Ambassador of the banjo
Tony Trischka, once described by The New York Times as “the father of modern bluegrass,” will perform with his band, Robot Plane, in Brattleboro on Oct. 9.

Ambassador of the banjo

Tony Trischka brings his new band Robot Plane to Brattleboro on Oct. 9

BRATTLEBORO — When reached by phone earlier this week, legendary banjoist, songwriter, recording artist, and educator Tony Trischka was attending an International Bluegrass Music Association meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. There, he presented three panel discussions and gave out the coveted Banjo Player of the Year award - an honor he himself received in 2007.

On Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3 p.m., the Next Stage Bandwagon Summer Series and Twilight Music present an afternoon of banjo and bluegrass with Trischka and his new band, Robot Plane. Hot Mustard, a bluegrass quartet, will reunite after an eight-year hiatus to open the show (see sidebar).

As described in a news release, Tony Trischka & Robot Plane is “steeped in bluegrass, while stretching out into Celtic, Americana, and progressive music.”

The band includes acoustic music all-stars Trischka (banjo), Jacob Jolliff (mandolin and vocals), Jared Engel (acoustic bass), and Hannah Read (fiddle and vocals) - alumni of bands such as Country Cooking, Breakfast Special, Joy Kills Sorrow, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Béla Fleck's My Bluegrass Heart.

Called “the father of modern bluegrass” by The New York Times, Trischka, now 73 and living in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, “began playing in New York City in the early 1970s with a peer group of extraordinary musicians who saw American roots music as a thriving, living language that could be expanded and combined with other influences and sensibilities,” according to his publicity materials.

In his 50-plus-year career, Trischka has “pushed the boundaries of the banjo, performing with everyone from Pete Seeger to John Denver to Miley Cyrus to his most prominent former banjo student, Béla Fleck,” the press release continues.

Trischka has been nominated for a Grammy Award three times, most recently for producing Rare Bird Alert, by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Paul McCartney, and The Chicks made guest appearances on the 2011 album, which was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album.

The Commons spoke with Trischka about his upcoming show in Brattleboro, teaching the next generation of banjoists, and the state of the banjo in the United States in 2022. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Victoria Chertok: I heard the first thing you learned to play on the banjo was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Is that correct?

Tony Trischka: I started playing the melody of it, which is “Ode to Joy.” I listened to that all the time at home. I also took classical flute, folk guitar, and piano lessons. Then I heard The Kingston Trio's song “MTA” - there is a banjo solo on that, and I said, “I got to do that.” So I was turned on to the banjo.

V.C.: How old were you when you started playing gigs?

T.T.: I was 14 years old and learned to play “[Earl] Scruggs style.” One of my first teachers was 20 and I was 14 at the time. We played at the Syracuse University Club, and I made $15 for 15 minutes of playing - $1 a minute.

We had records at home of classical music, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and some Broadway shows. My dad was into jazz - Duke Ellington, Fats Waller. My mother went to the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village with Toshi Seeger - Pete Seeger's wife - so we had a Seeger connection right off the bat.

V.C.: Where did the genre bluegrass come from?

T.T.: Bill Monroe, who invented Bluegrass music was from Rosine, Kentucky, and he put his first band together in 1938, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He played with his brother Charlie; they had hits on Bluebird Records, as a duet. It was kind of country music or hillbilly music. Some DJ in the 1950s started calling it bluegrass, and Kentucky is “the bluegrass state,” so there you have it.

V.C.: What types of banjos do you play? Who makes them?

T.T.: I play five-string banjos, a bluegrass banjo. They are made by Deering of San Diego, California. I have my own two signature models, the Golden Clipper and the Silver Clipper, named after the clipper ships from the 1800s.

The Golden Clipper is gold plated and about the bling, with abalone around the neck and resonator. The inlays are based on Czech artist Alphonse Mucha's art nouveau designs for the fingerboard inlays. They're Dichrolam inlays, made of a very colorful inlay - like abalone, but chemically based.

V.C.: About your fingerpicking style: Why do you use only three fingers to play the banjo?

T.T.: People were playing with three fingers in the 1860s when fingerpicking started becoming a thing on the banjo. There is guitar style, or the African style, which is more downstroke.

But one guy defines the whole style: Earl Scruggs did it with three fingers, so that is why everyone does it this way. Earl is the one who really put it on the map. In 1945, people hadn't heard banjo playing like that - so fast, so exciting, and the timing was just perfect. He just had it all!

V.C.: You opened for Steve Martin in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Tell me more about that experience.

T.T.: I met Steve in 1974, when he played a show at a small club in Greenwich Village. I was in a band, Breakfast Special, and we shared the bill with him. He was an up-and-coming comedian. We did our thing.

I decided I wanted to do a double banjo album, and the guy in charge at the record company said, “Let's call it 'Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.'” I got to play one tune with Earl Scruggs on this record, [released in 2007], which was a thrill of a lifetime.

I asked a few people to be on the album, and asked Steve Martin's people, and he said yes. So I went to his apartment, and we went over some tunes, one of which, “The Crow,” became the title of his first solo album in 2009.

I could tell you many other stories. He's incredibly generous and a wonderful banjo player. He's very serious about it. He's funnier than your average person.

V.C.: What is the origin of the banjo?

T.T.: The banjo comes from Africa and there are instruments from West Africa called xalam, made from a gourd with a fretless neck. Enslaved Africans brought these to the Americas in the 1830s.

Joel Walker Sweeney was the first white person to play the banjo; he worked with a drum maker in Baltimore, and they decided to put this neck on a drum, which would become the banjo.

V.C.: What is the state of the banjo in the U.S.A. in 2022?

T.T.: The banjo is in a really good state right now. The younger generation - it's just mind boggling what they can do now.

Béla Fleck has an instructional camp, the Blue Ridge Banjo Camp in North Carolina. And this year, a 10-year-old boy named Dante [Flores] went out to play a turn-of-the-century tune written for the banjo in front of 2,000 people and didn't miss a note, played with perfect poise.

The bar keeps going higher and higher.

V.C.: One of your banjo students, Béla Fleck, has won 15 Grammy Awards and is one of the most famous banjo players in America. You were out there on the cutting edge, and that is one reason Béla wanted to study with you. How did you first meet?

T.T.: He had two teachers before me - he came to me at age 16 and had taken lessons with Mark Horowitz. I got him into more progressive stuff. My first album just came out, and Béla wanted to learn all the stuff I was doing, so Mark told him to contact me.

So Béla schlepped up to the Bronx, where I was living at the time, and I gave him lessons. It was clear that he had something going on. He studied with me for two or three months, and we would just jam together.

V.C.: Tell me about your online banjo school.

T.T.: I've been teaching for 11 years with a company called ArtistWorks. I was approached by them to start a banjo school for every level of player. They said, “We want you to come up with 100 lessons to start with; we'll do a three-camera shoot; you need tablature [musical notation that gives fingering instructions for banjos and other fretted instruments] for people to read.”

It's a subscription-based service. People can send in their videos, and I can respond to them. It's a wonderful thing. Also included are interviews with over 50 banjo players, including Steve Martin and Earl Scruggs. I've taught thousands of students since it began.

V.C.: How did you get the name for your band Robot Plane? What can we expect at your Oct. 9 show?

T.T.: We were trying to come up with a name for our band, as this is our first tour and my wife said, “How about 'Robot Plane'? It reckons back to my [1983] album A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas.

This is our first tour. Jared Engel is an incredible bass player, and I've been playing with him for 10 years. Jacob Jolliff is an amazing mandolin player who went to Berklee College of Music. I was teaching as a guest instructor at Berklee, and I would do one-on-ones with the students. That's when I met Jacob backstage after a show. Hannah Read is a wonderful fiddler from Scotland. She is just the nicest person in the world with a great voice.

We will play straight-ahead bluegrass tunes and other tunes that take bluegrass in other directions, which I've done for years. Like my song “A Robot Plane Flies over Arkansas,” it's coming out of bluegrass and a fiddle tune and it does other things, is more expansive, and takes it other places.

Concert details

The Bandwagon Summer Series, a family-friendly outdoor cultural performance series, has run from early May through mid-October with more than 20 performances ranging from a diverse group of musical styles, circus arts, dance, and theater. Refreshments are sold onsite, including Barr Hill cocktails, and some selections from Mad River Distillers. Audience members are encouraged to bring a picnic, a blanket, and folding chairs.

Tony Trischka and Robot Plane, plus Hot Mustard perform on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. at West River Park, 333 W. River Rd. in Brattleboro. Tickets are $25 ($22 in advance and free for children under 12).

For more information on the concert and to buy tickets, visit

For more information on Tony Trischka, visit

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