Most Bluegrass Today readers are familiar with the careers of Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe, who have led their own bands and, at one time or another, played supporting roles within bluegrass music. Both appeared as sidemen for performers like Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe (Crowe filled in with Monroe on one show). But have you thought about the staying power which seems to have come along with playing the banjo, with five-meisters having some of the most enduring careers in our music?
There is no denying that famous guitar front-men like Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt, and Charlie Waller have enjoyed long careers as musicians, selling impressive numbers of records through the decades. However, in today’s world of uncertainty within the entertainment industry, in the long run it may pay off to be a great banjo player and harmony vocalist. For instance, original members of the most enduring musical groups to date have been 5-string players.
When the renowned Seldom Scene formed in Bethesda, Maryland in 1971, band members consisted of John Duffey (mandolin), Mike Auldridge (dobro), Tom Gray (bass), Ben Eldridge (banjo), and John Starling (guitar). Releasing their latest project in 2007 on Sugar Hill Records, the band continues to tour, even having performed at a White House function merely three years ago. Since the passing of John Duffey in 1996, Eldridge has led the band and remains the sole original member.
Special Consensus formed in the Chicago area in 1975. Having had more than 40 members throughout the years, the band joked about being the second longest running professional bluegrass group at a recent concert at the Down Home in Johnson City, TN. While commenting on the band’s longevity, founding member Greg Cahill remarked that he owed a great deal to one of his mentors, Dr. Richard Hood (who continues to educate students on matters concerning Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University), whom he credited with teaching him how to play the 5-string.
Many other banjo players like Ray Goins (who retired in 1997) and Sonny Osborne (who retired in 2005) have also enjoyed long careers within the musical style. Furthermore, other 5-stringers such as Bill Keith, Jim Mills, and Ron Stewart (just to name a few) have expanded their horizons by becoming entrepreneurs within the music industry.
In 1964 Keith founded the very successful Beacon Banjo Company with Dan Bump, a friend from college, in order to promote their new style “D” tuners. The company has sold over 30,000 pairs to date. Jim Mills on the other hand, has become a great purveyor of banjo knowledge, providing both banjo instructional material and his latest book, Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Besides performing, Ron Stewart also seems to have a keen business sense through his endeavors with Yates Banjos, Stewart’s Violin Repair where he works alongside his father Frank, and The Sleepy Valley Barn recording studio which he owns and operates.
Perhaps it is merely coincidence that 5-stringers have been able to withstand times of both adulation and denigration of bluegrass music. However, there is no denying that the position of the banjo player remains among the most enduring within the genre. As both great side-men and entrepreneurs, banjo players continue to thrive.