Trischka's Treat

A string thing: Banjoist Tony Trischka.

Besides immortalizing the pithy catchphrase "squeal like a pig," the 1972 screen adaptation of writer James Dickey's Deliverance burned an indelible impression into our collective unconsciousness through its lightning-quick, banjo-fueled soundtrack. Go ahead -- try to forget that wonderfully creepy genetic wildcard who out-grins and out-picks actor Ronnie Cox note for blinding note. Try to forget that disturbing, backwoods hillbilly, bidding farewell to the doomed whitewater party, all alone on a bridge, swinging his battered five-string overhead like the devil's timeless pendulum.

Tony Trischka forgets -- for the most part. "I haven't seen that movie in a lot of years," the Syracuse native offers from his recently adopted New Jersey home. "A guy named Eric Weissburg, a studio musician from New York City, played that. Eric Weissburg looks nothing like that kid -- I guarantee it."

Quick to give credit where it's due, Trischka is a musician who for 37 years has been committed to elevating the stature of this oft-snubbed instrument, to pick away at the negative and stereotypical connotations so long associated with it. And there's enough of those to choke a horse. A stowaway on slave ships, the earliest prototype of the banjo -- "a drum on a stick," as Trischka calls it -- eventually fell into the dull-witted clutches of turn-of-the-century white actors, who would smear their faces with ham fat and burnt cork and take to the gaslit stage, eat watermelon and strum away. Even worse, they'd drawl cheerfully about the joys of servitude, gambling, fighting with razor blades and stealing chickens. Minstrel acts coincided with banjo-accompanied medicine shows, where snake-oil pushers (the same great minds who brought the world electric soap) degraded the instrument further. Appropriated by the bourgeois after World War I, the banjo became the favorite novelty parlor instrument of society types -- ladies, mostly, as the strings were believed to be less likely to injure a female's delicate fingers. Fast-forwarding to the present, most everyone's point of banjo reference is still, unfortunately, people like that jug-eared inbred from Deliverance.

Which makes Trischka's efforts all the more of an uphill battle. "My forever comment on the banjo," he says, "is that people should look at it as a widely varied instrument capable of playing many different kinds of music, not just bluegrass." His many years of playing -- redefining -- banjo music started at age fourteen. After listening to patterns picked out on the 1959 Kingston Trio tune "M.T.A." -- an urban folk song whose narrator, Charlie, must "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" because he doesn't have a ticket to get off the subway -- the young player was hooked. In fact, "M.T.A." seems to foreshadow the farsighted, labyrinthine approach to bluegrass music that Trischka would discover years later, a style that borders on the visionary. "I fell off the stage 'cause I was blinded by the spotlight," he recalls of his first professional gig, a duet with his music teacher. (Ironically, the pair was covering a song by José Feliciano.)

Born to a physics professor father and jeweler mother, the then-fledgling banjophile grew up to the sounds of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, as well as the music of Debussy and show tunes from My Fair Lady and South Pacific. "I once wrote a letter to Pete Seeger," Trischka recalls. "'You're the best banjo player in the whole world,' I said. And he wrote back a postcard: 'Tony -- you know, music's not like a horse race. There's no such thing as best. But I'm glad you like my music.'"

Either way, a photo finish of history's breakneck banjo stallions would have to include Trischka in the thundering herd -- a man as dedicated to bluegrass music as he is to finding new, often jarring ways to subvert it. Imagine patching a banjo through a wah-wah pedal for an Earl Scruggs-meets-Jimi Hendrix hybrid. Or playing in a band called Psychograss, which included the most experimental of string players and whose very name embodied the very genre it helped create, as Trischka did in the early 1990s. Such behavior might get a fella tarred and feathered at a Kentucky corn-shuckin' jamboree -- criminy! -- but for Trischka, whose latest incarnation is an all-out electric '70s fusion-styled effort simply called the Tony Trischka Band, any and all musical abandon seems merely second nature.

The group's debut CD on Rounder, Bend, boasts what is possibly the whitest music ever conceived: progressive fusion with the high calling of Appalachia. And for such a pale-faced project -- pass the ham loaf, Earl -- Trischka looked well beyond your garden-variety bluegrass player. "In the past, I've strictly worked with friends or people I knew from the acoustic scene," he points out. "I decided that I wanted a completely fresh start and would audition players rather than ease into a band with people I already knew. This is the first time I've reached into other areas to find musicians." Enter Glenn Sherman -- "this screaming electric-guitar player," Trischka notes -- who combines an Ace Frehley/Lynyrd Skynyrd aesthetic with some Bongload Records session experience. Sherman, the youngest and only self-taught member of the group, also contributes vocals in addition to wielding a loud, Southern-rock-flavored ax. Abandoning the rural tones of a fiddle, Trischka chose tenor/soprano saxophonist Michael Amendola as his unlikely reed-picker; as well-versed in Broadway musicals as he is in lending incidental music to National Public Radio, Amendola gives the band its jazzier elements. Bassist Marco Accattatis, a native of Italy, intertwines his wide-ranging roots in funk, jazz and Latin music, providing sinewy low-end lines to an already thick and puzzling stew. Finally, ex-Feed the Meter drummer Grisha Alexiev rounds out the rhythm section, tightening the proceedings or blurring whatever needs to be blurred. A co-founder of New York City's Atomic Strings, Alexiev has performed with such varied artists as Archie Bell, John Cage and Anthony Braxton; he also fronts his own eleven-piece group, No Western Shirts.  

And what's the result of this well-seasoned quintet of scale technicians? Definitely not another drill-precision rendering of "Turkey in the Straw" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." The Tony Trischka Band occupies a musical territory between Bill Monroe's hardscrabble sound and the prog-rock sensibilities of Georgia's Dixie Dregs -- the energy of Grand Ole Opry mingled with the psychedelia of the Fillmore East. "I've been experimenting with banjo fusion since the early '70s," Trischka admits, citing Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea's Return to Forever as influences. "It's just taken 25 years or so to get it on stage."

But Trischka hasn't exactly twiddled his quicksilver thumbs for those two and a half decades. His 23 recordings include the earliest works of Country Cooking -- a 1971 effort with Longmont resident and legendary picker Pete Wernick, aka "Dr. Banjo." There's also the oddball-titled A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas, released on Rounder in 1983, and Skyline Drive, from the Trischka-fronted band Skyline, issued on the Flying Fish imprint in 1986. "Rounder wasn't interested in [Skyline]," Trischka points out. "They thought we were too commercial-sounding, which is sort of odd for a record company, to think you're too commercial-sounding. So we went with Flying Fish, but I kept doing solo records for Rounder while the band was continuing." Flying Fish eventually went out of business and was bought by Rounder, leaving Trischka free to pursue any musical interest. (A complete audio file, biography and tablature of the month can be found at

As a teacher, performer, writer and historian of what's quintessentially regarded as "America's instrument," Trischka melds diversity with exuberance. Consider star pupil Béla Fleck, a gifted prodigy whom Trischka met in 1973 and helped groom into one of today's premier banjo kings. "I just showed him whatever I could," Trischka maintains with characteristic modesty. "And then, in three or four months or so, he'd really absorbed a lot of it. There was nothing left to show him with lessons, so it was like, 'Let's jam now.'" Trischka and Fleck partnered up for Rounder's 1992 release, Solo Banjo Works, an acoustic master-versus-apprentice duel that leaves the listener wondering who's who. A barrage of bluegrass, rags, jazz, classical and late 1700s sojourns (some tunes conjure up the tri-cornered hats and muskets of Johnny Tremain), Works more than adequately showcases each player's considerable skills. The disc's crowning moment, perhaps, is a hypnotic twenty-fingered strummer called "Killer Bees on Caffeine."

Pushing boundaries even further, Trischka compiled 1993's ambitious World Turning, which, from headstock to tailpiece, attempts to chronicle the banjo's exotic life span. From its early African origins as a stringed gourd called a banjer in the 1600s, up and through the American Civil War, the "instrument of slavery"' helped popularize Al Jolson, then enhanced Irish waltz music and ultimately rock and roll. (John Lennon's first instrument, incidentally, was a banjo.) World pools the varied talents of Horsefly Richie Stearns from the Farm Report, Peter Buck and Bill Berry of REM, chanteuse Syd Straw, composer Van Dyke Parks and mandolin wizard David Grisman. During a Midwestern tour with indie noisemonger Eugene Chadbourne -- he of the electric rake -- that took place early in 1993, Trischka met Mr. Naked Lunch himself, William S. Burroughs, whose talents he also enlisted on World.

"We ended up in Lawrence, Kansas, in a club, and Eugene was a big Burroughs fan," Trischka explains. "In between sets, it turns out Burroughs's secretary was there -- she's a big Eugene fan -- and by the end of the night, we were invited to his house. He showed us all these paintings he'd done and a new goldfish pond he'd dug. He even autographed our banjo heads." Narrating a tune originally slated for actor Hume Cronyn, Burroughs's spoken piece tributes the dying words of antebellum banjo instructor Tom Briggs. "We weren't actually in the studio together at the same time," Trischka explains. "I overdubbed the music with a gourd banjo." Even the didgeridoo -- that old bluegrass standby -- finds its way onto World courtesy of Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes, who, along with the Femmes' Gordon Gano appears on the album's most atonal cut, "Down in the Cider House"; the collaboration no doubt returns the favor for Trischka's involvement on the Femmes' 1984 release, Hallowed Ground.  

Busy as a one-armed blacksmith, Trischka has further entangled himself in Stir Fried, a New Jersey-based psychedelic, syncopated mixture of folk rock and swamp music; the band's new album features guests like Dr. John, Vassar Clements, Derek Trucks and JoJo from Widespread Panic.

But for a guy who draws witchery from the strings of a centuries-old instrument, Trischka continues to search for new ways to stretch boundaries with his banjo. Bluegrass hasn't exactly given his pockets the mumps -- far from it. A father of two, he still supplements his modest livelihood with dog-food commercials, instructional guides and an occasional appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. "Bile 'Em Cabbage Down," indeed. His willingness to journey into strange and unpredictable musical territory (read: non-commercial) must spring from loftier goals than mere wealth. Then again, how many pickers out there really own heliopads?

While the majority of bluegrass bashers do seem to know the difference between trampolines and banjos (that is, which one requires that you remove your shoes before jumping on it), Trischka doesn't seem too bothered by disparaging remarks. He's heard just about every banjo joke out there. "Here it is," he says. "I've been playing 37 years. I'm still completely hooked. I might be selling shoes somewhere today, but I got lucky and found something I love doing. Or it found me."

Such serendipity usually gets a man further along in life than, say, having a "purty mouth" ever did.

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