Pete and Joan Wernick celebrate their golden anniversary

While we have lots of family bands in bluegrass music, we don’t seem to have as many husband and wife teams these days.

When Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo, mentioned recently that he and his wife, Joan, had just celebrated their golden anniversary, we knew it should be remembered here at Bluegrass Today.

He shared this lovely remembrance of their time together in love and music. Happy anniversary Joan and Pete!

I married the love of my life 50 years ago — June 29, 1974 in Ithaca, NY. We celebrated in June with a big party at Planet Bluegrass.

When I met and fell in love with Nondi Leonard in Boulder, CO in 1969, I had no idea what a good singer she was. By the time we landed in Ithaca, NY in 1970 we were singing my summer song together, Colorado Bound. Our several years in Country Cooking predated our marriage in 1974, with Nondi in the band on two Rounder records, one on Flying Fish, and one on Music Minus One. Then after our move to Niwot, Colorado in ’76 I started Hot Rize with just three guys: Tim O’Brien, Charles Sawtelle, Mike Scap, and then Nick Forster. 

Following Hot Rize’s 12 full-time years (and surviving a plane crash in 1989), she and I began playing out as a duet (Dr. and Nurse Banjo), with her resuming her original name of Joan as singer/guitarist Joan Wernick. We started putting on local bluegrass shows at the Left Hand Grange Hall, opening for bands like Front Range and the Bluegrass Patriots — with our young son Will selling cookies on breaks. Through the ’90s at those gigs we developed our duet harmony and stage presence as a couple.

In 1999 with Will in college, we began hitting the road to play and teach Wernick Method jamming, as regulars at MerleFest, Gettysburg, and Brookdale, CA. We started receiving invites to Hawaii, Ireland, Israel (2005), Russia (2010), and Denmark national TV (2015).

We’ve been honored to play on stage with many bluegrass greats: Earl Scruggs (with Steve Martin and son Will on the David Letterman show), Don Rigsby, Lynn Morris, Marshall Wilborn, Dave Evans, Pete Kukendall, Tony Rice, and Harley Allen. We’ve been regulars at MerleFest for over 20 years now, hosting the long-running Flexigrass Jam and Traditional Bluegrass Jam with many special guests. Joan joined my Flexigrass band in 2004.

I like introducing her as “my first wife, The Colorado Songbird.” Her a cappella singing brings the audience to silence and her soulful renditions of Hazel Dickens’ Mama’s Hand and The Band’s Jericho have earned widespread praise. We now perform and teach mostly locally in Colorado.

A cute story — some years ago while watching Hot Rize perform at California’s Strawberry Festival, a CBA official sitting next to her asked, “What ever became of Nondi Leonard?” … Surprise! She still uses Nondi with old friends, the name given her by a friend at about age 22. It means Sunshine in an African language — quite apt for her, even as we approach our 80s. 

We still love to sing, perform, and teach together! August will see us doing those things as 50-years-married folks, in Durango, CO and Silver Bay, NY.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.