One of the chief rules of stage performance, going back to the vaudeville days, is that you never want to follow an animal or a kid act.
We don’t get many animal acts in bluegrass, but cute kids have been a staple since the earliest days of hillbilly music. In fact, a good many of our current icons got started that way. Both Rhonda Vincent and The Boxcars’ Ron Stewart were on stage as preteens, performing with their family bands.
Rarer are acts that are fronted and musically directed by young pickers, but that is what is developing with Sleepy Man Banjo Boys.
This trio of talented young pickers got its wholly unexpected start almost two years ago when Tom Mizzone posted a couple of YouTube videos of his then 9 year old son Johnny tearing up the banjo, with brothers Robbie on fiddle and Tommy on guitar. In the inexplicable way that videos go viral, they had more than a million views in short order, leading to guest appearances on both the Letterman and Huckabee programs. A video from them on Letterman has well over 3 million views.
The boys released an album of instrumentals in 2011, America’s Music, which while highlighting the young Mizzone’s budding talent, was primarily a collection of popular bluegrass tunes from their heroes’ repertoires.
Not so their latest CD, The Farthest Horizon. Seven of the eleven tracks were written by the boys – with an assist on two from their uncle Chris.
Johnny is now 10, Robbie 13 and Tommy 15. They all demonstrate a remarkable maturity for such young musicians, not to mention song and tune writers. They are supported here by Chris Mizzone on mandolin and Sal Ciaravino on bass. The only ringer on the album is Andy Leftwich who added a couple of mandolin breaks that uncle Chris didn’t feel up to tackling.
Though most of the selections here are instrumentals, a most welcome addition is the vocal contributions from 13 year old Ashley Lilly, granddaughter of the legendary Everett Lilly, on two songs. The first is How Deep The Father’s Love For Us, a lovely contemporary hymn from Stuart Townend, and the other Always The One, a Gospel song written by the Mizzone boys and their uncle.
The boys became acquainted with Ashley through a mutual online friend, and they didn’t meet in person until this summer when her family made a side trip to New Jersey to spend a Sunday afternoon with the Mizzones. The boys loved her voice, and the fact that she was their age, and asked her to sing on the record.
Tommy shows his Rice roots on a pair of tunes, the Monroe classic Gold Rush which Tony Rice turned into a guitar standard, and The Man From Danville which Tommy wrote as a tribute to Tony. Leftwich really eats this second one up, as he does on Lexie Lou, written by Robbie.
Johnny gets to shine on a number of banjo tunes, a composition of his called Johnny’s Tune (complete with Keith tuners), one of Robbie’s, Time Lapse, and Earl Scruggs’ Shuckin’ The Corn. As disconcerting as it may be to hear such a young picker
To my ear, Robbie shows the most dramatic artistic leap since last year’s release. He plays fluidly and creatively, showing a clear grasp of the style of the first generation bluegrass fiddlers, who is equally comfortable with both old time and contemporary fiddle tunes.
Dad Tom Mizzone said that the boys really did most of the work in pre-production, writing, choosing and arranging material. His brother, Chris – an accomplished rock musician and new blue grasser – produced in the studio, and helped the boys in arranging solos when problems arose. Robbie was also indispensable here, as he has developed a proficiency on all the bluegrass instruments, and assisted his brothers as well in composing solos.
Working without a label, the Mizzone’s raised funds for The Farthest Horizon on Kickstarter, where they generated over $40,000 in fan contributions. It debuted at #3 on the Billboard bluegrass chart on October 25.
But while listening to this impressive new release, don’t lose sight of the fact that these are young people playing the music. An anecdote shared on the CD cover makes that plain.
While tracking in his booth, Johnny was heard to say, “It sounds better when I tilt my head back.”
“Thinking he meant his banjo head position against the mic we said, ‘Okay Johnny, If you think so then play like that.’
We were amused to peek into the recording room to find him playing while looking up at the ceiling.”
The Farthest Horizon is available on CD from The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys’ web site, and from iTunes, Amazon and most other popular download sites.