Q&A With Pete Wernick of Flexigrass

Nick Hutchinson recently had the chance to chat with legendary bluegrass purveyor Pete Wernick about his influences, how he got his nickname and the difference between playing with Hot Rize and with Flexigrass. We ran a few highlights from their conversation in the November 1 issue, and here, in the words of Paul Harvey, is the rest of the story.

Westword (Nick Hutchinson): Have you lived in Colorado all your life?

Pete Wernick: Actually, I grew up in New York City. I came to Colorado 31 years ago. My wife and I moved to Denver for a few months first and then we found our dream place, which was an old ramshackle house on Left Hand Creek in Niwot. We fixed it up, and it’s been our beloved home ever since.

How long have you been playing the banjo?

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 banjo 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. I was also 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.

How’d you fall in with Hot Rize?

I had a band with Charles Sawtelle, and Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster would sit in with us. When I got an opportunity to make a record, I asked Tim and Nick to be on it. And O’Brien was also making a record, and he asked me to be on that. So I suggested we put together a band to make those two albums; that band became Hot Rize. Our first gig was in 1978 in Boulder. And, suffice it to say, we caused a stir.

What’s the difference between playing with Hot Rize versus playing with the Flexigrass Band?

Flexigrass picks up where Hot Rize left off. There are other instruments besides the traditional bluegrass configuration that sound great in combination with me. In Flexigrass, we feature a clarinet, a vibraphone, a bass player and a drummer whose style is kind of of light popping. It’s not a highly complicated sound -- it’s something that engages not clobbers; it’s a blend of cuisines that you might not think you’d like, but it hits the spot. My wife is the vocalist. I’m proud to blend jazz and bluegrass in this particular way. I resisted the idea of mixing the two, but I think it sounds pretty cool.

Are there any younger musicians whose music you enjoy?

I like the music of mandolin player Chris Thile and Nickel Creek. I started jamming with Thile when he was eight, and when he turned twelve, he asked me to produce his first record. It was an extreme challenge because he was already a virtuoso at that young age. But watching Nickel Creek evolve was a real pleasure. Their music definitely rings my chimes.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

It’s been said that there are two kinds of music: Good music and bad music. Basically, I like stuff that has a good tone, good rhythm and good vocals and that’s sincere, where you can feel that the artist is sharing something real with you. Most commercial stuff is derivative of the roots stuff. If you hear Bill Monroe sing a Bill Monroe song, it gets you deep, but someone else’s version might not do it because it’s something they felt they had had to do for whatever reason that isn't genuine. I try to live up to a kind of sincerity when I play.