Go to Mike Munford - Part 2 >>
If you’re a banjo player and live in the mid Atlantic region of the US, odds are you’ve heard of Mike Munford. It seems like every jam you go to around the Baltimore area, when players talk about any aspect of their banjo, there’s usually some reference to Mike Munford included in the conversation…
“…yeah, Mike told me this was a nice banjo… So I picked it up”
“I learned that riff from Munford. He plays it like this…”
“It used to sound like a turnip, but Munford fixed it up and I can’t believe how it sounds now…”
“Have you seen Munford play that? OMG its unreal…”
Mike is certainly a local treasure here in the Baltimore area. People in these parts have long recognized him as an outstanding banjo player. From his early work with local bands like Windy Ridge to more nationally known acts like Peter Rowan, the Rice Brothers and Tony Trischka, Mike has made quite the name for himself with almost 35 years in the business. His latest act with Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen is looking to release an album this summer and has been getting some stellar reviews from people fortunate enough to check out their live show. (
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen Official Site
He’s also become an authority on banjo setup. From his experience at the Baltimore Bluegrass shop to working on banjos for some of the world’s most renowned banjo players, Mike has become recognized as a premier instrument technician. He wrote the final chapter on setup in Ross Nickerson’s “Banjo Encyclopedia” and he was recently featured in a series of video clips on Tony Trischka’s site describing elements of banjo setup. (
Tony Trischka School of Banjo - Mike Munford Setup Clip
We were fortunate that Mike agreed to do this interview. Bud Dickens and I spoke with him on a low quality conference call line that made it difficult for us to hear each other at times. But Mike oozes such enthusiasm about bluegrass, the banjo and growing up and playing in this area that even with the all the technical glitches, he was still giving us great stuff. So much so that I felt myself getting caught up in a couple of his stories and wishing I was a young banjo player in the 80s doing road trips with him to the Birchmere to see JD Crowe.
Hope you enjoy the interview.
Popular video clip of Mike and friends jamming and having a great time in Patrick McAvinue's basement (Patrick is the fiddle player in the back). Mike (back to camera) plays some stunning riffs with IBMA award winning instrumentalists Michael Cleveland (fiddle) and Jesse Brock (mandolin). Also included are John Mark Batchelor (banjo), Todd Rakestraw (guitar) and Barry Reed (bass)
TB - Let’s start with your background. You’ve obviously spent a lot of time in Baltimore. Were you originally from Baltimore?
MM - Actually I was born in St. Louis and raised in Baltimore.
TB - Okay, so you've spent the greater part of your life in this area.
MM - Yeah absolutely.
TB - Were your parents musical?
MM - Not in bluegrass... my folks loved music, classical music. My Dad has a fantastic classical record collection and has always loved that. My mother loves opera and classical. And when they were of dating age, when they were first going out they would go to hear Dixieland bands and things like that. I didn't really hear Bluegrass until I was 15.
TB - So where did you get into the banjo and bluegrass? How did that come about?
MM - It was really just kind of a random act, a random selection for me. I'd heard the Beverly Hillbillies and that kind of thing. And I remember seeing that show as a kid and liked the music, but I didn't really do anything about it. But it did catch my attention, especially the theme at the end of the show.
As a kid I would hear some Beatles tunes and various things on the radio but nothing really that I felt compelled to do. When I was a kid I wasn't as into the rock and roll stuff that other kids my age were into. I would hear little bits of music that were classical around the house, or my brother was into rock. I would hear things every now and then and think that's a nice piece, I like that. That's okay too.
But it was hearing Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which I learned was the thing that brought millions of people to the banjo, really. I think I actually may have heard it occasionally at Memorial Stadium of all things. I can't recollect exactly, but I used to go to ball games as a kid and I think maybe they would play a little of that sometimes between innings at an Orioles game. And maybe I would hear it and not even know what it was but I remember liking it. And at about the age of 15, a neighborhood kid up the street from me mentioned that he had gotten a banjo. And I thought wow, what's that all about? I didn't really know what to think about it. We went over to his house and he played a record of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. It was actually Earl Scruggs Live at Kansas State… the Earl Scruggs Revue.
And he put on this cut of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and I was like, yeah, what is that? I've heard that before. But I've heard it at the stadium, or maybe heard it on the radio or TV once in a while and didn't know what it was. He said, “That's Bluegrass music”, and I said,
“Bluegrass, what is this all about?” [laugh]
He said, “Yeah, you know, the guy that plays banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies?”
“Yeah, I've heard that. I love that”.
That's great, I've always loved that and didn't know what it was.
But anyway, he was learning the banjo himself. He'd been playing maybe about 4 or 5 months and he could play a little bit of Cripple Creek. And he played a tune for me and I said, aw man that is great, I’ve got to do that. And I went right home with that album, borrowed it, was listening to it, went out within that week and got my parents to take me over to a place called Music House. That was a place in the Hillendale shopping center and that’s where I got my first Harmony banjo. My friend had one just like it. He had a Harmony Sovereign banjo. And it was the first time I'd ever tried my hand at music at all. I didn't really have any music courses in school, it was the banjo and Foggy Mountain Breakdown that really nailed me right to the floor. I was thinking I've got to learn how to do that. That just killed me! That's all I could think about!
So he started giving me lessons and teaching me, in fact, out of the Pete Seeger book. I didn't' know anything about the Scruggs book. This was all new to me. This was a completely different world. I wasn't exposed to any of this at all. Names like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs, etc… I'd never heard of these people. I thought this is really intriguing… that song and that tune, I played it over and over… kept lifting the needle and put it right back on the beginning… the opening phrase of Foggy Mountain Breakdown with that pinch and the double hammer ons… I couldn't get enough of that.
So I had this banjo and I started taking lessons from this kid up the street, the banjo was so new to me. As far as I new about banjos it was all ragtime and dixieland. I didn't know anything about finger picking or bluegrass. This guy really introduced that to me.
He was learning out of the Pete Seeger book and in fact I think he had just gotten the Scruggs book. I can still remember my first lesson… no finger picks… just doing the sort of basic strumming, and I thought I guess this is gonna lead to Foggy Mountain somehow. Because later in that book I could see there was a version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown but he said, “but you're no where near ready for that. You need to do this stuff first” (laugh)
So I spent a few months learning Pete Seeger style banjo without any finger picks, just strumming, and learning how to do hammer ons, and how to play a C chord, and an F chord, and a G7 chord… just like the Seeger book says. I also learned how to read tablature. That was huge for me, just to be able to do that. It was my first experience, really, with any musical instrument and especially with a stringed instrument. I remember so much about that. It was really exciting. I couldn't get enough of it.
BD: Right, Mike I just noticed that you touched on 3 forms of learning that are kind of the way a lot of people go… learning from somebody, learning with tablature, or the old method of just placing the needle right back in the spot and going over and over it again. What do you think your primary learning form ended up being?
MM - I definitely think tablature was really helpful to me. My friend showed me how to read it and it made sense to me. I didn't have musical experience before so I didn't know anything about reading music. In fact I still don't read standard notation, but I certainly read tablature. And I found that to be a very useful tool in figuring out this music.
But I really think it's important to use your ear obviously and listen very carefully, very critically to really absorb the music. You’ll hear people talking about putting feeling into the music. That's something you can't get on a written page. That's something that comes across from listening to players that have that feel. Then once you've learned the ropes and learned how to play the music and have a certain amount of technique in your grasp, then you can start to bring a good feel to the music.
Learning how to bring a feel to it is very important and that comes from a lot of listening, a lot of critical listening and a lot of enjoyable listening along the way too.
TB - So when you were listening to music as you were playing all these years, did you primarily listen to bluegrass, or do you have other things you listen to that might not be so banjo centric?
MM - Right… oh sure… absolutely. I mean at that time, I'm absolutely focused on Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and slowly but surely I listened to other instrumentals and got hooked on that. Then I would start listening and something else would catch me. In fact the guitar was kind of second in line, it was like I'd start hearing things on the guitar and then the fiddle, the mandolin, and the bass, and eventually the singing, but along the way I was hearing other kinds of music.
When I got the banjo I started out learning just bluegrass tunes. But eventually I started learning other kinds of tunes like House of the Rising Sun or a Beatles tune. In fact Bill Emerson who played banjo with the Country Gentlemen recorded a version of House of the Rising Sun and did Yesterday, the Beatles tune, as well.
Another form of music that I can remember hearing as a kid was jazz piano. Oscar Peterson is actually one of my all time favorite musicians. Even though I don't play any piano and I'm not a jazz musician at all, I've always loved his music. He was just a monster jazz pianist. I remember hearing various phrases and riffs that he would do that were very exciting to me.
I also enjoyed classical, blues, classic rock, things that were on the radio all through the seventies… anything from Christmas Carols to whatever. I'm not really totally stuck on one genre. Sometimes I’ll hear a nice chord progression from another form of music and try to bring it to the banjo.
TB - Okay, so how do you go from working with the Pete Seeger book and learning from your buddy up the street with your harmony banjos to playing with Windy Ridge?
MM - Yeah here I was learning to play, basically at home. Didn't know anybody but this kid who played, and then he kind of lost interest. He was an artist and got into different things. So, suddenly I had no connection to this music at all.
Then a couple of things happened. I read an article in the Sun all about Bluegrass. I thought, boy this is great, here's a whole thing about Bluegrass and right at the end of the article it mentioned Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, Burke, Virginia. So I got right on the phone and called information… Burke Virginia… Bluegrass Unlimited. They answer the phone, and that's back when just a phone call to Virginia sounded like it was 1000 miles away… real fuzzy static, [laugh] I was like, man this is great, a Bluegrass magazine, sign me up.
So I got this magazine. I can remember the first issue I got was June 1974 and Seldom Scene were on the cover. I’d never heard of them, but here's this Bluegrass magazine with a banjo logo on the front of it. It drops through the mail slot and it felt like I was on a desert island and here comes a bottle with a map. It was huge. They had all sorts of articles just delving into this whole world that I knew nothing about.
And then it mentioned the Banjo Newsletter. Great! This is perfect! Sign me up for that too. I eventually placed an add in Bluegrass Unlimited looking for people to play with. I remember the add, it said “banjo picker in Baltimore looking for other banjo players or guitar players in the Baltimore area to play with strictly for fun”. And a couple people called and we'd get together and play on Sunday afternoon.
I went over to a guy's house over off of Harford Road and that’s where I met Steve Cunningham and they happen to mention they're going to open a bluegrass store in Baltimore.
I thought this is amazing. Here I am just 17, not even out of high school and I go to a guy's house to jam and just pick some banjos and here's somebody there talking about opening a bluegrass store. It was incredible. This was great. I remember they'd already designed the logo of the store. And it was still a good year away from when the store was gonna open.
It probably did open in November of '75. And I think I might have been the second customer in the store. (Laughs) I’m probably exaggerating but I think I did go the second day it opened. I think it opened on a Saturday or something, I probably went in there on a Monday. But I remember, again, that sense of feeling like I had found this place, this oasis, a music store, dedicated to this music I had just discovered. I was totally enraptured with this music, and here’s this store, filled with bluegrass records… it didn't have much inventory at the time, but had some guitars and banjos and mandolins on the wall. A real rustic kind of a setup and all decorated and here’s Banjo Newsletter, Bluegrass Unlimited, and the building's built with bluegrass.
So I just was hanging out there, going to Friday night jam sessions, not even playing yet. Just going to hang out and listen and watch. And then I eventually started working there right out of high school... later, the next year. Within the first year of the store being open, they only had a couple of employees there. It was Steve Cunningham, Jeep Watson and those two were basically running the place. And Jeep was involved in getting ready to go tour with another band or something, and Steve needed some help and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping out at the store?” I thought, sure, perfect, because I was just out of high school looking for something to do. I didn't know how long I'd be doing that, but in fact, I started teaching there. I had been playing about 2 years and they needed a banjo teacher, but teaching wasn't my main thing at the time. Steve could see that I was pretty absorbed with the music and dedicated to wanting to learn everything I could about it. So he hired me.
As it turns out Steve was playing in the band Windy Ridge at the time. That was a pretty popular Baltimore area band in ‘74 or ’75. Steve was an excellent banjo player and he was playing with the band and promoting the opening of the store. But once the store opened he got so busy with the store he couldn't really keep playing with the band as much. So he kind of worked me into playing a couple of things here and there. And that was really kind of my first professional band… local band to play with. And they had a lot a good work. They were playing the Cub Hill Inn every Thursday night and playing at Parkville American Legion on one or two Wednesday nights a month.
And things were pretty hot then. The Dukes of Bluegrass were at the Cub Hill Inn and a hand full of other bands were playing regularly at certain clubs. It was quite a happening scene. And that's how I ended up kind of starting with my first band. I guess about roughly 2 years, 2 and a half years after learning, getting a banjo, I started with Windy Ridge at the Cub Hill Inn.
TB - That's great. It seems like there were a lot of musicians that came out of the area, and probably more specifically the Baltimore Bluegrass store. Didn't Ned Lubrecki work there for a while?
MM – Yeah, I guess it was… I can't really pinpoint a year. The store started in 75. And I started working there in mid 76, and Ned, I think, probably came in there maybe around 80. I remember his mother bringing him in to go to the Friday night jam sessions and he was still in high school at the time. And I think he'd already gotten a banjo. He was already maybe taking lessons from somebody down in Severna Park at the time. But these other stores didn't have jam sessions. So she would bring him up to hang out at the store. We had that regular Friday night jam session. That jam was really huge, not in terms of just people, although it could be pretty packed in there, but I think it really had a pretty good impact on people who were looking for a place to play. At the time there weren't any other stores like that in our area. This is before Appalachian Bluegrass was on the scene. One thing, I think Victory Villa might have been going on at the time. There might have been one or two things going on in East Baltimore already.
In fact the slogan for the store was advertised on WPOC at that time, there was a Sunday night Bluegrass show, and the slogan was “Baltimore Bluegrass, Bluegrass has a home in the city.” [laugh], It was technically the first store within the city limits of Baltimore that had this regular Friday night jam session and that started right from day one. The store hours were noon to ten, and these jams would go on till midnight or one or two… They didn't go all night, but they would go into the wee hours like that, and it was just great,
I mean that's where everybody met anybody. It was the place to call. If you needed somebody to play in a band, or somebody needed a bluegrass band they'd look up in the phonebook, Baltimore Bluegrass, that's who you called. And it was the focal point to the music pretty much in the state of Maryland.
There were other stores around, but not in the immediate area. Campbells music up in York Pa, or Bucks County Music shop north of Philadelphia. Picker’s Supply was down in Fredericksburg at the time, but that was still a pretty good drive away. So in our area we were the deal. And I think it really provided an important service for the bluegrass community. A valuable meeting place on top of being a store and providing lessons and instruments and all of that.
TB - Okay so now we’ve seen the beginnings of Baltimore Bluegrass and you playing in Windy Ridge. How does that evolve into playing with the bigger national acts. You’ve done work with the Rice brothers and a grammy nominated record with Peter Rowan. Tell us about that
MM - Well it, it's interesting how things like that happen. Just like it happened to so many musicians in any genre or whatever, it sometimes is just a happenstance... just a shear coincidence. I was playing with a group out in Baltimore County. What's the name of that place? I think the Manor Tavern. They used to play at the little bluegrass thing there on Tuesday nights. In fact, that was a group that played some of the more progressive (at that time) forms of the music. We would be traditional bluegrass, but we would play some of the “Old and In the Way” material. That was really popular with the younger audiences in the mid to late seventies. And Peter Rowan was in the area… maybe driving through the area. And he met up with a friend and they came into that club on this Tuesday night. And he actually sat in with this group. And I think he might have even done Midnight Moonlight or something like that. And that is where I first met him. And the next time he came through the area which was maybe just a week or two later, he called me to play the Birchmere. He would just tour basically solo and just put together a band in various areas. If he was coming to New York he would have Tony Trischka and some New York area guys backing him up. When he was in DC he’d hire Akira Otsuka… great mandolin player out of the DC area and Al Pettaway… fantastic guitarist, Al played bass. Jimmy Arnold played fiddle on that gig as well.
That was a thrill. To be able to play with a guy like that, a legendary player and singer. He’d done the Old and in the Way thing. I loved that material. “Old and in the Way” and “The Walls of Time” album had just come out. And I remember being really into that stuff too.
That’s really how that happened. That's how I got that connection with Pete. We would go play the Birchmere and once in a while we would play the Winterhawk festival. But we wouldn't really tour on the road with him. We would just do things in the area when he was around here.
TB - But then again you ended up on some of his albums right?
MM - Yeah, Pete has always gone in and out of bluegrass music. At that time he was doing a lot of bluegrass, and then a few years later, he was doing some other stuff sort of outside of bluegrass. Then he got back into bluegrass in the the early nineties. And he had Richard Green, and Charles Sawtelle and Victor Krauss, Alison Krauss’s brother, great bass player, and he had that group for a while, and I played banjo with those guys for a summer. I think it was around 94 or 95. Yeah, we did like a little tour of Colorado and the Winterhawk festival and then one or two other things.
I got to play with that combination and I think later that year or early the next year he recorded Bluegrass Boy. He’d written a lot of these tunes almost kind of in the style of Monroe, I mean he was obviously influenced by Bill Monroe's style and naturally that had such a huge influence on Pete, and of course he played with Bill Monroe back in the mid 60's.
So Bluegrass Boy was really in that style. Very much the first record he had done in strictly the Bill Monroe style. But it was all Pete's material. It wasn't really just like a tribute album of just doing Monroe covers. It was really Pete's songwriting but there's a strong Monroe feel. That was really a thrill to be asked to even be on that album. As it turned out, it was nominated for a Grammy that year.
TB - That album was great. Some of the tracks on that were just outstanding; I loved the Wild Geese track. Your banjo just sounded perfect on that. What a great tune.
MM - I appreciate that. I really do. I loved that. We had some really strong cuts on that. There’s a tune I really love in there called Jealous Heart and Wild Geese and a couple others I can't remember at the moment. But there was some really strong material on it and Pete was singing great. Yeah, that was a fun one to do, of course Richard Green's fiddling was fantastic on there and yeah that was a real fun project to do.
Peter Rowan - Jealous Heart and a Worried Mind - from pandora.com
Go to Mike Munford - Part 2 >>