The pioneering banjo player from North Carolina Gena Britt is my companion in our local coffee shop today.
Britt fell in love with the sounds of bluegrass music at a very early age and began her career as an award-winning clogger. At the age of eight she began to learn to play the banjo.
She is well known for her dynamic and powerful banjo playing and heartfelt vocals with spot-on harmonies and vocal phrasing; one Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer described her as a “phenomenal lead singer. ”.
Britt is a sought-after studio musician and vocalist, with many recordings to date.
She has been featured on the cover of Bluegrass Now magazine and Banjo NewsLetter.
What would you like to drink?
I’ll have a Pumpkin Spice Latte, please.
Do you want anything to eat as well?
No, thank you.
What’s your favorite food?
I’d have to say authentic Mexican food or a great Tex-Mex place.
And what would you have to drink with that?
Probably water or a coke.
What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?
That’s easy. Anything my mom, Lucille makes. I know a lot of people say that. But, I really mean it. My mom is one of the best cooks I’ve ever known. Ask all of my bluegrass friends. I’d rather eat there any day, anytime than at a fancy restaurant.
Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?
I was introduced to acoustic instruments at a very early age, probably around 5 or 6 years old. My grandfather was a square dance caller. So, I fell in love with those sounds early on….in the dance hall. I began clogging, and with that came my love for bluegrass music.
Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?
I have been doing a lot more writing lately. One song that comes to mind is one I wrote simply titled The House that was on my last CD. I was living in an old white farmhouse that used to be a home for unwed mothers. They would go there to work for a place to stay while they were expecting. Some of my neighbors told me the stories about the home. I was so intrigued and I guess it stuck in my head. I got up in the middle of the night one night and wrote the entire song in less than an hour. It is in a minor key and is kinda haunting. Writing a song so quickly like that is so unlike my style of writing. It usually takes me days or even months to write a song.
What about a song written by someone else?
Sounds of Home by Shawn Lane is one that I can listen to over and over again. Or, The Grandpa That I Know by Shawn Camp and Tim Mensy. I look for a song that makes me feel something or takes me back to a place in time. Both these songs do that for me.
There are so many. But, my all time favorite would have to be J.D. Crowe & The New South #0044 [Rounder 0044]. The combination of musicians and vocals that were on that album makes it pretty hard to beat.
You play a banjo …. …
I play a 1966 Gibson RB-250 Bowtie. I have had several other banjos, but always go back to this one. I’m attached to it and feel more comfortable with it than I am with any other banjo I’ve ever owned.
What’s your favorite bluegrass memory?
Wow. There’s a lot. But, I would have to say performing on the Grand Ole Opry trumps all the others. There’s just something about standing in that circle. And, getting to share that with my dad, Parker was pretty special. He passed away in 2009 and was my biggest fan.
How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road?
I’m not on the road as much as I used to be, but I struggle with that aspect of traveling for sure. It certainly helps to stay hydrated and drink lots of water.
Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?
Yes I am. I follow college sports. In college football, I am a Tennessee VOLS fan and in college basketball, I stick to my home turf and support the UNC Tarheels.
What hobbies do you have?
I love photography. I have two daughters…..an almost 8 year old, Dalsyn, and a 10 year old, Jalyn. After they were born, I discovered my love of photography. They have certainly been my little models. I never used to pay attention to the smaller things in life. Aside from my sweet girls, it’s amazing how beautiful a single leaf is or how unique a pumpkin can be in the fall.
What is the last movie or film that you watched?
The last movie I watched was Song Catcher. I was at a friend’s cabin in Galax, Virginia. The movie was lying beside the TV. I put it in and didn’t realize that some musicians that I admire and respect, such as Hazel Dickens, were in the film. The movie was perfect for the kind of weekend I was having.
My favorite movie is probably The Notebook. What girl doesn’t like a romantic love story like that?
Do you get much time to watch TV?
I don’t watch a lot of TV. If the TV is on, it’s more than likely on The Disney Channel or something that my daughters like to watch. But, my favourite TV show is The Andy Griffith Show, hands down.
What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?
Well, I have had a career in banking for the past 16 years in the Customer Service / Loan Field. That’s something a lot of people may not know about me. However, I recently made a career change and am working in the office of the Physical Therapy Dept. at the local hospital near my home. I have been fortunate enough to be able to do both music and have a career to help support my family over the years. This marks 24 years that I have played music professionally. I am very blessed.
Gena Britt has had a very varied life in bluegrass music; at age 18 she moved to Nashville where she joined Petticoat Junction. Since then she has worked with New Vintage, Lou Reid & Carolina, and free-lanced with The Lonesome River Band, Carolina Road, Sally Jones & The Sidewinders, The Alecia Nugent Band, The Donna Hughes Band, the Dale Ann Bradley Band, Grasstowne and the Skip Cherryholmes Quintet.
Gena also worked in radio relations at Doobie Shea Records.
In 2001 she formed her own band the Gena Britt Band, releasing her solo project Doing All I Can in 2008.
It can be found on CD Baby, iTunes, etc.
To her credit Britt, now 42, has won three IBMA Awards (Recorded Event of the Year, in 2001, and Recorded Event and Album of the Year in 2006). She was also nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year (Traditional) at SPBGMA in 2002.
She is one of the originators of the Daughters of Bluegrass, who teamed up with Tom T. and Dixie Hall to create some award winning music on Blue Circle Records.
Most recently, in 2013 she helped form a band called Sister Sadie with Dale Ann Bradley,Tina Adair, Deanie Richardson and Beth Lawrence. This band is currently in the recording studio and booking select dates for 2015.
Gena Britt lives in Clinton, North Carolina, with her two daughters, Jalyn and Dalsyn.