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Bob Shank’s latest an exceptional CD

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Rich in textures and steeped in the traditions of West Virginia music (yet venturing far afield), multi-instrumentalist Bob Shank is another of West Virginia’s fine musicians to utilize new tools to present music with an age-old tradition. Shank, a longtime veteran never afraid to mix and match styles, plays a variety of instruments, from his mainstay banjo to hammered dulcimer, guitar, cello banjo, piano and percussion.

The record is delicately understated, with the soft, muted tones of his banjo drawing you deep into worlds that, in many ways, no longer exist. As the sprawl of subdivisions and shopping centers surreptitiously inch toward West Virginians’ back porches, Shanks’ music is a welcome respite and a chance to sniff the flavor of a West Virginia that is being swallowed by the outside. A bit heavy perhaps, but true.

Mostly instrumental, the songs range from the old-timey “Roller Snake” to my favorite, “Tunisian Radio,” which is rich with Middle Eastern scales and flavors. His sing-along, “Song With an Eye in the Middle,” is both intricate and sly, while Mike Furbee’s “The Glue Won’t Dry” showcases Shank’s fleet banjo frailing. Shank takes a turn on a pair of fiddler Jenny Allinder tunes, “Shank’s Favorite” and “Three Wheel Hannah,” doubling the melody on hammered dulcimer on the latter with exceptional results.

He saves the title track for almost last. It’s a gorgeous piece (named after an 800-year-old poem by Persian poet Hafiz) with the harmonics of the hammered dulcimer mixing and ringing.

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Bob Shank On Mountain Stage

November 22, 2012 Shank made a surprise appearance on Mountain Stage when another artist called in sick. The renowned songwriter, banjo and hammered dulcimer player performs cuts from his latest record, Don’t Worry About the Moon. Listen to his performance 

Banjo Newsletter — Profile: Bob Shank

By Donald Nitchie

Two of my favorite banjo tunes from 2012 were Bob Shank’s CRSand Three-Wheel Hannah, from his excellent recent solo CD, “Don’t Worry About the Moon.” Bob is a multi-instrumentalist; you might recognize his name from Hickory Wind, the cross-over stringband from the late 1970s. The band’s sound was somewhere between traditional Appalachian folk music and English Celtic rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The band went on to record three LPs and tour the US and abroad for six years, touring with performers such as John Hartford, John Prine, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and openinga for Steely Dan and Jackson Brown.

Bob played both clawhammer and 3-finger style with picks in the band, along with hammer dulcimer and guitar. After a sabbatical from music, he won the Vandalia Gathering’s old-time banjo contest in 2007. He recently appeared on Mountain Stage.

“Don’t Worry About the Moon” is a collection of banjo instrumentals performed solo or with accompanimen by Bob’s one-man-band, the Big Otter Orchestra. The hammered dulcimer figures prominently on the title cut, Three-Wheel Hannah and The Aerie Edge, a tune played in sawmill tuning. Influences range from the classic “parlor” banjo of Joe Morley’s Dream Dance to the north African modalities of Shank’s Tunisian Radio. There’s an appealing mix of styles, including old-time, ragtime, classic, Celtic, and more. I asked Bob to fill in some of the details in his biography, and here’s what he sent me:

“I’m a West Virginian; my great-whatever grandfather Shank is listed in the Hampshire County Virginia census in 1810. Farmers, millers, innkeepers, stagecoach operators, car guys, engineers, photographers, machinists. Five generations in one cemetery in Burlington, WV. Wonderful place to be a boy.

The family music was piano, pump organ, church choir singing, drum sticks and a ukelele. Don Reno and Red Smiley were live on Saturday nights from WSVA TV in Harrisonburg, VA, their one channel. I liked it. Dusty Shaver and His Rhythm Razors played before the show at the Burlington Drive Inn where you could sit in the bleaches for a quarter.

My mother’s family is from Sutton in the middle of WV on the Elk River. We crossed the eastern divide every holiday. Her mom’s German family played horns—Great Uncle Jake kept a tuba in his Richwood hardware store. Great Grandmother Juergens kept a harmonica and jews harp in the kitchen drawer. The Randolphs still gather at Camp Joy, near where Great Grandfather Randolph taught in the one room school at Otter Slide, the name of my label.

At 5, I wanted a drum, the compromise was to take piano lessons and get drum later. Was playing a little boogie boogie by third grade. I quit piano lessons at age 13 or so. The fun teacher died and the new one was a bit mean spirited.

A banjo and guitar appeared under the Christmas tree. Learned the theme from Bonanza on the drive to grandma’s house that day.

My brother and I had a duo that played at Ruritan socials and county fairs. We were folky. We made our spending money in high school playing shows and banquets in Cumberland, MD and teaching at a local studio.

I remember my mom asking if I was sure I didn’t want to study music. No, mom, I want to be an engineer. I could not keep away from the music. After my father’s unexpected death when I was 20, I decided to leave school and focus on banjo and guitar. I had a bluegrass banjo and a Guild 12-string. I briefly owned a Fender pedal steel and played weekends in roadhouses.

After many jam sessions I formed Hickory Wind with Sam Morgan, Mark Walbridge, Pete Tenney, and Glen McCarthy. After a successful summer gig at a WV resort, we moved to Washington, DC when we got a weekly gig at the Red Fox Inn, home of the Seldom Scene and, at that time, Emmylou Harris. I met many of my musical heros—Earl Scruggs, Doc and Merl Watson, John Hartford, John McEuen and the Dirt Band, New Grass Revival, Vassar Clements. I say now that this was a terrific way to waste my youth.

After Hickory Wind I was Artist-in Residence in rural Pennsylvania and served on the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts education advisory board. During this period I attended a meeting of The American Banjo Fraternity and came home with lots of music, mostly rags in standard notation. I loved this stuff and spent many hours deciphering those dots. I performed solo during these years.

For several years I taught hammered dulcimer at the Augusta Heritage Arts workshops, WV and performed regionally as solo act. I was a guest on an early Mountain Stage show.

I eventually returned to WVU to study computer science. It was time to settle down and raise a family. Jobs at the Center for Art and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and, later, research at WVU and a stint at a software startup provided the means. My son provided the incentive. There was always some music project. The Percolators in Pittsburgh; Curmudgeon, Stewed Mulligan, and The Woodticks in Morgantown. While a road warrior for our software business, I studied audio engineering and began putting together my project studio.

A few years ago I left the tech/business world, moved to a rural farmhouse, took a vow of poverty, and returned to playing music full time. I like it.

BNL: How did you learn to play?

BS: At first, I only heard clawhammer (really just simple frailing) on recordings and the description in Pete Seeger’s book. All the banjo players in the neighborhood played bluegrass. It was all the rage. I learned anywhere I could. Earl Scruggs and Roger Sprung were strong influences on recordings along with Bill Keith playing in Jim Kweskin’s band. I tried to frail from the description in Seeger’s book but did not really get it until at 18 or 19 I attended some old-time festivals in Southern WV and was able to watch and listen to people like Jenes Cottrell and Doc White.

My dad took me to his friend Jerry Staggs’ house for my only lesson. Learned to play Home Sweet Home in drop C tuning. Only lesson i ever had. I think I really learned to play because my dad loved it and my mom would not enforce bed time while I was playing.

When I was a kid, Roger Sprung would come to Mineral County, WV to visit the Staggs family and my dad would take me to the jam sessions in Sloan’s barn. I recently found my parents check register from 1964. The biggest check they wrote all year was to Roger for a Vega long neck for me. Later I traded that for a full on bluegrass banjo, a Baldwin I think, also from Roger. I had all his records, including the one with a guy named Doc Watson that blew me away. Bluegrass was all the rage. I finally found someone to show me the basic frailing lick.

The rest I learned from books or made it up myself. Early sources were Pete Seeger’s book, and the classic Earl Scruggs book. A bit later I learned the intricacies of drop-thumb clawhammer from John Burke’s “Book of Old Time Fiddle Tunes.” I’ve always liked many different kinds of music and my playing reflects that. Bluegrass, old-time, early country, classical, rags, big band, rock and roll. Good music is music I like to listen to and play. That has been my consistent criteria.

At one point during my undergrad years I transcribed a Bach two-part invention for 12-string guitar and banjo. I was tickled to find the same piece on Bela Fleck’s Sony Classical recording many years later. For a semester I took off the 5th string and strummed chords with a flat pick in a big dixieland band—California Here I Come, If You Knew Susie, beer, peanuts, a tuba.

In 1973 I met both Woody Simons and Andy Boreman, two great West Virginia banjo men. Both of these guys played some 3-finger pieces that was older than bluegrass. It was my first taste of the Classic style and its influence on pre-bluegrass playing. A later that year I met and listened to Ben Eldridge who also had an influence.

For many years I alternated between 3-finger and clawhammer—put on the picks, take off the picks, put them on, take ‘em off. I finally put the picks away and began playing everything with bare fingers. Of course, if not careful, my nails would wear down and the bluegrass style would be even more difficult. I discovered acrylic nail reinforcement when I had a short visit with guitar phenom, Kaki King. Now I can play banjo or guitar for hours every day with impunity. I really like being able to move from clawhammer to finger style at will, and with some years of effort, can play bluegrass without picks. The Glue Won’t Dry is an example on the CD, once through 3-finger, twice clawhammer, once more 3-finger. I’ve developed the same skill on guitar—clawhammer and finger-style, back and forth.

BNL: Tell me about your instruments.

BS: I traded my bluegrass banjo to Andy Boreman for a circa 1924 Weymann Megaphonic pot with 5-string neck attached by Andy. I’ve played this banjo ever since and have worn out several sets of frets.My other banjo is delightfully different, a Nechville Phantom I bought on ebay a few years ago. I love the slim neck and pure tone and accurate intonation all the way up the neck, all 24 frets of it. I prefer it without the resonator and am about to send it up to Tom’s shop to get a rim that is designed to be open-back. I can’t wait!

The cello banjo is the most recent. I was not thrilled by the necks on the Gold Tone 5-string cellos but I loved the sound. I was lucky to find a neck made by Wyatt Fawley that felt much better in my hand and had it attached to one of the Gold Tone 14” pots. This thing will growl.

Other things I played on my CD: keyboard, small North African ceramic hand drums, sampled percussion triggered with a vintage Drum Kat, tambourine, finger cymbals, a large box, and chopsticks.

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