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May 17, 2010

Pete Wernick - Dr. Banjo Steps Out

The Man With the Underwater Banjo. That's Doctor, to you.

Our next look at the members of Country Cooking yields this one-of-a-kind gem:

This is a wonderfully expansive bluegrass album. While Pete's banjo-picking sticks to basically Scruggs-style bluegrass techniques, he places this bluegrass sound in surprising and unexpected contexts. Sonically, it's a masterpiece. The phase-shifted banjo, unknown until this point, sounds amazingly fluid and natural, in an alien kind of way. The addition of instruments such as flute totally opens up the possibility for emotive expression. Add some fantastic playing by notable heavy friends Andy Statman, Tim O'Brien, Tony Trischka, John Miller, and one of three flatpicking guitar virtuosi (Charles Sawtelle, Russ Barenberg, Alan Senauke), and you have the ingredients for success. I have not heard any other album that sounds like this. Never.

Pete Wernick
is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize , respected author and teacher, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Pete's national music career started in 1971 with the first records by northeast instrumental wizards Country Cooking. Founding Hot Rize in 1978 led to an enduring stint as a performing artist, appearing throughout the U.S. and three continents, on national television and radio. Pete's instructional books, CDs and videos include best-sellers in their respective fields: Bluegrass Banjo, Bluegrass Songbook, How to Make a Band Work, and many others. A pioneer in bluegrass music instruction, since 1980 his banjo camps, bluegrass jam camps, and clinics have inspired players nationwide and overseas.

Pete took up banjo as a teenager in his native New York City, closely studying Earl Scruggs records. While completing B.A. and Ph.D. sociology degrees at Columbia University, he played in local bands and hosted the New York metropolitan area's only bluegrass radio show in the 1960's. In the early 70's while a sociologist by day at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he formed Country Cooking whose innovative recordings helped usher in a new wave of contemporary bluegrass.

In 1976 Pete moved to Colorado where he recorded Dr. Banjo Steps Out (Flying Fish) and soon after started Hot Rize, with Tim O'Brien, Charles Sawtelle, and Nick Forster. The foursome became a major attraction and creative force in bluegrass, famous for their dynamic stage shows and finely-crafted recordings. The group scored repeated #1 bluegrass radio hits, including the Wernick-penned "Just Like You", and was the first recipient of the IBMA's coveted "Entertainer of the Year" award in 1990, as well as a Grammy nomination the folliwng year. The band's daffy alter-egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers gained a following of their own, with Pete as Waldo Otto, steel guitar player and donut impresario ("You Bite It, You Bought It").

In 1990 Hot Rize disbanded as a full-time unit, while continuing to make selected appearances. Pete went on to join forces recording and performing with cutting-edge musicians Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Jeff White, Chris Thile, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas. Pete's 1993 solo album On a Roll (Sugar Hill), won high praise, presenting a wide-ranging mix including traditional and progressive bluegrass and the debut of his innovative bluegrass/early jazz band, the Live Five, later renamed FLEXIGRASS. The album rode the bluegrass chart for over a year, with another #1 hit, Wernick original, "Ruthie".

Pete has performed with many musical legends, from Doc Watson to Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia. But perhaps his most high-profile and exciting appearance was in September, 2005, performing on the David Letterman show with his lifelong inspiration, Earl Scruggs, along with Steve Martin and two other players, backed by Joan Wernick and son Will Wernick, picking a high-speed "Foggy Mt. Breakdown". The group, called Men With Banjos (Who Know How To Use Them), also performed at the New Yorker Festival.

Wernick has since assisted Martin with a number of projects including a festival concert by Men With Banjos and the production of Martin’s Grammy-winning banjo album "The Crow" (including "Words Unspoken", a Martin/Wernick co-write).

Pete has been based in Niwot, Colorado since 1976, and tours and records with the traditional bluegrass band Long Road Home, with his wife Joan in a duet and in the bluegrass/traditional jazz combo Pete Wernick & FLEXIGRASS. He also hosts as many as ten music camps each year, at locations throughout the U.S.. The year 2010 marks his 40th since his first recordings, and will also see Hot Rize performing at several festivals and touring in Fall.

Pete Wernick - Dr. Banjo Steps Out

Year: 1978
Label: Flying Fish

Pete's groundbreaking pre-Hot Rize album with Tim O'Brien, and Andy Statman, and Pete's introduction of his phase-shifted banjo sound in "Niwot Music".

Dr. Banjo really steps out on this one. Introducing flute, synthesizer, and a whole host of trippy studio effects into a bluegrass album was pretty progressive for the mid-'70s (even in an era where John Hartford and New Grass Revival were pushing the boundaries), and Pete Wernick uses the emerging technology to progress even further. Excellent players like Tim O'Brien, Andy Statman, Tony Trischka, and Russ Barenberg (to name just a few) shift the sound from retro to futuristic, often within the same song. Although the phase-shifting banjo feels a little like a gimmick after the first few times it appears, that still does not detract from the musical sparks that fly from the main collaborators. Soon after this release, Wernick and O'Brien went on to form Hot Rize, a band that pushed the edges of what was thought to be bluegrass even further out, and the glimmers of those future explorations are what make Dr. Banjo Steps Out one of those uniquely listenable historical documents. ~ Zac Johnson

Personnel: Pete Wernick (vocals, banjo); Alan Senauke (vocals, guitar); Tim O'Brien (vocals, mandolin, fiddle, viola); Howie Tarnower, Andy Statman (vocals, mandolin); Joan Nondi Wernick (vocals); Tony Trischka (guitar, banjo); Russ Barenberg (guitar, mandolin); Charles Sawtelle (guitar); John Miller (violin); Ron Rutkowski, Kenny Kosek (fiddle).

1. Whiskey Before Breakfast
2. Plane 45
3. Wichita Lineman
4. Cross-Eyed Fiddler
5. Beatin' My Time
6. Gnu Breakdown
7. Life's Too Short
8. It's a Gift
9. Plain and Fancy
10. Shady Grove
11. Western Wind
12. Lost in the Woods
13. Sally Ann
14. Highest Place, The
15. Red Clay of Georgia
16. White Fences
17. Blueberry Ripple
18. Big Rock in the Road

step it out if you can.
vinyl, cleaned | mp3 ~300kbps vbr | w/o covers

Pete is still VERY active in the field, playing in several bands, teaching, being president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, serving as an ambassador of American music, etc. See for more

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These lastest posts are great. I love just this kind of grass . . . and the banjo playing especially. Hard driving, but by no means the same old stuff. THANKS!