Young banjo players Jerron Paxton and Kaia Kater hail from places that are pretty far removed from the American South. But as they learned their instruments and connected with banjo mentors, they found old-time music well beyond its reputed home region.
Paxton and Kater both started out playing bluegrass music. “I was a little fat boy in Compton with a straw hat and overalls trying to be like Earl Scruggs,” Paxton recalls. The popularity of bluegrass made it easy to find, even in California. The same held true in Kater’s hometown, Toronto, Canada. But for each of them learning Scruggs-style picking was just a gateway drug. Soon, Paxton and Kater were asking themselves the same question that motivates many old-time music revivalists: what else does the banjo sound like?
To take up this question, Kater traveled from her native Canada to the heart of the North Carolina mountains. “I went to the Swannanoa Gathering, which is a fantastic, fantastic camp. And I was really influenced by people like Riley Baugus. Riley was big on the Round Peak style, and it was great to study that style with him.” But Appalachia wasn’t the only place that Kater found teachers who were dedicated to older banjo styles. “I also studied a lot with Canadian old-time players, because I had to go home sometime!” she jokes.
Paxton found that old-time music already surrounded him at home, in south-central Los Angeles. For one thing, it was on the airwaves of public television. As he watched Mike Seeger play and talk about southern banjo music, he asked his grandmother about her own memories. She told him, “My daddy played a banjo like that… My daddy’d wrap the banjo… he’d play it with the top of his hand, like that man’s doing there.” As Jerron tried out new techniques, he’d check back with his grandmother to see if he was getting it right. And, with great ardor, he finally found an instrument that suited the old way of playing. “I’m so happy I could get one that sounds like the good old time banjo,” he reflects.
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Watch a video from the Raleigh concert