Ten years ago, when the banjo bug first bit me, I dragged my wife into the old Encore Music shop over on Menaul. “Please, please, let me buy one, darling,” I begged. “I promise I’ll clean up after it. Please.”
My pleading didn’t get me anywhere, but, as it turned out, that didn’t matter. Big Wayne Shrubsall was helping out at the store that day. He plucked an old Orpheum No. 2 banjo off the wall, plopped himself down on a stool and started to play. My wife was mesmerized.
“All right, I’ll let you buy a banjo,” she said, “but you have to take lessons from that guy.”
We had a deal. Of course, I flubbed my end. I bought a banjo and practiced my butt off. I got so I could carry a tune. But I didn’t take a lesson from Shrubsall.
About a year ago, though, I rectified my mistake and began making the trek out to his big blue house on the Westside. By that point, I’d been playing banjo in a band for years. I figured I largely knew what I was doing. Well, I didn’t.
Shrubsall is a walking, talking banjo library. A nationally respected expert who’s written about the banjo for decades, he seems to have an uncanny knack for playing almost every style that’s ever been played throughout the lengthy history of the instrument. Back in 1985, he even got a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico by writing a dissertation on the role of the five-string banjo in American popular culture.
So, yeah, the guy knows what he’s talking about. In 2009, Shrubsall funneled much of that vast store of knowledge into a concert at Albuquerque's Covenant Church called The Really Big Banjo Show. It sold out to a standing-room-only crowd. Many people got turned away.
A new incarnation, Dr. Wayne Shrubsall’s Really Bigger Banjo Show, happens this Friday night at the South Broadway Cultural Center. Shrubsall emphasizes that this is a different, expanded show. “Trust me,” he says with a smile. “This really is bigger.”
With a helping hand from some musical friends, Shrubsall will deliver a retrospective of the entire, convoluted, not-always-so-pretty history of the banjo, from raucous 19th-century minstrel picking to Gilded Age parlor tunes to Dixieland, ragtime, bluegrass and old-time. If you have the slightest interest in the banjo’s place in American music, you can’t to miss this show.
Over the years, Judy Muldawer has brought quite a few world-class Americana musicians to the Albuquerque area. She started out by hosting concerts in her own living room in the near Northeast Heights.
“Last November,” she says, “we had a house concert and Mayor Berry showed up and said, I really like what you’re doing. We need someone to do this kind of show at the South Broadway Cultural Center. Would you like a bigger venue?”
She jumped at the opportunity to upgrade from her living room to South Broadway’s spacious 400-seat theater. Guitar player Richard Smith, Western swing band The Saddle Cats, and banjo and guitar duo Adam Hurt and Beth Hartness have all played in the series. The Really Bigger Banjo Show is next in line, but it’s a very different animal.
UNM Professor Peter White plays fiddle in the old-time string band The Virginia Creepers and is also a highly regarded maker of hand-crafted violins. Shrubsall and White have known each other for decades. In the early ’80s, White served as the director of Shrubsall’s doctoral dissertation at UNM. At the time, Shrubsall had tentatively been thinking about directing his research toward Southern literature. He couldn’t believe his luck when White suggested he focus on the banjo.
“It was like winning the lottery without even buying a ticket,” he says. “It was perfect.”
The result is a well-organized, thoughtful, compulsively readable work that includes several flashes of Shrubsall’s famous dry-as-the-desert humor. In short, it doesn’t read much like a doctoral dissertation.
“It has all the academic necessities,” White says, “but it’s written in a style of pure, good old-fashioned, clear American prose.”
Renowned New Mexico mandolin player Claude Stephenson has played in numerous musical outfits with Shrubsall over the years, including The Big River Boys and Elliott’s Ramblers. He notes that musical old-timers often joke that famed banjoist Pete Wernick called himself "Doctor Banjo" years before and bluegrass superstar Ralph Stanley was given an honorary doctorate. "But Wayne was the original 'Doctor Banjo,' ” Stephenson says, "because he actually got his Ph.D writing about the banjo."
Among a younger generation of banjo players in New Mexico, Shrubsall has developed an almost iconic status. Eric Johnson plays banjo in the Albuquerque-based outfit The Rivet Gang. He’s excited about catching the South Broadway show because he missed the 2009 version.
“I’m a big fan,” Johnson says. “Every opportunity I get, when I can, I’ll go see him play. The knowledge base he has about the banjo and all these different styles is amazing, and his sense of humor—that always comes across when you see him play.”
A newer fan is Mike Ostroski, a professional actor who relocated to Albuquerque from Virginia. When he developed a yen for banjo, he signed up for lessons with a local teacher. But when that teacher found out Ostroski wanted to learn clawhammer style, he immediately directed him to Shrubsall.
“That was impressive,” Ostroski recalls. “I mean, he gave away a student, right?”
Shrubsall has that kind of reputation. He’s drawn countless New Mexico banjo players, at one time or another, to his little “classroom” trailer to learn some picking tricks and soak up a little history at the same time.
Supporting musicians at the South Broadway show include Doc Rock on trombone, Judy Muldawer on the banjo uke and Vickye Blatherwick on piano. Bruce Thomson and Jimmy Abraham will also be on hand. Thomson and Abraham play with Shrubsall in The Adobe Brothers, a bluegrassy, old-timey band that’s been putting on shows around New Mexico and beyond for more than three decades.
“The 2009 show was the biggest show they’d ever had at the Covenant Church,” Thomson says. “We had folks packed in, sitting on the floor. At some point, we got concerned about fire safety and started turning people away. This show on Friday is going to be similar but bigger. I think the main reason Wayne’s doing it is to have all his different banjos out on one stage at the same time. It’s going to be a great show.”
The Really Bigger Banjo Show will present a rare glimpse into the old, weird heart of American music. Expect to be enlightened as much as entertained.