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The Great Banjo Awakening

29 December 2011

‘Tis the season for eating crow. Just a few months ago, yer Cousin Curly was issuing jeremiads regarding Vanishing Banjo Syndrome. Turns out that even as I was writing that screed, the banjo wasn’t just having its moment; it was having its season, its year, its epoch. Verily, signs that The Great Banjo Awakening is upon us are everywhere. Don’t believe me? Read on…

Exihibit A: The New Yorker is running banjo cartoons:

Banjo cartoon from a recent copy of The New Yorker

"I'm trapped in an elevator— wait, it gets worse."

Exhibit B: PBS airs Give Me The Banjo, a feature-length documentary about the banjo in prime time. If you missed the initial airing of Marc Field’s fine production last fall, you can watch the whole thing online by clicking here.

Exhibit C: Banjo players are becoming celebrities and vice-versa. Yep, it’s a big deal that Steve Martin is preaching the five-string gospel far and wide, but people would pay attention had he suddenly taken to promoting, say, tiddlywinks. What’s more notable is that he’s not alone. Ed Helms, star of The Office and The Hangover, has also come out of the banjo closet. It’s not just that the banjo has become the accoutrement du jour in Hollywood; it’s more accurate to say that banjo culture itself has become (gulp) cool. Admittedly, this is one of those phenomena that makes you think that yer new snuff is treating you wrong, but for evidence of its validity we need look no further than that fount of online mirth, Funny or Die:

That’s right, friends. We now live in a world in which movie stars line up to perform in a promotional short for a young banjo wiz’s latest album, a world in which said banjo wiz appears on Late Night with David Letterman, a world in which a hot banjo picker can dream of winning a $50,000 prize. In some ways, that New Yorker cartoon encapsulates the weird intersection of banjo culture and celebrity, for it’s obvious that the guy in the drawing isn’t some anonymous Deliverance-era hillbilly; he’s very distinctly and recognizably Noam Pikelny, the aforementioned banjo wiz and winner of the inaugural $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Banjo and Bluegrass.

Noam Pikelny: celebrity banjo ace or ace banjo celebrity?           (Photo: Compass Records)

Not to take anything away from the majesty of the banjo, but it’s always possible that The Great Banjo Awakening will have all the permanence of a collagen injection. If that’s the case, it’s fair to ask: what’s next? The Age of the Dobro? I can see it now: Angelina “The Baker” Jolie stars in and directs It Don’t Mean a Thang If It Ain’t Got That Twang: The Cindy Cashdollar Story.

Yer Pal— Curly

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