Have you always wanted to try clawhammer banjo? In September, we have an exciting opportunity for beginners to study for a week with Riley Baugus. Riley usually teaches more advanced and intermediate classes, so don’t miss this chance to start your banjo journey off with one of the most sought-after teachers in the world! He will return to teach Beginning Southern Clawhammer Banjo, September 8–14, 2019. In the meantime, enjoy our interview!
CP: How was your class earlier this year at the Folk School?
RB: My class in January was outstanding!!! It was at the intermediate/advanced level, and all the students did really, really well and seemed to enjoy themselves. Many of the folks had taken my classes before. I often have students who have taken my classes at other music or banjo camps come to take the class again. It’s different every time and there is always new information. It’s a bit like continuing a subject with the same instructor.
CP: What keeps you coming back to teach at the Folk School?
RB: I love teaching at the Folk School, one, because of the fact that the school is such a wonderful resource and educational venue and long time institution in NC. There are few places where you can go and learn folk arts in an intensive, yet super fun way, from such masters of their arts. Two, I love the campus. It is a gorgeous facility in western NC surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, with great studios in which to study many different folk arts. Three, there are the people involved with the school from the students, to the hosts, to the administrators. They’re all very nice people. It seems that when people come together in a non-intimidating, non-competitive learning environment, everyone is happy and ready to teach and learn. It’s good people that make the difference.
Banjo students take advantage of the beautiful Music Studio porch overlooking the Herb Garden.
CP: How did you get into playing old time music?
RB: I’ve been playing music since I was 10 years old. There was always old time and bluegrass music happening in our area, and my family loved listening to records. My grandparents had a stack of 78s that were all old time music, and my dad was always adding to our record collection at home. I always listened and just wanted to do it. I started taking violin at school, which opened the doors in my mind to how music worked. That same year I ordered a guitar from Sears Roebuck, and then my dad and I made a banjo from some scrap wood we had around the house. It was very exciting to finally be able to try to make the sounds I’d heard all my life.
CP: What were the defining sounds of your young adulthood and teen years?
RB: I spent a lot of time listening to Tommy Jarrell, on recordings and in person. I loved Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers with Riley Puckett, also lots of newer old time music too. There were some great musicians making up great tunes back in the early 80s, like The Horseflies. I was very fortunate to play in a group called The Redhots with Joe Thrift, who is a master at making new old time tunes that are really good. These were the kinds of things blaring out the window of my Pinto when I was in high school.
CP: Who has influenced you the most as a musician?
RB: As I say, Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Doc Watson, Dix Freeman, Wade Ward, Ralph Stanley and Dock Boggs, just to name a few. Everyone you ever listen to is an influence, but these were just a few of mine.
CP: Roundpeak, Galax, and Mt. Airy are all places that geographically close together and are also very renowned as epicenters for old time music. Even when I lived out in CA, and had never been anywhere in this region, I had heard of these places as birthplaces of styles of playing banjo and fiddle. Are these styles the same style, or are they unique? Why do you think these places became famous for old time music?
RB: Well, Round Peak and Mount Airy are pretty much the same thing in terms of style. Mount Airy is the closest municipality near the rural community of Round Peak, in Surry County, NC. Galax is in Grayson County VA. The style of old time music is similar there to the music of Round Peak, as they are only about 10 miles apart, but the communities evolved differently in terms of music.
Dancing was a big part of both areas, so square dancing was one of the main reasons for the music in the mid-1800s to the present. Agriculture and the railroad played a big part in why these places were epicenters for music. The Blue Ridge had lots of musicians and lots of work to be done. Workers like to be entertained, especially if they are the musicians themselves. The railroad was a means of moving goods and people in and out of the Blue Ridge, and music was a welcome break from the day to day grind of hard agricultural work.
The Scots-Irish settlers in the region passed the musical traditions from generation to generation and were welcoming to young musicians who wanted to come to the area and learn the music. Rather than being xenophobic and discouraging, they wanted to share their knowledge and culture.
Take a little peek at Galax, Round Peak, and Mt. Airy (zooming out for perspective, recommended)
CP: Do you think there is resurgence in old time music right now? Or is it easy to think that there is, as a person getting excited about it for the first time? Do do you think it’s just something that is always there? How does it ebb and flow in American culture and beyond?
RB: I think it does ebb and flow. Sometimes it seems that it might die out, but then suddenly lots of folks will get interested and start playing again. The music is still alive in the rural communities in the mountains, and it’s popularity currently seems to be growing at the moment. Sometimes it seems that the popularity is tied to pop culture. What I mean is, when films like Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance, O Brother Where Art Thou, Song Catcher and Cold Mountain came out, the popularity of the banjo and fiddle soared. Then it will ebb a bit and another film will come out including some kind of great American folk music and it will all take off again. I see this as a good thing for Appalachian music and culture. It allows people to see some of the really wonderful things about the culture, other than the extremely desperate situations often portrayed in the media. Not that poverty isn’t a thing in Appalachia, but there is much more to our people and culture than what gets told in mass media sometimes.
CP: Do you like to play for dancers? What’s your favorite dance tune?
RB: Dancing is a huge part of this music. I worked and traveled with Ira Bernstein for over a decade and had the great opportunity to play for Ira’s dance classes and for his dancing during performances. I grew up playing for square and contra dances. I feel it makes you a better musician to play for dances. You have to have drive and consistency and awareness of what’s happening when you play for a dance. Also, you get to play tunes for longer than you might otherwise play them.
As for my favorite tune to play for dancing, I’d say it would probably be “Susannah Gal.”
CP: Which is the silliest song you know? Which is the saddest one?
RB: “Sing Song Kitty” is a pretty silly song, with a chorus that goes “he mo hi mo, beetle bug jingo, me he my ho, pretty penny winkle, ring ting a rattlesnake rang tang a rattle booger, sing song kitty kitchen ki mi oh.”
One of the saddest songs I know is Undone in Sorrow. Boy and girl fall in love, the boy moves away, then later returns to marry the girl only to discover that she had died in his absence. He is set to wander in sorrow for the rest of his days because of the loss of his love and the fact that he didn’t take the opportunity to be with her when he had the chance.
Riley plays “Undone in Sorrow” by Ola Belle Reed
CP: What is your advice to beginning musicians?
RB: Its a lot of work, but it’s easier than you think. It’s not a race. You don’t have to learn everything at once and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Just have fun and play. The rest will follow. The short cuts you get from sitting with an accomplished player are priceless. Getting to see up close what’s happening makes everything much easier.
CP: What has been your dream gig or favorite memory of playing old time music?
RB: One of my favorite gigs was playing on the David Letterman show with Willie Nelson. That sentence is one I never dreamed I’d have the chance to utter.
One of my favorite memories is sitting at Levon Helms house, playing tunes with Levon, his daughter Amy Helm, and the Reel Time Travelers. Levon loved the Carter Family, and any tune with a bluesy feel.
CP: Where’s been the best audience, and where’s been the toughest audience?
RB: I’d say some of my best audiences have been in the Blue Ridge and in Ireland. There seems to be a shared joy for this music in both those places. Some of the toughest audiences have been in England. They are quite socially reserved, so you sit there and play and sing and you might think they aren’t liking what your doing, but when the show is over, they come up to you gushing about how marvelous the show was and what a great time they had.
Riley delights Folk School audiences like this one through music, song, storytelling, and jokes.
A clip of Riley playing “The Cuckoo” in the Keith House Community Room.
CP: What advice do you have for someone buying their first banjo?
RB: Buy a pretty good banjo. Inexpensive banjos can be fine, but you really do get what you pay for. There are some nice inexpensive banjos being sold at the moment that are just fine to start on, but if you think playing is something you really want to do, then go ahead and spend a little extra for a better banjo. It will make learning easier if your banjo sounds and feels better.
CP: Do you have a fancy name for your banjo making business?
RB: As fancy as it gets, Riley Baugus Banjos. We’re even in the process of launching a new website for Riley Baugus and Riley Baugus Banjos.
CP: What happened to the banjos you built for the movie Cold Mountain?
RB: At least one of them went to the actor Ethan Suplee, who played Pangle. The other two were sold at auction. They were sold as props, but they were real, functioning fretless banjos.
CP: You seem to be very talented at connecting with people from all walks of life. Do you think music and storytelling is key for bringing people together? What’s your secret?
RB: There is no secret really. Just trying to be nice, understanding that everything that happens to people could just as easily happen to you, and being interested in things and paying attention. Music and stories just give me a vehicle to get people interested, they do the rest.
CP: What’s next for you?
RB: I’m about to start recording a new CD. My first solo CD in 20 years. I continue to look forward to touring and teaching, with two of my highlights this year being, coming back to the Folk School, and touring in England and Ireland in the Fall. I still have many things on the books this year as well as a growing list of banjos to build. Looking forward to putting more and more special banjos into the hands of excited banjo players all over the world. Hoping for more recording projects to come as well as having the chance to meet and play for scores of new folks.
CP: Any closing words or shameless plugs?
RB: I can’t wait to be back at the Folk School in September. It’ll be one of the most fun classes I get to teach ever. Teaching beginning banjo is one of the most satisfying teaching situations. To see the progress from Sunday night to Friday at the showcase is remarkable! I hope I can keep teaching there for years to come.
September 8–14, 2019
Get a hands-on, solid start on your banjo with a North Carolina native and master of the craft. Learn up close and by ear – approaching rhythm, clear tone, and a set of great traditional melodies, note by note. The class is enhanced by an explanation of tunes, listening sessions, and traditional techniques with cultural context. No experience needed – just bring a 5-string banjo in playable condition. Register today!
Riley first discovered traditional music through his family and an early exposure to church and ballad singing. Riley was the a cappella singing voice of Pangle in the film “Cold Mountain,” followed by participation in the “Great High Mountain” tour. He has performed or recorded with the likes of Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell, Alison Krauss, and Willie Nelson, and he teaches workshops both nationally and abroad.