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2012: The Banjo's moment
'Country' Winston Marshall is the banjo player behind Mumford & Sons' success.
FILE/Dave Martin/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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By Jonas Beals
NOW THAT Mumford & Sons have solidified themselves as the year's most popular band, a question: When did the banjo become so damn sexy?
Aside from the constant four-on-the-floor disco beat that underpins all their songs, the most prominent Mumford & Sons sound is the banjo, a much-ridiculed acoustic folk instrument rarely heard in pop music for the past 50 years. As insufferable as Mumford & Sons' songs are, this is a tremendous development for the banjo.
It's worth noting that the banjo was common in early popular jazz and "hillbilly" recordings, and it's been a staple of bluegrass since Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe in the 1940s. Even though Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was one of the first songs Elvis Presley ever recorded, rock 'n' roll would effectively kill the banjo as a lead instrument in the late '50s. The '60s folk revival would keep the banjo alive behind the scenes, but it rarely popped up among the increasingly electrified world of pop music.
Fortunately, it reared its tight, plinking, drum-style head now and then. Time to see how an instrument with hillbilly connotations and African roots became the surprise darling of 2012.
1966: "Stop Stop Stop"
One of the few rock songs with banjo as the lead instrument. Tony Hicks' strumming style is closer to what you'd hear from a tenor banjo or modern bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and Trampled By Turtles.
1970: "Gallows Pole"
One of the oldest folk songs remade by Led Zep, this one features Jimmy Page on a rolling banjo.
1972: "Old Man" by Neil Young
No surprise that folk-rocker Young would turn to the banjo. You might be surprised to learn that it's James Taylor plucking the melody on a a six-string banjo here. An example of the banjo adding age, authenticity and depth to an acoustic track.
1982: "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners
Beating back the predominant synthesizer trend of the time, this celtic-influenced track was both banjo-heavy and a surprise pop hit.
1998: "There's Your Trouble" by The Dixie Chicks
JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: The Eddie James Trio at Bistro Bethem. Some great local music from a band with bass, drums and guitar. Tuesday at 8 p.m. OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Medeski Martin & Wood at The Kennedy Center in Washington. One of the most adventurous jazz groups working today. Saturday at 9:30 p.m. LISTENING TO: "Shanti" by Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. A sort of Beatles-esque raga exploration on a sitar-sounding banjo.