For his latest album, Great Big World, veteran banjo player Tony Trischka found himself composing fewer instrumentals and more lyric-driven songs than at any other time in his 40-year career.
“I’ve never written so many,” he says. “As a banjo player, I’ve done a lot of instrumental albums. So after not writing a ton of songs, I suddenly fell in love with writing lyrics for some of these banjo tunes.”
Trischka has spent more than four decades mastering the instrument, not only honing his own chops but writing books, teaching online courses and, until recently, giving individual lessons to banjo beginners.
Great Big World displays his formidable chops as a player and lyricist, but he admits he’s not much of a singer. So he recruited an array of singers, including Catherine Russell, Abigail Washburn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Aoife O’Donovan.
The large cast of players reinforces the breadth of the material and underscores Trischka’s stylistic range, which covers traditional and progressive bluegrass, sacred steel, old-time rags and reels and even a minimusical about one of the Old West’s most notorious gunfighters.
CMT Edge: Education is a very important aspect of your work. Where did that start for you?
Trischka: My father was a physics professor at Syracuse University. Obviously, I went on a different career path than he did. Pete Seeger’s book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, was really the first banjo instruction book of the modern era, and it was the first book I got, but I didn’t learn a lot from it because I had a hard time reading the tablature.
Still, it was hugely influential reading about the banjo and seeing pictures of banjo players. I was 13 at the time. Even before I had a banjo, I had that book.
History seems to be an important component of this album, especially on a song like “Wild Bill Hickok.” What drew you to him as a character?
There are a number of songs about Billy the Kid and Jesse James, but Wild Bill is underrepresented in the canon of songs about outlaws and Western heroes. I started writing songs about the Civil War for a project that’s about two-thirds complete, and it got me writing about historical topics. Plus, I love Westerns.
There are several singers on this tune. Did you write with them in mind or cast them after you wrote the song?
I was doing a Swannanoa Gathering just outside of Asheville, N.C., and they always have an instructors concert, so I was trying to nail it down. Mike Compton was one of the vocalists on it that night, and he has such a great voice for this kind of thing. I decided that when it was time to record, I would use him.
Then I was doing a Woody Guthrie tribute at the Kennedy Center, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was backstage. We were talking and he was ramblin’… in the best way possible, of course. And I thought, “This is the best guy to do it. He’s got that kind of a voice.” I asked him if he’d be up for it, and it took a while because he had to attend a cowboy poetry festival in Wyoming. He said it was the hardest song he’d ever tried to sing because it’s very verbose. It’s like a ballad, in a way.
John Goodman has a great cameo, as well.
I’ve known him since the late ‘70s. We don’t see each other that often, but here and there, we run into each other. So when I was doing research and found this old “help wanted” poster online, I thought it would be cool to put in the middle of “Wild Bill Hickok,” just to break up all the verses.
I think the poster was from Abilene, where Hickok eventually became marshal. I took some poetic license. Wild Bill is coming into town, sees the sign on the livery stable wall and gets the job. I thought John Goodman would be a great voice to read that, and he was kind enough to do it.
Stylistically, the song is completely different than anything else on Great Big World, yet it still sounds right at home. Considering how diverse the album is, how are you thinking about style of genre when you’re writing or recording?
I’m definitely not trying to be stylistically uniform on this. It was more like, “I want to do this. I want to do that.” That’s how my first two albums went — anything goes. Rounder [Records] was kind enough to let me have at it and do whatever I wanted. I had some progressive banjo-y things I wanted to do, and “Wild Bill Hickok” was one piece of the puzzle.
And then there’s “Joy,” which comes from listening to an album of sacred steel music. I played pedal steel guitar for many years in the ‘70s, but I’d never heard of sacred steel. It’s African-American church-oriented guitar music. I heard this one particular cut on this album that had an amazing groove to it, so I decided to write my own song based on that feel. I reworked some scripture from the Bible, along with a Jewish text and a Buddhist text.
Your son plays drums on that song, right?
The original track started with me, my son Sean and Oteil Burbridge, who’s the bass player for the Allman Brothers. Then Larry Campbell came in and just wailed on there for seven or eight choruses. Oteil has played in a lot of those churches where they have sacred steel music, so he knows the scene really well.
After the first take, he said to Sean, “When I get to those churches, they’ll have some 90-year-old woman shaking her tush with her arms in the air going crazy with the music. That’s what I was thinking of when you were playing just now.” That was really cool of Oteil to say that. It’s wonderful to be able to do things with Sean.