As anyone even vaguely familiar with the instrument will tell you, the banjo had its origins in Africa long before it became synonymous with bluegrass and other forms of folk music. Nevertheless, the indelible imprint it’s made on esoteric American music has made it an instrument of choice among the practitioners of those seminal sounds.
Consequently, it’s little surprise to find a folk purist like Michael Johnathan devoting an entire album to celebrating the banjo in all its varied forms. That said, Cosmic Banjo isn’t a scholarly exercise by any means. His reverence for tradition notwithstanding, he takes its sound to several extremes, from the obvious (the age-old folk standards In the Evening and East Virginia Blues, a banjo-based remake of the evergreen classics Summertime and Blue Skies, an instrumental of his own entitled Moonfire, and a reworked version of Mr. Bojangles entitled Ballad of Bojangles, featuring John McEuen on mandolin), to the unexpected (a live How Can I Keep from Singing with the Niles String Quartet and the traditional tune, Darlin’ Corey, recorded alongside a 21 piece string section, Rob Ickes on mandolin, and McEuen featured once again on mandolin).
From there, Johnathan veers into the unorthodox, courtesy of the decidedly psychedelic title track and The Baghdad Breakdown, a mesh of middle eastern sounds applied to a bluegrass template, with support from Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, and John Cowan, among others. However, in terms of sheer entertainment, Ban-Jokes, Johnathon’s live monologue detailing practically every banjo joke known to men — examples: “What do you call a beautiful woman on the arms of a banjo player? A tattoo,” or “What’s the best way to tune a banjo? Wire cutters” — adds more than a hint of humor to the proceedings.
That said, Johnathon’s reverence for the instrument is undeniable, and while Cosmic Banjo may represent a decided detour from his previous 17 albums, it underscores his affection in full. Anyone that considers themself a banjo enthusiast ought not ignore it.