marveled at what I called its “almost skinless sound.” The vocals conjured up “a 200-year-old ghost … accidentally captured on the tape as, otherwise inaudible, it sang to Robertson’s playing of an old tune.” This was the sound of American folk music, one surmises (we can’t know for sure, of course), as it was before the advent of recording equipment.

If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed is not that sort of album, except perhaps on those occasions when Robertson sings in the sort of choked rasp that made Masses feel so eerily out of its era. Abair & Robertson’s atmospheric reading of “In the Pines” (accompanied by Fereale Robertson’s disembodied harmony singing) captures something of the not-of-this-earth sensibility of Robertson’s previous disc, and it owes nothing to the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe or Lead Belly. Mostly, though, the two have moved the music into the 20th century: not the fiddle/banjo duet itself, which goes back to what the antique song calls “the good old colony times,” but to the precision and tonality of more — relatively — modern approaches. Some of this survives in its native form in Appalachia, and you can still hear it on stages of Southern fiddle and folk festivals.

Abair & Robertson do what they do very well. The 17 cuts consist of genre standards (“Old Joe Clark,” “Ducks on the Millpond,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and the like), but the arrangements are distinctive and the melodies are not always the familiar ones. From the evidence of Masses it was clear that Robertson’s knowledge of traditional music is encyclopedic, and I presume Abair’s boasts comparable pagination. Their music is bright, vivid and lovely. If you find yourself nodding off through Sleep, see your doctor.”

Sweet Sunny South Old Time American Music Festival 2010 – Workshops and Performances

2009.11.12

I’ll be performing and doing clawhammer banjo workshops at the Sweet Sunny South Old Time American Music Festival next September (2010 that is. Weekend of the 10th to the 12th) in Hastings, East Sussex, England. Get you banjos sharpened up and come one, come all!

Interview with Dj Duclock

2009.11.12

Dj Duclock interviewed me for his site, learn all my deepest thoughts about the weather, motherhood and the economy. Ok, really we just talked about music (and a little weather).

Tags :

Moseley Folk Festival Video

2009.11.12

There are a bunch of videos up on youtube from my performance at Moseley Folk Festival earlier this year, here’s one, a clawhammer version of ‘Old Joe Clark’:

Walthamstow Folk Club

2009.11.12

6 October 2009 (pre blog, thus the date)

My recent show at Walthamstow Folk was a lot of fun. First of all, my host and the organizer, Russ Chandler (being a fellow banjo player) and I spent the afternoon talking shop and examining his beautiful classic banjos. We eventually made our way to the pub for the show, which was a nice format, with people doing floor spots before I played and at the intermission – a very civilized practice. The music was excellent and it was almost as if I was attending a concert myself! The people were participants rather than simply observers, getting up on stage and playing and singing and joining in on other’s choruses.  Pete Stanley came down and played a couple of tunes, one on a minstrel style banjo he had made and another on a gorgeous Clifford Essex. If this was typical of British folk clubs I’ll be looking forward to doing more gigs in them.

Moseley Folk Festival and La-Roche Bluegrass Festival

2009.11.12

September 10 2009 (pre blog, thus the date)

Moseley Folk Festival was grueling to get to (as I was coming from France) and fun to play at. A beautiful place and a lot of good music. I even got to hear Jethero Tull soundcheck – unfortunately I had to leave before they played! Thanks to the guys working it for all the coffee and Indian food. And thanks to Mike Cummins for the photograph below. Below that, some photos from July 30th at the La-Roche-sur-Foron Bluegrass Festival, taken by my lovely wife, Fereale. Also a fun gig – nice audience and bluegrass groups from Hungary, Russia and France (just on the Sunday, others from various disparate places over the following days). Here’s a video from there of ‘Last Chance’.

From Moseley:

Hunter Robertson by Mike Cummins

Hunter Robertson by Mike Cummins, Moseley

From La-Roche:

Hunter Robertson by Fereale

Hunter Robertson by Fereale, La-Roche

Hunter Robertson by Fereale, La-Roche

Hunter Robertson by Fereale, La-Roche

New CD Release

2009.11.12

July 25 2009 (pre blog, thus the date)

New CD from Hunter Robertson and Casey Joe Abair

New CD from Hunter Robertson and Casey Joe Abair

I’m pleased to announce the release of a new album, Casey Joe Abair & Hunter Robertson If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Yodel-Ay-Hee 074), an album of old-timey banjo & fiddle duets – traditional American music from the Appalachians. It comprises 17 traditional songs and tunes, learnt from a variety of sources – mainly musicians long gone. Follow the link to listen to some tracks, get more information and of course, to buy it. You can also get it from CDBaby or Menzies Stringed Instruments. Elderly Instruments and County Sales will also have it in stock shortly, as well as iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine mp3s.

European World of Bluegrass 2009

2009.11.12

June 19 2009 (pre blog, thus the date)

So, I’ve been back long enough now from Holland to gather my thoughts and more importantly, get some pictures from The European World of Bluegrass 2009. Jan de Mooy and Lilly Pavlak were kind enough to send me some of the photographs they took. EWOB was a lot of fun, met a lot of nice people, saw some beautiful instuments, listened to a ton of music, played a little less and generally had a good time. I even took a clog dancing class with Julie Black, who also performed a number with me during the concert (there’s a picture below). She performed with me again a few days later at Het Oude Raadhuis in Hoofddorp, organized by Pieter Groenveld from Strictly Country Records. Thanks are due to the good people that organized all this, it’s quite a production and obviously a labor of love.


Hunter Robertson by Jan de Mooy, EWOB

Hunter Robertson by Jan de Mooy, EWOB

Hunter Robertson and Julie Black by Lilly Pavlak

Hunter Robertson and Julie Black by Lilly Pavlak

County Sales Review and Festivals

2009.11.12

February 28th 2009 (pre blog, thus the date)

With my wife and I moving back to Europe shortly, I’ve been arranging some gigs there. I’ll be playing solo May 21-23 at the European World of Bluegrass Festival in Voorthuizen, The Netherlands and May 27 at Het Oude Raadhuis in Hoofddorp, The Netherlands (for reservations +31 (0)23 556 37 07). Also, September 4-6 at Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham, England. (exact days and times to be announced for the festivals). If you, or someone you know, would like to book a gig around one of those dates (or even for a date that has nothing to do with those!), drop me a line.

Not quite a new review, it’s actually been up at County Sales for a while:

If you like Old-time banjo picking and you’re in the market for something different, you might try this unusual CD. But be forewarned: it ranges from the sublime to the bizarre: “songs for the Masses” it definitely ain’t. Mr Robertson is an excellent banjo picker; he also plays 12 string guitar on 4 pieces and his instrumental work is right on (check out the super picking on SOLDIER’S JOY). On a couple of tunes he plays a gut strung fretless banjo, and his 5 original pieces are interesting and well done. He also plays a fine medley of banjo tunes that incorporates BONAPARTE’S RETREAT and DUCKS ON THE MILLPOND with a couple of others in an impressive 5 and a half minute workout. The cuts that feature the 12-string guitar (plus one electric guitar cut) are bluesy, moody, and downright spooky at times. Even a one-man band piece (YOU GONNA NEED SOMEBODY ON YOUR BOND, with slide banjo, kazoo, high-hat and bass drum) adds to the overall interest. So what is so bizarre about all this? Robertson’s voice. It’s got to be the roughest voice we’ve ever heard—in Old-time, Bluegrass, Blues or whatever, and the main question we have is whether it is all a put on. Perhaps Robertson feels that this will take him back 80 or 100 years in time to where he would be considered a great find among field recording folklorists. Or perhaps this is his real voice (a scary thought). We will gladly leave that up to the listener to decide, adding again that there is some technically superb, soulful music to be heard here.


Follow that link above and buy a copy. I promise the voice isn’t contagious.