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Have banjo, will travel

banjo dan

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

posted October 6, 2006

An interview with Dan Lindner of Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys and The Sky Blue Boys

For Dan Lindner, his guiding musical inspirations have been the first-generation giants of bluegrass.

“My brother and I cut our teeth on the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, and The Stanley Brothers, so those first-generation giants have always been our guiding lights,” said Lindner of Vermont’s Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys.

“Traditional bluegrass music has been our stylistic foundation for the entire life of the band. We’ve always taken songs from other genres and worked them into our act. But we’ve made bluegrass numbers out of them, rather than trying to play rock or jazz on bluegrass instruments.

“Al Davis, Willy Lindner, and I have all contributed numerous songs to the band’s repertoire, and I think this, more than anything else, has set us apart from all the other bands,” he added.

The Mid-nite Plowboys’ debut album got off to a fantastic start with the title track, Davis’ “Snowfall,” and a sparkling instrumental, “Danny on the Dirt Road” by Banjo Dan.

An early booking at West Brattleboro’s Chelsea House was the band’s only appearance at that storied room. “At the time, we were still a relatively new band and didn’t have any particular vision for the future,” said Lindner. “We just loved playing the music and were happy to play for folks wherever we could.”

Even then, Banjo Dan’s picking was melodic and he played with a fine touch. Brother Willie is ever a nimble and highly regarded mandolinist. Alan Davis, the other founding member, is an excellent writer and a likeable stage host.

Various hillbilly musical styles trace to the 19th century. The phenomenal success of fiddle- and banjo-powered minstrel shows inspired groups of city and rural musicians in every region of the United States to form string bands. These ensembles were numerous well into the 20th century. Though Southern culture nurtured the pioneering country bands, bluegrass reached New England remarkably early with Tex Logan and the Lillys.

“The Lilly Brothers were the real deal,” said Lindner. Then speaking of New England bluegrass icon Joe Val, he said, “Joe did more for bluegrass in New England than anyone other than the Lilly Brothers.”

For a time, the Plowboys’ travels included swings outside New England. “At one point, about half a career ago, we started going farther afield — New York city, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” said Lindner. But “around that time, we started a long affiliation with the New England Foundation for the Arts and began earning good money for concerts all around the New England states. So staying regional has worked well for us.”

Staying part-time helped, too. “We’ve seen a lot of good bands go full-time, only to come up against the stark realities of trying to make a living playing music. It ... can do a major number on your artistic vision. You need to compromise continually to keep up with musical trends and tastes.

“Our band has maintained a consistent approach based on who we are and what we love to play. ... [S]ince none of us has had to totally depend on the music to stay alive, we’ve been able to weather the thin times and keep a good group together for nearly 35 years.”

Focusing the band’s efforts close to home has not stopped the odd trip to distant lands. “I’ve always had a great interest in taking our music to different parts of the world,” said Lindner. “We were the first American bluegrass band to tour the Soviet Union. That was in 1988, when we linked up with Project Harmony and, along with a troupe of teenage singers and dancers, traveled to Russia and Georgia for a couple weeks.

“We’ve toured England and Italy and performed in Finland and Canada. I personally had the unique experience of playing East Africa with my wife and a old friend as The Banjo Dan Trio. We did shows in Kenya and Tanzania: national parks, clubs, schools, and special events.

“I’ve always had a fascination for Vermont’s history, folklore, and legends, perhaps with some leaning toward the macabre and the quirky,” explained Lindner. “Back around 1987, I decided to record a batch of these numbers and put out a cassette titled I’ll Take the Hills: Banjo Dan’s Songs of Vermont. It became our all-time bestseller, so I knew I was onto something.

“That first volume of Vermont songs was basically bluegrass, with a bit of variation,” continued Lindner. “The follow-up, The Catamount is Back! [1994], went further afield, using some different instrumentation on a few of the numbers. ‘Mystery and Memories’ is decidedly further out. It doesn’t pretend to be a bluegrass album, though of course there’s some bluegrass on it.

“I wanted to use this final volume in the series to combine my sounds with those of some of the musicians from other genres whom I really admire. It was a blast working with 25 different instrumentalists and vocalists, and I think the results are musically interesting. Again, I drew material from actual historical events, legends, and personalities.”

Mystery and Memories: Banjo Dan’s Songs of Vermont Vol. 3 is a generous collection of Lindner’s best music performed by himself, his family, current band members, ex-Plowboys such as fiddler David Gusakov, the Vermont Youth Orchestra String Quartet, and can’t-miss guests such as pianist Chuck Eller, dobro hero Jim Pitman, and members of Vermont’s treasured Social Band.

An Internet search for one Mystery and Memories singer, Deanna Booth Hankins, produced no hits. However much Vermonters may have heard her, it is not enough. She and Jaye Lindner treat “Trackless Train” to a classic coffeehouse performance akin to those beloved Folk-Legacy “Golden Ring” albums.

Mystery and Memories gets a jumping start with “Who Killed Orville Gibson?” about a yet-unsolved 1957 murder. From there to the dream-like closer, “Smuggler’s Notch,” Lindner and company deliver old-time country music, ballads, a waltz, Vermont history and lore, a recitation, an all-instrumental banjo tune, and a Jimmie Rodgers-tinged yodel song that Yodeling Slim Clark would have loved in the 1940s when he rambled on both sides of the Connecticut River. Favorites include “Jeezum Crow,” “Pontiac Yodel,” “Smuggler’s Notch,” “Trackless Train,” and “Black Cemetery,” which Social Band nails.

The Plowboys once made frequent stops at Burlington’s Nectar’s Restaurant. “Well, lo and behold,” exclaimed Lindner, “the guy running Nectar’s called us and in June of 2005 we played there for the first time in about 25 years. The place was packed, just like the old days. And the audience was the same age it used to be — crazy kids clapping and dancing. Only the musicians had aged. I think we gave ’em a good show, though.

“Willy and I worked for many years as The Lindner Brothers,” said Banjo Dan. “I think we finally realized that the name sounded more like a men’s clothing store than a country-music act, so about a year ago we began casting about for something a bit more catchy. One of the acts we emulate is the Blue Sky Boys, a brothers team from North Carolina that was quite popular in the 1930s and 40s. We’ve always done some of their songs. So Sky Blue Boys seemed an inspired choice.

“We continue to play a mix of old country songs, gospel, parlor songs, novelty numbers, and instrumentals, occasionally throwing in an original or, like the Plowboys, a good song from some other source which we adapt to our style. Instrumentation includes guitars, mandolin, banjo, autoharp, dobro, harmonica, and whatever else we can get away with.”

The middle months of 2006 sizzled with hot Banjo Dan bookings. “This summer’s trip to Newfoundland for a three-day festival probably tops the list of recent gigs.

“Wherever we play, we run into people who have followed our music for years and years, people who we have been inspired to pick up an instrument or get their kid started, people who know our songs from years ago, and people who tell us how much our music has meant to them. I guess it’s part of what tells us we haven’t sung in vain all these years.

“We have a sort of revolving fiddle chair, as we don’t have a single person who can make every gig. But with four great musicians to choose from, we don’t feel this detracts from our act.

“I’m on the phone and e-mails right now working up what I hope will be another solid season of good concerts, festivals, and private engagements. And when the Plowboys are in hibernation, the Sky Blue Boys will work as many shows as possible.

“As we move into our 35th year, we still love the music, still enjoy bringing it to the people, and have no plans to hang it up.”

The Sky Blue Boys are at the Ripton Community Coffeehouse on Saturday. Catch the last 2006 Mid-nite Plowboys show at the Franklin (NH) Opera House on Oct. 14.

For more information, visit www.banjodan.com/.