A magical weekend at Banjo Fest 2018

Tim Allan, Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and John McEuen at the
2018 American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame induction – photo by Pamm Tucker

In 1998, The National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame was established to honor jazz age tenor banjo pioneers, as well as the crossover contemporary artists, educators, manufacturers, and promoters who carried these traditions and styles of their predecessors. In the early years, The American Banjo Museum was a direct extension of the Hall of Fame. By the 16th birthday of the Hall of Fame, there had already been 71 individuals/entities inducted from the four-string talent pool.

In 2013 the ABM board of directors voted to also include members of the five-string banjo community into the Hall, and from that boardroom moment came the root-s of what today is called the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame. Now each year, a very special event comes to the Bricktown region of Oklahoma City when the Museum hosts a weekend of banjo love billed as Banjo Fest.

As we strolled down the sidewalk in OKC, the strumming, melodic styles of the banjo could be heard from an externally mounted speaker that emanates from the Banjo Hall of Fame. Upon entering the building, the realization that you have entered a banjo museum is apparent. Banjos, banjos and more banjos are everywhere in the hall; however, tonight (Thursday, September 6, 2018) the main attraction is found on the second floor at the BBQ kickoff with entertainment from the Philadelphia Mummers, Canadian Tim Allan, and Taylor Pfeiffer from Australia. Taylor is known as the “Banjo girl,” and plays Scruggs-style, 3-finger banjo. She had previously contacted (Director of the Banjo Museum), Johnny Baier with an interest in attending the annual event, and he suggested she share her talents and become a part of the Banjo Fest. Holding the title of 2017 Australian Banjo Battle of the Bluegrass Championship under her belt, Taylor took the stage and left the audience with mouths agape. After her special appearance, she was given pro tips from none other than John McEuen. Vigilantly recording McEuen’s every move with her banjo, Pfeiffer was all smiles as the 2017 Banjo Hall of Fame Inductee, asked her if “Do you know much about frailing?” Taylor’s answer, “not much, but would love to learn.” McEuen spent about 15 minutes alone with the young woman from Australia giving her tips to enhance her performance.

Friday found me eating lunch with McEuen at a local favorite Mexican restaurant. I’ll share more from that meeting in a later article.

A special attraction was added this year to the festivities, a Banjo NewsLetter workshop hosted by three of the greatest writers in the Pickin’ and Grinnin’ World: Eddie Collins, Janet Davis, and 2017 Hall of Famer, Tony Trischka. The long awaited evening gala was located at the Devon Tower in downtown OKC. Dressed to the nines, artists, fans, and banjo lovers adorned the 50th floor for the unveiling of the 2018 Inductees:

  • Borgy Borgerson – Four-String Performance
  • Hub Nitche, The Banjo Newsletter – Instruction & Education
  • Eddie Collins – Historical
  • Jim Henson – Promotion
  • Bela Fleck – Five-String Performance

Borgy Borgerson accepted his award via FaceTime. While accepting his induction in Four-String Performance, Borgerson kept the attention of the attendees with his solo performance. At the age of 92, Borgy is still a living legend in his native country of Canada. With a history of appearing on Canadian radio, and in the nightclub and concert scene, he said his highlight as a performer was his appearance at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. Borgy has led his own Dixieland jazz band and thrilled fans from the 1940s to 2018. Borgy remains on “Active Duty” as banjoist and entertainer.

Hub Nitchie founded the Banjo NewsLetter in 1973. This monthly periodical covers a wide variety of banjo topics, including features on players, music theory, banjo set-up, and accessories. In 1993, Hub’s sons, Donald and Spencer took the reins after Hub passed on. In 1992, The International Bluegrass Music Association awarded Nitche their Print Media Person of the Year award, and in 2008 honored the Banjo NewsLetter with a distinguished achievement award. Donald was on hand to accept the award for his father.

Eddie Collins’ son was on hand to accept the award on behalf of his father. Eddie had a 40 year career with the banjo strapped to his side. A premier player on both the banjo and guitar, his career skyrocketed in 1948 when Collins joined Art Mooney’s Orchestra. Collins attributes his father’s success to his touring days with Mooney, where Eddie Collins was part of their hit songs Four Leaf Clover and Baby Face. At his death in 1972, Collins was living in Detroit. In the tenor banjo world, he is remembered as a musical hero.

Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, applied his connection with the banjo to his iconic character, Kermit the Frog. His daughter, Heather Henson made the flight to Oklahoma to accept his induction for Promotion. Jim passed away in 1990. Kermit’s banjo has been played in collaboration with top banjo pickers like Roy Clark (2017 Hall of Fame Inductee) and Steve Martin. David Stephens, sporting his Kermit tie, strummed and sang The Rainbow Connection just before the induction.

Béla Fleck is known worldwide for his innovative styles of playing the banjo. Taught by Trischka in his early years, with initial inspiration driven by Earl Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies, Fleck became an explorer of new musical territory with New Grass Revival and The Flecktones. He has introduced the five string into genres where the banjo had been silent (jazz and world music), magically entwined with the picking of his banjo.

Although the Jim Henson display has been on the floor of the Museum for over 10 days, the final day of Banjo Fest was significant as there was an official ribbon cutting ceremony for the Muppets creator. Encased in one display, you can find the complete history of Henson, from his childhood days, to his first puppet. As people lined up before the red ribbon, Heather Henson took control of the scissors while Doug Parsons, President of the Museum Board of Directors, and Lucas Ross, local TV personality, held the ends of the ribbon. Memories flowed during her speech sharing how honored her father would be, to watching the floods of muppet fans of all ages, one could feel a Rainbow Connection. Following the ribbon cutting, there was a jam session upstairs with the Philadelphia Mummers, the Banjo Girl, Johnny Baier, and Eddie Collins.

At 6:00 p.m., the tour bus loaded for a short trip to the Hudiburg Center for the BIG bang at the end of the weekend. As people arrived, you could hear twinkling of conversation about the four greats that would be taking stage. John McEuen, Tony Trischka, Tim Allan (2002 Inductee), and Bela Fleck put on an amazing show with just their banjos. It felt like pixie dust had been thrown in the air as the magic of the night embraced the talents of these four amazing men.

With the second curtain call, the four banjo magicians took the stage and performed in a round, highlighting each other’s strengths.

At the final curtain call, Trischka and Fleck performed on one banjo, playing beautiful harmonies wrapped in each others arms. 

There is nothing more magical than a rainbow appearing in the sky, and many of us have chased the rainbow looking for the pot o’ gold. However, after the 2018 Banjo Fest, I know what lies at the end of the rainbow…yes, it is magic, beautiful, and it’s the banjo.

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About the Author

Pamm Tucker

Growing up in Oklahoma, music runs throughout Pamm Tucker's veins. Her earliest memory of music is standing beside her Grandma's upright, singing. "Trust in The Lord". Little did the 5 year old realize that this was the foundation of things to come. Being very active in 4-H, Pamm was elected as reporter at the age of 9 and held this position for many years. Taking extensive journalism marketing and free-lance writing classes while attending college helped to spark her interest in being a journalist. Her skills helped her acquire the position of journalist for the Northern Oklahoma college school newspaper. An Oklahoma native and no stranger to music, she has performed with the likes of Lulu Roman, Jean Shepherd, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker (no relation) Gene Watson and Charlie McClain just to name a few. Even today you can find her tapping her foot to every genre of music.