I first heard Boy Named Banjo through a pair of shitty Apple headphones. I was in a noisy coffee shop, too, tepidly scanning a Spotify queue for new road tunes to play during my upcoming drive to Charleston, South Carolina. None of that really made a difference: it took around twelve seconds for me to fixate fully upon the assemblage of stringed instruments I was hearing in flux. Admittedly, I can be a sucker for a harmonica refrain – especially if it’s neatly soldered atop a mandolin or banjo riff. So naturally, the opening of “Blue Hole Bridge” was a near perfect match. I took to my due diligence quickly, researching the quintuplet roots rock/bluegrass/folk outfit from Music City, U.S.A.
That was in 2015. It’s safe to say that a lot has changed for Boy Named Banjo since then. What fatefully began as a nascent childhood friendship between William Reames (vocals, guitar, harmonica) and Willard Logan (vocals, mandolin, acoustic/electric guitar) would persist, eventually culminating in a trio complemented by banjo player and fellow Nashvillian Barton Davies (vocals, banjo). By the time the trio’s members had reached but 16 years of age, they were ready to perform. There was just one problem: they were too young to enter most venues they desired to play in. Davies recounts “[setting] up shop on the sidewalk outside of Robert’s Western World in downtown Nashville,” where the teenagers would play for hours on end. But the residual benefits that followed the band’s raw effort were proliferate: their first release, The Tanglewood Sessions, went on to garner over 3 million plays on Spotify. The friends ended up seizing a premier stage slot at Bonnaroo. Perhaps best of all, their tireless sidewalk shows actually earned them their name. Thanks to a stumbling passerby on Broadway who yelled at Davies to “play that thing, Banjo Boy!” ...well, Boy Named Banjo was born.
The band’s first record was The Tanglewood Sessions, released in 2012. Impressively, the band members were college freshmen at the time, cutting their teeth at boozy frat shows on campuses like Sewanee, which overlooks the Tennessee Valley. It’s almost too fitting to imagine: the caucus of youngsters – who drew their inspiration from country greats like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, late bluegrass champions like The Steeldrivers – all accumulating their panache for performance with the help of hundreds of gleefully intoxicated fans, all too eager to partake in the band’s proffer of southeastern stomp-holler harmonics. But you’d be a fool to discount Boy Named Banjo because of it. The Tanglewood Sessions is a sophisticated record. Perched on one side of the lever is the band’s payment of homage to influences; on the other sits a blossoming and unique identity rooted in the glamorization of the vagabond. Meanwhile, the band members’ vocal harmonies and raw musical talent constitute the fulcrum of The Tanglewood Sessions. First-time listeners should be forgiven for confusing Davies’s silky croon on “Sleepless Nights” with Scott Avett’s on any number of tracks from I and Love and You. The harmonica and picking patterns lend themselves even further to such a comparison. But the banjo boys also know their stuff – “Bound for Leavin’” features a cornerstone, tasteful integration of cannonic Skynyrd lyrics: “As I board the train, you’re on my mind / Ain’t nothin’ that the whiskey won’t kill as I pass the time. So, train roll on, on down the line / ‘Cause any place that ain’t called here is paradise.”
Boy Named Banjo buttresses its own budding identity against its habit of paying tribute to worthy predecessors. Sure, The Tanglewood Sessions is an emotional album at its core; its opening track “Now I Know” is little more than Thoreauvian transcendentalism hidden behind the sheen of contemporary folk music. And when Reames sings the words, “[t]he river carves the canyon deeper with time … everything is clearer as the river rolls by. Oh and now… I know,” they sound lifted from a forgotten passage of Walden. But, blessed with the gift of youth, the band peppers fans’ Instagram feeds with its own style of roadside imagery and sporadic pop-up performances around the country. This is Boy Named Banjo’s self-constructed identity, extrapolated beyond the band’s recordings. They are young, thoughtful travelers, known occasionally to indulge in their own brand of stomp-holler antics as a means of cathartic release. Long Story Short, the band’s sophomore album, showcases Boy Named Banjo’s growth: while they retain their Avett Brothers-esque vocal harmonies on tracks like “Strange,” the band feels more comfortable in their own skin, with much less to prove. Just take “The Drinking Song” for instance. Good. They deserve to have some fun.
Boy Named Banjo’s confidence emanates best during their live performances. “Good Feel” is a classic example: with some help from his bandmates, Reames is permitted to quell an obvious desire to wreak total havoc on the harmonica. However, despite his harmonic abandon, Reames is simultaneously cemented into the stage’s forefront, acting as traffic conductor for the group and directing the song’s vacillating pace with dexterity. Glimpses of the band’s ability to command a crowd such as this is foretelling, as they certainly use their youthful energy to the fullest possible advantage. It portends well for a long career – especially when you consider how much time they have left to grow. Following their performances at the Georgia Theatre’s rooftop venue in Athens, Georgia, as well as in Washington, D.C. at the lovable Gypsy Sally’s, I connected with the band’s longtime missing piece and most recent addition, Ford Garrard (vocals, bass), who has been playing with Boy Named Banjo for about a year now. Garrard shed light on what goes on behind the strings, and the interview went the same as their shows do: enjoyable, and fun to be a part of. But, like their live shows, it zipped right on by. The band has since cut across North and South Carolina up through the heartland of the United States, landing in Wisconsin for their latest show. After all, “[t]he road is where [they] spend [their] time.
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RT: "Your band has been playing shows since college. Can you tell me more about the early days, and when you came on?"
FG: “I’ve actually only been in the band for about a year and a half now. I was playing in other bands in college, but I knew all these guys from high school. Willard [Logan] and I went to kindergarten together, and we all had the same guitar teacher. When [the band] parted ways with their original bass player, I hopped in. That’s kinda when things started getting more serious, touring-wise I think. It’s been good. It’s been the best thing that ever happened to me, for sure.”
RT: “Looking back on your first days of learning how to play guitar together, fast forward to now. You’re touring all over the country – you even played Bonnaroo. What’s changed the most, and what’s stayed the same?”
FG: “I guess [what] changed the most for me personally is… you know, as a bass player, you grow up listening to really good, really flashy bass players. But it’s kind of more important to learn how to serve the song and learn what’s gonna make the band better, rather than what can make me better, if that makes sense. Like trying to figure out my piece in the puzzle as opposed to playing what’s technically complex. My background was mostly in Jazz and Classical on upright bass, so it’s been a totally different learning curve, learning how to play pop songs the best way possible, and play them tastefully.”
RT: “You guys are packing venues full. That’s gotta be exciting. Is there a particular performance that stands out from the rest?”
FG: “Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia was a really, really special show for us. That was probably one of the biggest venues we’ve headlined on our own, which was just kind of surreal. Because that’s a bigger room that I’m used to playing, and it’s just a fun, memorable one. Gypsy Sally’s is always fun – we always have a good crowd in D.C. But I think maybe our best one for 2017 was our last show of 2017. We played in Chattanooga and were just expecting kind of a smaller show because it was right around Christmas time and it was a really good crowd. It’s not necessarily the size of the crowd, or the venue. Rather, [it’s] the energy [the crowd] bring[s].”
RT: “More about your following. A lot of people our age come out to see you in droves. Is there an equal amount of old heads at your shows? Your appeal seems wide.”
FG: “Yeah, you know, we’ve got a lot of fans that have been with us since before I was in the band – from the beginning. Then we have lots of supportive older fans as well, like parents, friends. I don’t know. We have a pretty wide age range in the audience I feel like. Some shows we’ll show up and it’ll be all college students and some shows it’ll be a lot of gray hairs in the crowd. But they’re all good; they’re all fans.”
RT: “Are you guys currently working on anything new? Should we be on the lookout for something coming up from Boy Named Banjo?”
FG : “Yeah, I think we’re gonna try to put some new stuff out this fall. We’re in the process of doing that right now. We’re meeting with producers and stuff, and I think we’re gonna have a pretty… not drastic style change, for this next record, but it’s definitely gonna catch people off guard a little bit. But we’re all excited about it. I think we’re a lot happier with where we are creatively now than we were a year ago.”
Photo Courtesy of Boy Named Banjo Facebook
RT: “You guys have a pretty Nashville-oriented identity, but you’ve also toured far and wide. Is there any other part of the country that you’ve fallen in love with on tour?”
FG: “Yes. Wisconsin is probably my favorite state to go to.”
RT: “Why is that?”
FG: “I had never really spent any time in the Midwest, ever. So we just played a festival up there [about a year ago] with no expectations, and that part of the country is absolutely gorgeous, everyone’s super friendly, the food’s good, beer’s cheap. I think we’re heading back up that way in July, and that’s like the most excited I’ve been about a run in forever. So I love the Midwest – I’d love for us to et through the Southwest and in the Rockies and the West Coast. Hopefully in due time.”
Photo by Richard Tulis
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