Happy Friday, friends. It’s the last Friday of February, so, how about some bluegrass banjo?
Actually, “Newgrass” banjo might be more to the point, but what a superstar band of newgrass/bluegrass pickers we have in today’s video! & an interesting song, too, originally penned by Mark Lindsay & Keith Allison of Paul Revere & the Raiders, & as such one that might not initially seem a likely candidate for a full-on bluegrass breakdown. Actually, however, “Freeborn Man” had been covered by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin back in the 1970s—in fact, one of the major retrospectives on Martin’s career is the CMH 2003 release Jimmy Martin: Songs of a Freeborn Man.
Now for our purposes here in Banjo Friday we’re focusing on the banjo player in this super group, none other than Béla Fleck; we’ve had occasion to feature Fleck’s work before here, but in the past we’ve concentrated on his experimentation—his work in world music & even in adapting the 5-string banjo to classical & jazz music. But like the other great contemporary banjo innovators such as Bill Keith & Tony Trischka, Fleck’s roots very much go back to bluegrass, & I thought it would be fun to showcase him in that setting. By the way: Fleck gets both the first & the last solo in the video, so don't touch that dial!
Of course, given the talent of the players in this group, you’re not likely to switch the video off before it’s done! Tony Rice on guitar & vocal; Sam Bush on mandolin; Mark O’Connor on fiddle; Jerry Douglas on dobro; & Mark Schatz on bass—that’s about as good as it gets folks. Rice is simply one of the best flatpick guitar players there has been in recent years—amazing technique, amazing inventiveness, amazing musicality; Bush is a dynamo, frenetic but on the money; Douglas a non-pareil dobro picker; & O’Connor is simply amazing—I had the privilege of seeing him live at the Weiser Fiddle Festival several years back & the room just crackled with energy when he played! As far as Fleck goes: his banjo chops can stand with anybody’s.
This was recorded at the big roots/Americana music gathering MerleFest some time in the early 90s. MerleFest is an event put on by the great Doc Watson in honor of his son Merle, himself a fabulous musician who died an untimely death in a tragic farm accident; Doc calls MerleFest “Traditional plus,” & it’s a venue where you can hear musicians as diverse as Earl Scruggs & Elvis Costello or Taj Mahal & Emmylou Harris.
I know you’re going to enjoy this tune—great uptempo bluegrass!