In spite of his reputation as a maverick in the early days of his professional performing career, like so many others in other musical genres, banjo player Tony Trischka is now recognized as one of bluegrass music’s most talented players. Trischka forged his reputation in the 1970s and ’80s by playing bluegrass-styled versions of rock ‘n’ roll tunes by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac, in addition to more traditional bluegrass tunes. When he came on the scene in the early 1970s after graduating from Syracuse University, he created quite a stir in the bluegrass world. Today he headlines folk and bluegrass festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Trischka, based in Fairlawn, and a small band of his own handpicked, seasoned musicians bring their Christmas show to the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton on Saturday, December 13.
"We do this show every year," Trischka says, "but the album, `Glory Shone Around: A Christmas Collection,’ was released in 1995," he says, speaking by phone from his home in Fairlawn.
"Because we’ve done the show every year in totally different formats, it changes from year to year," he says. "This year we’ll lean in an acoustic bluegrass, old-timey music styled-show, because we’ll have Bruce Molsky with us, who’s arguably the best old-timey fiddler in the country."
Aside from Trischka on a variety of banjos and Molsky on a variety of fiddles, the musicians for December 13’s show also include Larry Cohen on bass and piano, Danny Weiss on vocals and guitar, and Mary Olive Smith on vocals.
"It’s a little bit of the really old stuff that bluegrass grew out of, it’s a little bit of swing, and there’s music from the turn of the century in there as well," Trischka says of the Glory Shone Around presentation, "and we’ll do some Chanukkah related tunes as well."
Trischka was raised in Syracuse, New York, but has been based in Fairlawn since 1989. In the 1980s Trischka’s band Skyline took away the steeped-in-tradition reputation of a lot of bluegrass music by making the music accessible to fans of rock ‘n’ roll. His father was a physicist at Syracuse University and his mother was a "very very creative housewife, always making jewelry and creating things," he says. Trischka graduated from Syracuse University in 1970. He began playing banjo as a 14-year-old, inspired by music he heard by the Kingston Trio.
"I went to school and went to college and I never really had to ask myself, `Well, what am I going to do when I grow up?’ I just kept playing the banjo after I graduated," he says.
"It was never like this conscious decision to do it, I just did it, forever really," he says, noting his first album came out in 1973 for the Rounder Records label.
"Thankfully, my parents never told me to get a real job, and later on, after I graduated, I just went from playing gigs on the weekends to playing gigs during the week, too," he says. Trischka recalls his father played piano and his mother sang and went to school with Toshi Seeger, folksinger Pete Seeger’s wife, so he was raised in a left-leaning family with a lot of folk music around.
Asked who it was that first inspired him, on radio, records, or locally, Trischka says that once he began playing banjo, he studied the music of Earl Scruggs.
"Earl Scruggs is the be-all and end-all of bluegrass banjo, and it begins when he joined Bill Monroe in 1945, that was the big bang, and everything else follows from there," Trischka argues.
"You can play like Ralph Stanley, but he came out of Scruggs, too," he says.
"I gradually developed my own style out of hearing Scruggs," Trischka explains, "but I was raised with rock’ n’ roll and listened to the Beatles and [Frank Zappa’s] Mothers of Invention and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix and all this other stuff. I really related to that music," he explains.
Even before he began recording under his own name for Rounder Records in 1973, Trischka explains, "I had this oddball approach to things, I started writing tunes that would have more chords than your average bluegrass song. I wasn’t afraid to have a tune start off with a saxophone or keyboards or a drum solo. I had these other sounds in my ears and I sort of carved out a little niche by breaking some of the boundaries that were set up there."
Not surprisingly, some of Trischka’s recordings were trashed in stodgy magazines like "Bluegrass Unlimited," but he pressed on with his vision for making the music more accessible to those raised on 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll music.
Asked about a first big break, Trischka says he owes a lot to Pete Wernick, a fellow banjo player who David Bromberg introduced him to.
"Pete was going to school at Cornell, we hooked up and played some double banjo on some of David’s tunes, and then I ended up joining Pete’s band," he recalls. Wernick’s band, Country Cooking, was among the first releases — along with George Thorogood’s recordings — for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Rounder Records, now a thriving international record company.
"Pete Wernick told the people at Rounder that I should be allowed to record my own album," Trischka recalls, and by the mid-1970s Trischka was recording under his own name, "and that’s really what helped kick start things."
Later Wernick was asked to do a follow-up banjo book with a music publisher, but was too busy to do so. He recommended Trischka, and a short time later, Trischka has his own banjo instructional book out on the market.
These days Wernick is based outside Boulder, Colorado, and still tours with his band Hot Rize. The book and the recording contract under his own name led Trischka to eventually form a band called Skyline, which mixed traditional bluegrass tunes with rock ‘n’ roll tunes performed with bluegrass instruments like acoustic bass, banjo, and mandolins.
"The fact that I was doing something a little dicey by bluegrass standards," helped him forge more of a reputation, he admits, "and I wasn’t looking to do that, but that’s just sort of the way it came out. And that’s really what Bill Monroe did, he kind of sounded like a swing band back in the ’40s," Trischka says. "I was just doing what came naturally to me at the time."
Through the years, Trischka has appeared on network television with John Denver, recorded with William Burroughs, and has performed with everyone from Odetta to Pete Seeger to jazz veteran Ornette Coleman to the Merv Griffin Orchestra, as well as newcomers like Robert Randolph and the Family Band and Bela Fleck. His albums are available on the Flying Fish and Rounder labels.
He formed Skyline in 1980 with Barry Mitterhoff, Weiss, and Cohen, and the group helped to re-energize a dying form of music. By the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s Skyline was on the bill at folk festivals around the U.S. and Canada.
Asked about career highlights from his 33-year performing career, Trischka says one would have to be a tour Skyline made of Czechoslovakia in 1988, when it was still a communist regime.
"I was popular there because there was a band there that was influenced by me, and I have a Czech background to begin with. But when we got over there, we were treated like rock stars," he recalls, adding the band signed autographs for hours after each performance.
Despite his longstanding reputation for being an innovator in the bluegrass world, Trischka now realizes that his work with Skyline, which was once considered outside the mainstream, has become mainstream in the world of bluegrass and folk music.
"I sat in with this woman opening up for Ralph Stanley at Town Hall a month ago," he says, "and the guitar player and fiddle player from his band came up to me and they knew who I was and they play with Ralph Stanley. So there are some people in the traditional field who aren’t scared off by someone taking chances," he explains.
"I made my reputation stretching the boundaries and being kind of wild, but I was always interested in Scruggs and the other early bluegrass people," he says. He adds that since he’s been giving banjo lessons since 1973, "I’m always dipping back into the bluegrass well, as well as playing and knowing how to teach Bach and Bartok and the Beatles."
Like any veteran musician, Trischka finds the key to presenting successful holiday shows each year is to keep the music fresh, to keep challenging himself and the others in his group, which also changes from year to year. For example, mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff won’t be with Trischka this year for Christmas shows, because he’s on tour with Jorma Kaukonen.
"Each year this show changes a little bit. It’s not in me to do the same tunes year after year after year," he explains.
"We keep adding new tunes, and since we have Bruce Molsky in the band this year, we’re going to play to his strengths. Some people are happy to do the same tunes year after year after year, but for me it gets a little tiring, so I’ve got to keep changing it around."
Glory Shone Around, Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089. Family concert with banjo player Tony Trischka and his old-time Americana band performing holiday tunes from "Glory Shone Around." Co-sponsored by Concerts at the Crossing, Princeton Folk Music Society, and Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio. Admission includes a visit to the sculpture park and museums. $15; $5 children. Saturday, December 13, 7:30 p.m.