Artist2Artist: Barry Waldrep – Play Banjo!

BBarry Waldrepaseball is a game of lineage more so than its other pro-sport peers. Stakeholders of this pastime value a certain overlapping of eras, strategies and philosophies that links together generations of the game.

Similarly, stakeholders of bluegrass music value their own generation-to-generation ideals in the progression of creating new sounds, techniques and styles.

I’m not intolerant by nature, but I do want to storm the music industry mound when I see a banjo in the hands of a pop, country, country-rock or rock musician and they strum it like a guitar. I consider it to be the most insulting schtick (if you have a Jewish mother-in-law like me) employed by our non-bluegrass music industry peers. And, I’m tempted to kick dirt on the shoes of the fancy-pants band managers, highly-exalted music reviewers, and uneducated music fans who think that poorly executed banjo technique is the next coming of Joe DiMaggio — all the rage and such a “novel” instrument to come to a stage near you.

I’ve been waiting for that one major-league project where the best of other genres looks to bluegrass music’s banjo playing geniuses to incorporate brilliant 5-string artistry into their particular soul and sound.

It didn’t occur to me that the reverse could be underway – that a banjo playing virtuoso in our midst, our own Barry Waldrep, quietly would bring together the best of multi-platinum selling musicians from southern rock, Americana-rock, and jazz/blues – and provide to them an opportunity to be the sidemen for a stunning bluegrass banjo project.


So now we all have something to chew on.

Smoke From The Kitchen - Barry WaldrepTake a member from the The Rolling Stones (Chuck Leavell), the Allman Brothers Band (Oteil Burbridge), The Marshall Tucker Band (Paul T. Riddle), the Zac Brown Band (Coy Bowles) and let’s say… the David Grisman Quintet (the Dawg himself), as well as a few others who breathe rarefied musical air, and stick them in a recording studio for a couple weeks at Barry’s invitation. What we all receive is the album, Smoke From The Kitchen, that will bring a lot of new ears to bluegrass 5-string banjo.

Barry is Alabama born and was raised on bluegrass music by a father who played guitar in a deep-south string band. 

This bluegrass prodigal son learned his chops at as many festivals as he was allowed to attend. Barry slept, ate, drank and breathed bluegrass music. He knows his bluegrass music legacy – including Scruggs on banjo and Scruggs on guitar. He honors it with immaculate playing on both those instruments, as well as on mandolin.

Adding to his musicianship, Barry is an accomplished band leader, producer, composer and arranger. But being from Alabama, his teenage ears were lighted on fire by southern rock and Django Reinhardt. And like many Alabama teens, he followed that musical path.

Disclaimer: I’m busted, just how many teens in southern Alabama are lighted on fire by the sounds of Django? Barry referenced this in his radio interview with me, and I didn’t get a chance to follow up — but dang it, I will be asking him about this the next time our paths cross.

To look at Barry Waldrep, a traditional bluegrasser rightly could be confused and maybe even put off – there is a lot of long hair going on there. (Millions of baseball fans reacted similarly last year when the Boston Red Sox players grew out beards on their way to winning the World Series.)

But if ever there is a time not to judge a book by its cover and to step outside the “church of that ain’t right” – that time is now. Barry has spent decades on the road, 300 shows a year, playing hard but living right. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t do drugs. His time has been spent crafting his art and technique. His daddy taught him that to succeed, you gotta keep clean, you gotta be smart, and you gotta be fair. And because of that, he has made some fantastic professional music friendships in the upper tiers of platinum selling super-groups and collected their broad talents for the good of our game.

I hope you’ll listen to our Artist2Artist conversation in the podcast above as Barry gives his take on the making of the album, bluegrass musical artistry, as well as cross-genre acceptance.

That recorded conversation will go out this week to tens-of-thousands of music lovers by way of Stitcher Radio. The segment is full of Barry’s love for bluegrass music and I peppered it with music he played while sitting across from me at a table at Steve’s Live Music in Atlanta, as well as segments from his new album Smoke From The Kitchen. Perhaps, it may inspire those outside of our world to flat pick a guitar, or cross-pick a mandolin, or turn a bass upright, or best of all… Play Banjo!

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back here on the next full moon. Until then, play nice on the planet.