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Mark Johnson and Emory Lester

ACOUSTIC CAMPAIGN • Mark Johnson & Emory Lester

BRIDGING THE GAP • Mark Johnson & Clawgrass

Here we'd like to introduce our readership (those who haven't yet had the pleasure) to one of the greatest banjo players in the world today, Mark Johnson. He is especially important because of the unique way that he is bridging two distinct approaches to the instrument, so a little explanation is in order.

This is just a basic layman's view of a deep subject, first of all. O Brother brought to light internationally not only bluegrass music, but old time music. Bluegrass banjo uses metal picks and instruments with big metal resonators around the round part, both things intended to make it louder for work with quartets. The most famous bluegrass banjo picker, and one of its creators, is Earl Scruggs. The style employs picking patterns or "rolls," frequently executed in a rapid, machine gun like manner in uptempo tunes, creating an exciting pulse. Old time banjo uses a style of banjo called frailing, clawhammer, or drop thumb playing. When a singer is accompanying him or herself on banjo, they are more likely to be frailing, which sounds more like a strum and melody-picking combination, where the thumb drags behind the strum providing a "bum-titty" kind of rhythm. Frailing and especially clawhammer is the style that Ralph Stanley is associated with, and the style employed by "string bands," as opposed to bluegrass bands. Old time music is the foundation for what became Blugrass, thanks largely to Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Some people associate old time music strictly with the 1920s and 30s, or strictly with the backwoods South, but it's just another style of music, that's all.

Although it's a generalization, it is pretty safe to say that most banjo players are usually either bluegrass or old time players. Mark Johnson is blurring the lines (or bridging the gap, as he says) between old time and bluegrass by playing old time tunes in a bluegrass way and bluegrass tunes in an old time way. He's also playing clawhammer banjo at a virtuosic level, as a lead instrument, and he calls the approach and style "clawgrass."

His tone is very pleasing and round, very precise but still soft and melodious. He's also playing with other notable virtuosos like Emory Lester and Tony Rice. All of Mark's records we've now heard are so good, we're going to include a little bit of the newest release plus an earlier one on our Listen page. You owe it to yourself to go check it out. And by all means, buy it here. • FG

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