Hunter Robertson is a wonderfully talented banjo player, his most recent release
"If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed" created with fiddler Casey Joe Abair.
Hunter was kind enough to answer some questions for us...
Sepiachord: Did you grow up hearing American roots music or is it something you discovered when you were older?
Hunter Robertson: I don't remember hearing much of it until I was 14 or so. My father was a banjo player but didn't play often until around that time. When I was 16 or 17 I started playing banjo myself and then buying folk, blues and old-time records. These days it's about all I listen to - my wife sometimes complains about all the "old farts" I put on, but most of the time she seems to enjoy it.
SC: Of all instruments, what led you to the banjo?
HR: My father. He played clawhammer banjo and did some fingerpicking too. He grew up in Scotland and one day he saw someone playing a 5-string banjo but with the 5th string removed, using it as a plectrum banjo. That empty 5th string caught his eye and he started going around people's houses asking if they might have an old banjo for sale. He finally found someone with one and learned to play it. He busked around Europe when he was young and then must have put it aside while I was growing up more or less, I only remember it vaguely from that time. But when I was 14 or so he started playing more and after playing guitar for a year or two I took it up as well. I still have his banjo, an old Gibson pot with a neck he made.
SC: How many different kinds of banjo do you play?
HR: Well, mainly 5-string but I have a 6 and a 7-string. Like 5-strings but with extra bass strings. I bought a guitar-banjo recently just for fun, banjo body but strung like a guitar. And I suppose you could count fretted and fretless banjos as slightly different beasts. And gut/nylon strings versus metal... I've lost track of how many I have but probably around 10, they all sound different.
SC: You were born in the United States but that was only your first of many homes. Where else have you lived?
HR: Yeah, itchy feet... France, Greece, Ireland, England and Scotland. With various returns to the US.
SC: Planning on moving anywhere new soon?
HR: No! We just did, been in Switzerland for a short while and mean to stay for now.
SC: Do you think experiencing so many cultures has sharpened your taste for roots and folk music?
HR: It's certainly exposed me to a lot more, in Greece for example it's alive and well - most villages have what's called a "panigiri" a yearly festival with food, wine, music and dancing. The music is usually massively amplified but they still play the traditional instruments, most of the time, and traditional tunes. Often they go 'till dawn. I like the traditional music from most places. It just feels more real compared to the schmaltzy pop that gets churned out in order to make a buck.
SC: I like the song notes you provide on your most recent CD, "If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed". Do you consider yourself an expert on americana music?
HR: No, I'm no expert there. My main focus is playing and of course knowledge of its history goes along with that, and I'm interested, but there are people out there who've dug much deeper into the history and paths the music's taken. Most of what I know I get from reading what they've written. That and what the musicians themselves had to said.
SC: The new CD features you working with fiddle player Casey Joe Abair. How did the two of you get together?
HR: Casey and I go way back. We met about 20 years ago when I was passing through Vermont, I'd only been playing banjo a few years then and I think he'd just taken up the fiddle. We've seen each other here and there over the years but then my wife and I moved back to Vermont a few years ago and Casey and I started playing together again, then playing gigs and so on. We make a good pair I think, similar musical temperaments.
SC: Was it hard to decide what songs the pair of you wanted to record?
HR: No, we mainly picked our favorites from our live sets. There were a few others that didn't make it onto the album for various reasons. We might eventually get to them, we got together this summer to play a festival in England, The Sweet Sunny South, and it was great to be able to play together again.
SC: Was it harder collaborating than it was recording solo, as you did on your first outing "Sings Songs for the Masses"?
HR: Not harder, but different. The "rules" are different when you're playing with someone else, you have to keep certain things in which you don't have to when you're on your own, like predictable time, repetition of parts and things like that. If you go too far out then you just throw the other person. It can be a lot of fun too, playing on the edge. Like a thriller, there are moments where you're on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next. Sometimes it crashes and burns but usually you make it out the other side. It certainly keeps things interesting! There are some nice places on the album like that, "Last Chance" for instance. The fun of playing with someone else is that there's an interchange of ideas and someone to play off. A review of the album made the point that "When the players know each other well, and have put in many hours together, fiddle and banjo duets can catch fire, producing an event that is more than the sum of the two instruments" and it's very true.
SC: What do you have planned next?
HR: I filmed an instructional DVD for clawhammer banjo this summer with an old friend behind the camera, a professional videographer. He's editing it now and it should be published in the near future. It teaches 10 fiddle tunes I've adapted to the banjo and aims to give the student the tools to then go out and take tunes and set them on the banjo themselves. There's a certain amount of translation, or transliteration, needed in taking a tune from a fiddler and then playing it on the banjo. I'm getting close to another album as well, this one will be solo again and all traditional stuff.
SC: Is there anything more important to you than music?
HR: Music is one of the most important things in my personal life, along with my wife and family, but more broadly I think it's important to help improve the world around yourself so I support things like upholding human rights and freedom of conscience and speech.
SC: Any words of advice for young people?
HR: Argh, does that make me old? I used to wish I'd started playing when I was younger. I think I've caught up with myself about now, but anyway, start playing! More generally, observe things for yourself and make up your own mind. And damn the torpedoes!