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Pete Wernick began his long career as one of bluegrass's most accomplished purveyors in the most unlikely of places: New York. Since moving to Colorado in 1976, "Dr. Banjo" has gained renown with the legendary group Hot Rize and demonstrated his plucking skills with such groups as Phish, Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident. His celebrated picking ability also earned him a spot on the Letterman show two years ago, where he performed with his longtime idol, Earl Scruggs. The only banjoist to play through a phase-shifter, Wernick continues to travel the planet as an instructor and ambassador of bluegrass. We talked to the good Doctor recently about his musical history.
Westword: How long have you been playing the banjo?
Pete Wernick: Since I was fourteen. I had friends in New York who played folk music and bluegrass, and I was into the scene. At first I played a folky Pete Seeger style of banjo; then Flatt and Scruggs came up, and I went to see them. I was floored by Scruggs's innovative style of playing, and I immediately switched from the folky style to the rolling three-finger style of Scruggs. I've been playing that way ever since.
So seeing Flatt and Scruggs was how you caught the bluegrass bug?
I also had the only bluegrass radio program in the '60s at Columbia, so I got to interview a lot of the big players, including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. And I was among the first group of people in the summer of 1965 to attend the first bluegrass festival in southwest Virginia. The festival included a reunion of Bill Monroe and some of the guys who had played with him over the years.
Who are your major banjo influences?
Mainly Earl Scruggs. He took the banjo from being a novelty thing to being a virtuoso instrument. His style is amazing, because it's clear in melody yet also rolling and full. I also like the playing of JD Crowe, Bill Keith and Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers.
How'd you get the name Dr. Banjo?
I have a doctorate in sociology, and I worked in academia for a while at Cornell University. When I was starting to play bluegrass on stage, some guy was introducing me as "the doctor of bluegrass." I changed that name to Dr. Banjo. I was more comfortable with that.
Visit the Backbeat blogs for more of our interview with Pete Wernick.