The first time I remember hearing a banjo, I was probably 7 years old. My parents had a Neal Diamond album that had a song on it called “The Robert E. Lee”. It was the soundtrack for the movie “The Jazz Singer”. It was sort of schmaltzy in hindsight, but I would play that track over and over, transfixed by the twangy banjo riff. I grew up in the heart of Toronto, to a family with “urban” musical tastes, so in the following years, I didn't often get a chance to hear (or ever see) any banjo players. Occasionally though, the banjo would have a brief fling with pop culture and I'd get hooked up – watching old reruns of the Andy Griffith Show; in the background of a Lightfoot song; Deliverance. This was before you could just type “banjo” into Google and have the thing laid out for you. Slowly though, I unravelled the mystery, mostly from haunting used record stores in my early teens. One day I found a cool looking record in the Grateful Dead section that had a cartoon picture of a bunch of wild looking hippy-cowboys playing music. I recognized the banjo picker as Jerry Garcia. The album was “Old and in the Way”. My first real bluegrass album!
When I was 17, I got a banjo for Christmas (I'd been playing guitar for 3 years prior). I started taking bluegrass banjo lessons from a guy named Chris Quinn (who is now one of my oldest friends) but eventually was attracted to an even older style of playing called “clawhammer” or “frailing” banjo. I met a lifelong working musician named Rick Fielding who gave me one lesson, then recognizing a kindred-spirit, or perhaps a version of his younger self, took me under his wing and mentored me for my last couple years of high-school. Now, I should be clear that with Rick “mentoring” meant giving me a place to go play banjo while I skipped school, lending me records and instruments, and giving me advice such as “you should probably learn to play bass so you have something to fall back on.”
When I got out of high-school I took a year off to “find myself”. Where I found myself was playing music in the Toronto subway system and on the streets. It was my first taste of making money by playing music, and I was hooked. I was a busker for the next 12 years. During this time, I started playing bars, at festivals, and teaching, but busking was like my day-job, and it allowed me to be “full-time” which I've been ever since. Over the past 25 years, I've just been doing whatever needed to be done to make it work; playing solo and in bands such as The Foggy Hogtown Boys, The David Francey Band, and The Lonesome Ace Stringband; teaching and touring around the world; and recording lots of records (my own, and on other people's).
Looking back, I know now that I was blessed with something very special, something more special than talent - singular passion. I've known exactly what I wanted to do since I was 17, and never remember making a decision to do it, it just happened because it had to happen. It's taken me a long time to appreciate how rare that is, and how lucky I've been to have it!
My other passion in life is fishing, which I've been doing as long as I can remember. Somewhere around 2006, I sniffed out a sweet fishing tip. The person recommended I go to a tributary of the Elk River (which will remain nameless), “put on a dry fly and start working upstream”. It was good advice.
I started coming to Fernie whenever I was touring out west and had a free couple days. One day, while walking down 2nd Ave, I looked up and saw a storefront that said “Clawhammer Press”. That's when I met Mike Hepher, and his wife Annie, who got me hooked up with a great crew of folks from the local music community and the Old Type Society. (They even put on a fly-fishing/music weekend called “Gillbilly”!)
Fernie has become a home on the road for me and is one of my favorite places in the world to fish. In appreciation of this, I've released an album called “Road to the River”. All the profits from the album go to The Elk River Alliance. It's available at www.road2theriver.com and in local stores.