A new album from Tony Trischka is always big news in the banjo world. Since the 1970s he’s been cranking out music to challenge 5 stringers and banjo fans alike, and reworking what can be expected from his instrument along the way.
For his 2014 release, Great Big World, Tony has produced a very traditional album, in the sense of what one expects from a Trischka CD. There is plenty of new banjo music, and a number of surprises; lots of guest artists, but not always the ones you might expect.
All but 3 of the 13 tracks are his originals, including both songs and tunes. For 40 years we have enjoyed innovative banjos tunes from Tony’s fertile mind, but this new project includes six songs for which he has written both words and music.
In a recent interview, Trischka told us that while he wrote poetry as a teenager, writing songs seriously is a fairly new endeavor.
“I wrote songs when I was 12 years old. Listening to Dylan, I wrote some protest songs, but it was just for fun.
It’s only in the last 3-4 years have I gotten strongly into it. Sometimes I would write a banjo tune, and then decided to add lyrics to it. I did that on Lost, which I arranged for a chamber group on the album.“
In addition to his instrumental and vocal compositions, Great Big World includes a rollicking arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi and the bluegrass classic, I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, written by Johnny Bond.
Things get started in a grassy vein with a Trischka song, Say Goodbye, sung by Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers fame. The track also features Tony’s son Sean on mandolin, who turns in a very credible Andy Statman impression. Anyone who has studied Tony’s banjo playing carefully will recognize some of his stylistic quirks in how the melody lays out here.
Trischka tells us that he wrote this one on demand.
“The first two tracks we cut were bluegrass, and Rounder wanted the opening track to be bluegrass. I didn’t think either grass track was right as an opener, so I decided to write one.
I wrote Say Goodbye in a day, and we cut it the next.”
Promontory Point works some familiar ground, recorded largely as a banjo duet with Steve Martin. The contrast between instruments is focused by the fact that Martin plays clawhammer, while Tony plays in a single string style on a cello banjo, something he reprises for the final track. It’s a lovely tune, supported by a full rhythm section.
For banjo aficionados, perhaps the most satisfying track will be Single String Medley, a grouping of five separate banjo tunes, each written for and performed on only one string. The various melodies are distinct, as are their arrangements, ranging from Celtic to swing, yet the five short pieces make perfect sense together with fiddle, cello and guitar accompaniment.
Tony says that this one was inspired by discussions with a pair of fellow musicians.
“Brittany Haas inspired me to do the Single String Medley. We did a workshop together in New York state, billed as five string vs five string, with her on a five string fiddle. We didn’t have any repertoire, and we sat down to go over things before the workshop and she suggested doing things just on one string. We had a great time and when I got home I started thinking I should explore that further.
My idea was to do 5 songs, one on each string. Steve Martin was the final push when he suggested the same. I found it funny how the limitations we place can dictate the composition.
Plus I have long suffered a phobia about breaking strings, since I perform so often solo on stage. So I wrote songs for every string of the banjo in case one breaks.”
Another standout is Ocracoke Lullabye, recorded with banjo, cello and folk harp. Maeve Gilchrist provides the harp and vocal, with Tristan Clarridge on cello.
The title track finds Noam Pikelny joining Tony for a double banjo arrangement, with the real Andy Statman on mandolin. It is paired in a medley with Purple Trees of Colorado, where Mike Compton picks up the mando. Great Big World also has an uncredited clarinet part, which one assumes is Statman as well.
Michael Daves turns in his usual gutsy vocal performance on I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, done in the key of F, which Tony says he modified slightly from the standard version.
“I had to get a little twist in there, so I added two extra beats like I had heard in a rare Opry recording of Monroe from ’42 with Clyde Moody.”
Another “big song” is Tony’s Wild Bill Hickok, sung by folk hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with actor John Goodman adding a dramatic recitation. It takes on the legend of one of America’s most colorful characters of the Old West.
Trischka said that this one started out as a song.
“I love history, and that era truly fascinates me. At one point I saw that I had written six verses, and as I kept going, I just kept adding more.”
Closing out the proceedings is a lovely tune in the classic banjo tradition, Swag Bag Rag. It is a banjo duet between Tony on his John Hartford model banjo, which uses a wooden tone ring, and Tony again on a second banjo track with his cello banjo, tuned an octave below the normal five string.
“The first germ of that wasn’t intended to be classic, but I started seeing how it could be a turn of the century piece.
I really enjoyed working up the bass part on the cello banjo. It was fun trying to think like a bass player.”
Great Big World offers the most complete picture yet of Tony Trischka the artist. The tune writer, and the songsmith. The banjo player, and the arranger.
Maybe we can convince him to sing on the next record.