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Pete Wernick says he's always walking a fine line: On one hand, he uses five decades of banjo proficiency to play traditional bluegrass with Hot Rize, which did a lot of recording in the '80s, and, more recently, with Long Road Home, which just released a new album, Live at eTown. On the other, Wernick bends the rules of bluegrass with his band Flexigrass, which combines Dixieland clarinet, jazz vibraphone and a bluegrass banjo. In fact, when the two play together this week, he plans to bring two sets of clothes. He'll wear a suit with Long Road Home, as that's the traditional bluegrass garb — but while he'll dress nicely for Flexigrass, they've never worn suits.
Wernick also played and was assistant producer on Steve Martin's album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which just won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. And if playing in two bands, running jam camps and making instructional videos weren't enough for Wernick, Hot Rize will play Bonnaroo and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and record an album all in the same week. We spoke with Wernick about the duality of his banjo playing.
Westword: Do you approach playing with Long Road Home and Flexigrass differently, with different mindsets?
Pete Wernick: Yes. That's a good launching point for what goes on in my head when I'm with them. In Flexigrass, I'm the bandleader, and almost all the material that we do, I bring to the band. My wife is the lead vocalist, so she brings some songs to the band. But how we arrange them and what happens when — it's just up to what we decide to do. It's a collaborative process, but I'm in charge of it.
In the case of Long Road Home, that's a band that I joined. They already have a lead singer and an ongoing style. It's a style I'm very much at home with, but I feel more like a cog in the machine than the designer. I like it that way because I respect everybody in the band. The bandleader is actually the youngest guy in the band, and the lead singer is the second-youngest guy in the band. Those are the two most creative forces in the band, and I'm glad to fit in around those guys as fits rather than say, "Okay, I'm the most experienced guy here, so here's what you should do."
I like having dual roles in the two bands. This is the first time the two bands are combining for a show. I'm excited that I get to do both things the same night, because I love them both. It might be interesting, especially for banjo players, to watch how I approach the different roles. With Flexigrass, I'm the emcee, and I wrote so much of the material; it's sort of my band. In Long Road Home, I'm one of five.
What I'm supposed to do in the two different situations is really often of two different templates. So rather than seeing one band one night and the other band one night and the idea that one follows right after the other, I think that could be pretty interesting for somebody to watch how the banjo fits in different ways in the band.
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