Sunday, September 12, 2010


(Photo by Brian Meece)

As this blog is entitled "Puppets AND Banjos," I'm going to remedy the lack of banjo topics right now.

I started playing music after I got out of high school and began hanging out at a coffee shop called Southern Lights in Fairhope, AL. There were a lot of singer/songwriters who passed through town, usually on their way to Florida. I bought a guitar and started learning Bob Dylan songs and subsequently got into folk music. It wasn't long before I discovered Pete Seeger's recordings and was smitten with the sound of his banjo. I did some research into Pete and learned that his banjo differed from the common, standard banjo. Called a long-neck banjo, it has three additional frets, allowing the banjo to be tuned to a low E (standard banjos tune to G). Thus, my quest to find a long-neck began.

I was a college student at this time, attending Troy State University on a scholarship. The Internet was still new and shiny. Dozens of students crowded into small computer labs to send emails and surf the web. While surfing one day, I discovered the website of Elderly Instruments out of Lansing, Michigan. I was looking at their selection of banjos and saw my heart's desire: the long-neck banjo I had always wanted. Now, granted, it wasn't a Vega, the brand that patented the design of Pete's banjo and became the high-end dealer of quality long-neck banjos (with tubaphone tone rings). But it was a long-neck, nonetheless. Money was an option, though, and at $275.00, it seemed out of financial reach.

I'm a sentimental fool who saves price tags.

It's also worth noting that while I was searching for this banjo, I had an epiphany of sorts. I was about 19 at the time and had already had several experiences of trying to track down some rare something-or-other. It then occurred to me that life is a series of quests: the trying to find something, be it a physical object or an abstract ideal or concept. I began to get the sense that the adventure lay in the search itself, not in the actual obtaining of whatever was being sought after. But enough philosophy. Back to banjos.

With a little money help from the folks, I ordered the banjo. My parents brought it to me while I was on tour with Pied Pipers, Troy State's touring children's theatre company. I was thrilled and sat in my hotel room for hours setting up the bridge and trying to get the intonation just right. Thus, my relationship with this Andrews long-neck banjo began. It quickly became my main axe and most of my early songs were written on that banjo. I made three albums with it. This is where Mike West comes in the picture...well, actually, let's back up a minute.

Here we are, in 1998 on the banks of the Magnolia River in Alabama

Check out the fancy red finish around the rim of the pot!

During the time I was discovering all this folk music, I had become a regular fixture at Southern Lights Coffee House because of a 15 minute puppet routine the owner let me perform during the musicians' set breaks. One of the acts that made frequent appearances was Mike West from New Orleans and everyone made it a point to tell me how I needed to catch one of his shows. Finally, the stars aligned one weekend while I was home from Troy. My thoughts about the banjo and songwriting were changed overnight. At that point, I had never seen a live banjo player, I'd only heard recordings. Seeing Mike play was a revelation. That night, a friend dropped Mike's latest CD in my tip hat after my puppet act. "Redneck Riviera" became my banjo teacher and I listened to it incessantly.

And not only did Mike enjoy my puppet routine, but he invited me up to get the puppets to sing along with one of his songs. We became fast friends.

That's me and Mike at the Gulf Coast Coffee Merchants in 2003 with Slim and Zeke, better known as The Boomerangs. (Photo by Brian Meece)

Up to this point, I hadn't really given much thought to writing my own songs. I had no idea what I would write about. Mike showed me that you can write about anything and everything. He wrote a lot of songs about his neighbors and neighborhood in New Orleans' 9th Ward. So, I started writing songs about my own experiences with titles like "Soggy Nachos and Cold Coffee." Well, every journey begins with a first step, I suppose.

The next time Mike passed through town, he was kind enough to give me a banjo lesson. It was the only banjo lesson I ever took. He diagrammed out the different roll patterns for the right hand and drew a diagram of how to hold your right hand while playing. Granted, most of it was (and still is) gibberish to me. I still can't read tablature and most of what I picked up from Mike, I learned by ear from his shows and his albums. I played him a few of my tunes and he encouraged me to keep writing.

I started graduate school at the University of Connecticut in 1999, which provided the inspiration for a number of the songs on my first CD, "Played By the Rules." I think I made a simple demo tape of the songs and sent them to Mike. He invited me down to New Orleans to make an album.

By now, I'd been playing for awhile. And, like most banjo players, my ear began to wander. Thus, another quest began to find "the sound." If you spend any amount of time with a banjo player, you're bound to hear about the elusive "sound" that every banjo player is trying to find. Some attribute it to the pre-War metals used in Gibson Mastertones, made popular by Earl Scruggs. Some players lean towards warm, thuddy tones, others prefer bright, plinky sounds. It's tantamount to finding the ideal mate: we may not know where to find it, but we know it when we hear it. All this to say, the tone of the Andrews long-neck wasn't doin' it for me anymore.

As a sidenote, I should mention that the first clawhammer banjo instruction I got was from Gillian Welch on the Andrews long-neck. I still have the banjo head that she and David Rawlings signed after one of their shows at Zydeco in Birmingham, AL. (photo by Brook King)

In 2002, Mike West and I traveled to Winfield, KS together for the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival. In the bluegrass community, there's an understanding that Merlefest is where you go to listen and Winfield is where you go to pick. One afternoon, I was browsing the showroom of instrument makers and dealers located under the stadium bleachers. Near the exit, the Ome banjo company had set up their display. It was there I saw what would become my first exceedingly expensive instrument purchase: a second-hand, custom-made Ome long-neck banjo with tubaphone tone ring. Oh, how I agonized about whether or not to blow almost $2,000 on a banjo. Mike was no help. "I've been right were you are," he said, "but I can't tell you what to do." Well, of course I bought it. I'd found the sound!

Now I had two long-neck banjos. By this point, I was living back in Alabama. When Mike would come through town to play a gig, he'd stay at my house. Seeing the Andrews, he diagnosed some problems with it and asked if he could take it with him and try to fix it up. He learned that the the hole in the neck for the coordinator rod (which connects the neck to the pot) had been stripped, thus causing the neck action to be ridiculously high making playing the strings further up the neck nearly impossible. But, once fixed, Mike had a long-neck to add to his eclectic collection of studio instruments.

Then, in 2005, while Mike and his family were out on the road touring, hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans. The subsequent failure of the levee caused the flooding Mike's neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward. Mike lost thousands of dollars of recording equipment and instruments, my old Andrews banjo among them. Thanks to insurance, Mike set up shop again, though now in Lawrence, Kansas, where the family has traded hurricanes for tornadoes. He picked up right where he left off recording a plethora of singer/songwriters from around the globe.

Earlier this month, my friends Silbin Sandovar and Brian Meece were making a record together with Mike and invited me to come to Kansas to record some banjo tracks. I asked them what keys the songs were in. When they said "F" and "E," I told them I wished I had brought my long-neck banjo since those are easier keys to play in on that particular banjo. "Oh, Mike has a long-neck," Silbin said. "Well, he _used_ to," I said and explained the history of the Andrews banjo.

The next day, I went up to Mike's home studio. On a guitar stand in front of me was a ghost. Or, at least it must have been. It was my old Andrews long-neck banjo. Mike said it was one of the only instruments to have survived the flood. He went on that the neck was a little out of whack, but remembered it had always sort of been that way. After cleaning it up and re-stringing it, it came back to life. As you'll, see its worse for wear, but I never thought I'd see that banjo again, much less play it. But play it, I did. You'll be able to hear it for yourselves when Brian and Silbin release their CD later this year. Details to come later.

You can see the beating it took.

It's hard for me to believe that I've been a banjo player for 15 years. I had no idea that when I started down this musical road that I would record 6 albums of original songs and would have opened for The Kingston Trio or made an album with veteran Muppeet performer Jerry Nelson. This amazing instrument continues to teach me things and take me along for some wonderful adventures. I owe a lot of thanks to Mike West for his support and encouragement of my interest from the beginning. You can check out his music with his band, Truckstop Honeymoon on their website

Jedi Master and Jedi Knight. "Pick or pick not. There is no strum." (Photo by Brian Meece)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Monkey Madness!!

Greetings blog readers! For the last couple of months I've been on blog hiatus because I've actually been working. You'll hear more about my 2-month, 50-show tour of summer reading programs later. Now, let's talk about monkeys.

After the success of my first music video, "Trying to Lose a Raincloud," I got the itch to do another. Because it seems to be such a favorite, "Banana Pudding" (from my newest album, "A Year and Some Change") was chosen for the next project.

Atlanta film director and puppet fan, Sam Carter was on board to direct and we had a meeting to talk about ideas and possible puppet characters. Monkeys needed to be built. And a Banana Pudding Monster. So, I did some drawings.

Then, I called my eager puppet building assistant, Scottie Rowell to help with the build of four monkeys. Well, three monkeys and one orangutan. Here they are:

Pretty darn fine, I'd say! Scottie deserves a lot of credit for the work on these puppets. He was such a tremendous help.

A cluttered worktable is a happy worktable.

This is Scottie. He deserves a hand. Actually, two of them.

Orangutan bodies also make fashionable hats.

Open wide!

The small monkey got all Dali-ed up for the opening of the Dali exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum of Art. When asked what I do for a living, I said I was a 'Dali' -wiggler.
Banana Pudding Monster photos will be forthcoming!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rebuilding "Billy Goats Gruff and Other Stuff"

Ten years ago, I created a 40-minute touring show for library summer reading programs called "Billy Goats Gruff and Other Stuff." Originally, "Billy Goats Gruff" wasn't in the show and the show was called "Tales for the Telling." It featured a shadow puppet sequence based on a old folk song called "The Devil and the Farmer's Wife," which I created as a student at the University of Connecticut. "Little Red Riding Hood," was done as a glove puppet piece and I made those puppets in my spare time at UConn. The ideas that became the rest of the show came to me while visiting a friend in Vermont. These ideas included a sequence involving two chickens, a story called "The Two Fame rs" loosely based on "Stone Soup," and a retelling of "The Three Little Pigs."

While touring this show for the first time, I was slated for a three-day, five-show stint at a library in the Birmingham area. After the first show, a very concerned librarian came up to me and requested that we have a chat. Apparently, the "Devil and the Farmer's Wife," the very first selection in the show, was not going over well. "As soon as that devil puppet popped up on the screen, three families got up and left." So, I had to extract it from the show. And for that run, I had nothing to replace it with, shaving 10 minutes off the show's running time. Before going on to the next stop on my tour, I had enough time to create puppets for "Billy Goats Gruff," which is how that story came to be in the show. The title was changed to "Billy Goats Gruff and Other Stuff," when the Center for Puppetry Arts wished to host an 8-week run of the show. They felt that "Tales for the Telling" wasn't as sell-able.

In it's life so far, this show has taken me all across the country. It has been performed 4 times at the Center for Puppetry Arts (two of those by other puppeteers), hosted by the National Festival of the Puppeteers of America in 2005 (where I was utterly humbled by standing ovations from audiences of peers and mentors) and has received one of puppetry's highest honors: an UNIMA-USA Citation of Excellence. I have lost count on the number of times I have performed this show in schools, libraries, birthday parties and special events over the last 10 years.

This summer, "Billy Goats" will simultaneously be running at the Center for Puppetry Arts while I am touring it in library summer reading programs. Thus, a second set of puppets had to be created. Some of the puppets I was using were originals, though most had been rebuilt as they wore out. It was high time a new set of puppets was made anyway. I hired Scottie Rowell, a wonderfully talented puppet builder and costumer to help out. Over the next few months, we rebuilt the entire cast of 15 puppets.

Rebuilding can be a scary undertaking. Once you've become familiar with how a puppet feels or is controlled, it is very hard to recreate that. And after ten years, some of these puppets were well broken-in. There is also a risk that the character might alter because of subtle changes due simply to the fact that hand-made things are unique and impossible to duplicate exactly. Scottie can attest that there were some things I would not accept just because they veered too far away from the original look of the costumes/puppets.

In the end, all the puppets turned out beautifully and are holding up well on the tour. I'm into my fourth week of summer reading programs. It doesn't take long to remember all the little things that make up a tour: the driving (thank goodness for GPS!), fast food (Cracker Barrel is a must), setting up, tearing down and doing it all over again in the same day. Sometimes twice in the same day. So far, there has only been one major mishap. My CD player decided to die right before the start of a two-show day. Fortunately, I had my iPod on hand, but the particular selection of music I was using for the chicken piece was not programmed. So, within a matter of seconds, I had to choose a different instrumental and just pray that it worked. Instead of Benny Moten's "Kansas City Shuffle," I went with Steve Martin's "Pitkin County Turnaround." Nobody knew the difference.

Here are some pictures of the new puppets!

Farmers Frick and Frack
Parker Pig

The Troll (who's never actually been given a proper name)

The Magic Genie of the Watering Can

Two Chickens

Last, but certainly not least, my new stage!! Designed and constructed by Roy Howington, it is no less than a work of engineering genius. The set up and tear down are just as enthralling as the show itself. Well, I think so. So well made and so pleasing to the eye. I've decided that after ten years, I ought to start looking like a professional!

Monday, May 31, 2010

CD Release Party and the Start of Summer Tour!

Photo by Richard Parsons

Banjolicious had a GREAT CD release party at Twain's bar in Decatur. I was joined onstage by some amazing Atlanta talents: Will Robertson (upright bass, vocals), Matt Phillips (mandolin, cornet, tenor guitar), and Rhett McAllister (guitar, keyboard, vocals). It was great to see so many friends come and show their support for us and my new album, "A Year and Some Change." If you haven't gotten yours yet, there are several ways to get one: (It'll be listed there soon), Decatur CD (exclusive Atlanta retailer), and through me directly. Here are some shots my cousin, Stephanie took at the show:

My summer tour of puppet shows kicked off this past weekend with three shows in Orlando, FL. On Saturday, I had the pleasure of performing two shows of "Billy Goats Gruff and Other Stuff" at Pinocchio's Marionette Theatre. On Sunday, I performed a rather soggy version of the same show to a drenched audience at the Orlando Fringe Festival. Thankfully, puppets and audience members were sheltered by tents, but rain can be very determined when it wants to be. As if the weather acted out of irony, the monsoon-ish rain began just as my show started and cleared up just in time for me to load my gear into my van. During the storm, I performed to a "captive" audience. They weren't going anywhere as their tent was the only dry place on the grounds.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


It seemed like a regular day for me. I woke up and got ready for the day. Stood out by the mailbox to wait for the school bus as it plucked up children from their homes and driveways along a rural Alabama route. I remember the sensation of riding up and down bumpy dirt roads that wouldn't get paved until years later. I went to my 7th grade classes. It was a normal day. Until a message from the office told me that my father would be picking me up from school. He only did that if I had to go to art lessons on Tuesdays or get a haircut at the local barbershop, run by two old men that were about the same age as the dirt roads. I really didn't think much of it other than it was unusual and I was probably happy that I wouldn't have to ride the bus home.

I got in the car and we were about half of the way home when Dad looked over at me and told me "Jim Henson died today." I thought he was kidding. Surely, it couldn't be true. Dad's brother, Larry, a doctor in Birmingham, had heard a news report and called to tell my father. And my father wanted to be the one to tell me this news. Which was, and still is, his way. Because he knew the impact that news would have. He was right.

People called the house that night to ask my parents if I was alright. I mainly sat glued in front of the television watching every news report or entertainment magazine show that ran clips of Jim's work. In a sort of ironic way, I saw more of Jim's work because of his death than I did when he was alive. The Muppet Show, though still barely in production when I was small, only aired in re-runs on a UHF station, which ran them at 5:30 on Saturday mornings. I saw Fraggle Rock during the weeks of summer vacation when I'd go visit my grandparents in Birmingham. By some cable company fluke, they got HBO, which meant I usually got to see two weekly broadcasts of Fraggles, which my grandfather called "Fried Frogs."

Going to school the next day was hard. I had very sympathetic teachers. And some very inconsiderate classmates who only wanted to know if I had cried. To a normal 7th grader, the Muppets weren't supposed to matter much, they were kid stuff. They were watching the A-Team (as was I) and sneaking into movies they were too young to be allowed. And Jim Henson certainly wasn't someone they'd paid much attention to. But he was my hero. His work inspired me to never let go of my imagination. It allowed me to gain a bigger sense of the world around me. I was not locked into life in a small Alabama town. My imagination and puppetry were vehicles to a way out. I can't say that my classmates didn't have an effect of me. But I can't begrudge them now, either. They just didn't get it. Thank God my teacher's did. Many of them encouraged and supported me as I started the journey of becoming a puppeteer, following the call of a dreamer in the footsteps of a man I revered.

A year ago, a friend of mine told me he had a gift for me but didn't want to tell me what it was. An envelope arrived by mail, about the size of a CD jewel case. I opened it and saw the label: "Jim Henson Memorial Service." Well, I didn't rush right over to the DVD player and pop it in. I felt strange, a bit uncomfortable holding that disc in my hand. I felt like I was holding something that was very private and to watch it would make me a voyeur. I also knew it wasn't going to be light watching. One night, when I had no commitments or other distractions, I watched it. Unknowingly, my friend had allowed me to do something that I had not allowed myself at 13 to do: I cried and I mourned the loss of a man who meant so much to me, despite the fact that I'd never met him. I was able to grieve. Granted there were many more layers of life added on that made the experience all the more poignant, but the essence of that teenage boy I used to be found a safe place to let go.

Were it not for Jim Henson, who knows what I would have become. But because of him, I am a puppeteer who has devoted a young lifetime to following his dream, making friends and having adventures that often feel beyond real. To inspire, to entertain, to imagine and create: these are the lessons Jim taught me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Entering the World of Etsy

For some time now, I've known about, a website devoted to selling the creations of crafters and artists from all over the world. And also for some time, I'd think to myself "I need to put some of my stuff on Etsy." Well, its finally happened. I started creating "Little Beasties:" hand puppets designed for children. These are meant to be played with and loved by children of any age. I hope they unlock some child's imagination to create and play. Here's a few Little Beasties:

And here's the link to my Etsy store:

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Trying to Lose a Raincloud" music video!

Here's a little music video I created along with the help of some Atlanta puppeteers and Portfolio Center film students. Andrea Dorsey contacted me in January about the possibility of creating a music video for one of my songs. Then I told her I was also a puppeteer. Click on the link to see the results.

Of all the songs on my upcoming album, "A Year and Some Change," this one seemed to lend itself the best to being done with puppets. I wanted to keep things as simple as possible. The video was shot in one pass (after 18 takes) with a mostly stationary camera, the way the early Muppet and Sesame Street bits were done. And instead of intruding chickens or penguins, I've got raindrops. Its really a big homage to my Muppet performer heroes.

Scottie Rowell helped greatly with puppet building and costuming Gloomy, our leading ... uh .... man?

I should also credit Will Robertson on bass and Matt Phillips on cornet and banjo-mandolin. That's his fancy, clunky strumming you hear. When we recording that part as an overdub, I don't think Matt expected us to keep that take. But it was so hilarious and all over the place, we had to keep it. And its perfect for the video.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Coming to a Ford in the Road

Photo by Richard Parsons

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Banjolicious opened for Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside on Sunday. OK Productions booked us for this gig after seeing us open for Danny Barnes, one of my banjo heroes, last May. However, I initially thought we got booked because Sallie's dad, Hobey Ford, is a puppeteer friend of mine. Just a neat little coincidence.

Taking Hobey's foam carving workshop at the POA Festival in '92 in Charleston, SC

I met Hobey when I went to my first Puppeteers of America Festival in 1992 in Charleston, SC. He was one of a few solo puppeteers I remember being blown away by. Terry Snyder and Drew Allison (Grey Seal Puppets) were also on that list. I was so impressed that these guys did everything: built their own puppets, wrote their own shows and performed them. To a kid from south Alabama with no friends with whom to share his interest in puppetry, this was a revelation. You could do this work by yourself. Today, those puppeteers whom I admired so much are now friends and colleagues.

If you're curious about the marvelous work of these artists, just follow the links:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Its been a busy week around here. "When it rains, it pours" seems to be a reocurring theme this year. Earlier in the week, I had my last rehearsals for "Puppets Have Feelings, Too," a new show I'm creating for Young Audiences under the guidance of YA directors Gregg Johnson and Scott Depoy.

During a YA conference in January, I had the idea to create a show that would teach children about developing puppet characters and emotion recognition. Inspired by Jim Henson's Anything Muppets (or What-Nots) I created a puppet character for which children in the audience can select and arrange different facial features. Subsequently, this changes the puppet's character and emotion. Its a very interactive show and more educational than any other show I've created. Fortunately, there's enough art and humor so the kids don't realize they're learning something.

There are a number of facial combinations that are possible with King Rhubarb the 12th. Students are able to change his eyes, nose and facial hair to create an entirely new King character.

Blank King Rhubarb

Sad King Rhubarb

Cool King Rhubarb

The offical "roll-out" for "Puppets Have Feelings, Too" was on Thursday at the Walker School in Marietta for an audience of 4th graders. Their initial response was less than enthusiastic when I walked out playing my banjo to introduce the show. You could practically hear their eyes rolling. But once the puppet portion of the show was underway, their attitude changed. As they were leaving I heard several students say, "That show was AWESOME!"

Mad King Rhubarb

Mixed-Up King Rhubarb

I don't want to give away any secrets as to how these features are changed, but I'll tell you its not velcro, tape or pins. Thanks to my good buddy, Matt Phillips for solving this difficult challenge!

On Friday, I drove to Calera, Alabama, where I had shows on Saturday for an Alabama Power employee appreciation celebration. Set up like a mini-carnival, there were rides, bands, consession stands, inflatable attractions, pony rides, a petting zoo and a stage for children's entertainment. Parking was at such a distance away from the event, families were ferried over in Trailways busses. Fortunately, staff were allowed to park close to the event which made loading and unloading relatively easy.

I shared the stage with a magician and the reptile-lady who had coolers full of pythons and rattlesnakes. It was then I realized that we are what became of vaudeville. Now relegated to children's entertainment.

I'm one of those people who never carries a lot of cash in my wallet. So, for times when cash is the only methold of payment option, lack of planning or an ATM in close proximity can result in a hungry puppeteer. With no cash in my wallet, I was looking at tables full of bar-b-que and funnel cake stands with drool coming out of my mouth. Several hours later, I had a realization: this was a company employee event. Surely the company would not be charging its employees for any of this. Sure enough, it was all free. No more hungry puppeteer.

Sunday night I had the pleasure of playing with my buddy and upright bassist, Will Robertson at the EARL in East Atlanta. Promoted by OK Productions, we were the opening act for Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside. Will and I haven't played together for a good long while now, but like any good friendship, it doesn't take us long to pick up where we left off. We played a lot of tunes off my upcoming album, "A Year and Some Change," which should be available in a couple of weeks. I'll keep you posted.
Photo by Richard Parsons