An Interview with Bill Keith, Master of the Five-String Banjo

In September of 2007 I asked Bill Keith –that is the legendary Bill Keith, if he would be available to give a presentation of the five-string banjo to my music students at Highland High School in Highland, New York. His presentation was enthusiastically received by the students, many of whom with iPods galore had never heard a banjo, let alone seen one being played by a master of the instrument. During our time together in the preparation for his visit I found myself listening to some fascinating stories of Bill’s that I thought might be of interest to the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association members and others who might come across this website. When I approached him about doing an interview for the HVBA he again was gracious and kind enough to agree. We sat down together at the Colony Café, better known as the “Bluegrass Clubhouse,” on the cold evening of 24 January 2008 between sets. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Roy Coates: Can you bring us up to date with your current musical activities?

Bill Keith: Well, Roy thanks for the interview. For two and a half years now I have been playing with a group of friends here in Woodstock. We call ourselves the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band and that seems at odds with the fact we play every Thursday night here at the Colony Café in Woodstock, just a block from the center of town. I should mention that we also play here and there in the area and have done some private parties and public events out at the Lighthouse and about, across the river, here and there.

RC: Who are the members of the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band? How and when did the band get together?
BK: The band is really essentially Brian Hollander, the guitar player, Tim Kapeluck, playing mandolin, Geoff Hardin on the bass, and Guy “Fooch” Fischetti playing the fiddle. Fooch plays the pedal steel sometimes with the band but not very much. Tim Kapeluck also plays fiddle and guitar. Geoff Hardin plays fiddle too, so quite a few combinations. Brian Hollander plays dobro. We started getting together, I don’t know how many years ago, six or eight years ago at Brian’s house in the afternoon. You see, he’s the editor of the Woodstock Times and they turn the paper in on Wednesday, so Thursday he has relatively little to do until he ruffles down to the weekend edition, I guess. In any case, we used to get together at his house every Thursday afternoon and then we decided to, sort of, take it public. Two and a half years ago we started playing Thursday nights here and have been doing it ever since, with the rare exception of closure due to snowstorm or holiday.

RC: Does the band have an approach to the music you program for performances?

BK: Well, gee, I’d say we certainly try to take advantage of everyone’s strengths. Brian is pretty much the one that keeps the repertoire rotating. We do some numbers frequently and others quite infrequently, but we, sort of, have been playing long enough to know each other’s musical space and there are rarely any enormous musical surprises, so we are all comfortable in the situation, even with tunes we haven’t played a lot. The only difference is when we got together at Brian’s house, we called it rehearsal and we’d occasionally do songs two or three times to work on the parts or stuff. But now we don’t do that, we just play them once!

RC: I know that you are in demand to appear nationally, sometimes in Europe and even Japan. Do you or the band have any current plans to appear outside of the home region this coming spring and summer 2008?
BK: Well, I do a couple of other things, of course, during the day I run the Beacon Banjo business, making banjo tuning pegs and, in fact, everybody has other interests in things they do. So we rarely get out of the area as a band…and let’s say we rarely take a job we can’t drive home that night from. I also teach at various music camps…banjo camps, and I’ll be teaching one in Florida, I believe it’s in late March. Then I will be at the Banjo Camp North in Massachusetts and the Midwest Banjo Camp in Michigan a little later on. In the Fall I’ll be out at the American Banjo Camp in Washington State, just after Labor Day. I’m hoping that Grey Fox, a wonderful local festival, will have found a new home and we’ll all be getting used to that new location, so, it will seem quite different, but I am looking forward, with hope, that I will be camping out at Grey Fox one more time this year, where ever it may happen.

RC: I would like to change direction a bit and ask you about your involvement in the Muleskinner Project. Who was responsible for your involvement in the band that created a whole new, and innovative direction in the Bluegrass genre?
BK: Well, I believe it was a fellow named John Delgatto, who used to run Sierra Briar Record Company. Before that he was employed by a small television station in Hollywood. It was a UHF station, I believe, back in the time when there was VHF and UHF…and who would have known that ultra high is higher than very high…well very high seems high to me, well anyway! The idea was to get together as many Bill Monroe veterans and or staunch-fan musician fans. Richard Greene, Peter Rowan and I had all played with Bill Monroe and David Grisman of course, was all for it. Now on the TV show, I believe, Stuart Schulman was the bass player…on the television appearance that was ultimately re-released by Sierra Briar in CD format and also in video cassette. In fact I have some of them. Then, the plan was that we were to back up Bill Monroe in an appearance on the television show. So we got together and rehearsed and got a few numbers to do on our own…and so rehearsed the numbers we were pretty sure Bill would play –Foot Prints in the Snow, and Kentucky Waltz, and whatever. We had our rehearsal, and the next day we scheduled another rehearsal that Bill was supposed to come to. But we got a telephone call that he couldn’t make that rehearsal, so we added a few more tunes to what we could play on our own. The next day was a dress rehearsal in the morning and then taping in the afternoon.  But Bill wasn’t there for the dress rehearsal and so we added a couple more things and of course the point in time came and he still wasn’t there, so we did the TV show on our own. I guess we had to come up with a name for it, you know, it was really going to be “Bill Monroe,” and I guess, “His Blue Grass Boys” for the day, but that didn’t happen. So we sort of became ‘Muleskinner.’ I’m not sure when the name became attached to us, but we decided we were going to try to do something together, to make a record at least. We were all involved in other musical things, so we really knew in advance we were not going to be a band and tour together, but we wanted to record. So after one studio that didn’t seem to work out, we got into a nice little studio and turned out an album which was released on Warner Brothers. The personnel were slightly different. I believe John Kahn was our bass player on the album instead of Stuart Schulman. Clarence White also played a little electric guitar and we had drums on a thing or two and I played some pedal steel guitar on it. That was about the time I was getting into steel guitar. We were all pretty happy with the way it came out, so we went our separate ways and the record came out and it didn’t seem to attract much attention at the time and Warner Brothers put it on remainder and it disappeared. I heard it was available on CD at one point, I believe, through Amazon. I’m not sure if it is still, but I should look into that and get a few. I guess, you know, the industry likes to support bands that tour, and we weren’t doing that.”

RC: I have just finished reading an excellent new book on the life of Gram Parsons. It is entitled Twenty Thousand Roads, by author David N. Meyer, Villard, NY 2007. Your name was mentioned in connection with International Submarine Band member and guitarist John Nuese. How did you become acquainted with John Nuese?
He lived in northwest Connecticut, in West Cornwall, at the time, that’s where his parent’s place was. His father was a well-known book dealer and art collector and had some original Thomas Hart Benton paintings and quite a nice estate up there on a hillside in West Cornwall. John had some musical parties there, and I attended. I may have met him as early as the Indian Neck Folk Festival just east of New Haven. That could have been as early as the sixties. John played left-handed guitar and later got into electric guitar and rock and roll and ended up connecting up with these guys out in California to form the International Submarine Band. I have their album and there is some very strange stuff on it too, very funny stuff. That’s kind of how I got to know Gram Parsons through him. Not that I hung out with Gram a lot; I hung out more with John on the east coast and then for a while he had a place in Nashville. In fact he may have sold his parent’s place and kind of moved to Nashville, but I haven’t heard much from him in recent years. In any case, I did hang out with the Submarine Band guys a little bit at the Chateau Marmont, where Gram Parsons was living…sort of a hippie hotel. It didn’t seem like money was an issue and they kind of lived life to excess. For example, I was there one evening and all of a sudden Gram says, “Hey, guess what, Elvis is playing in Las Vegas tonight, so let’s all fly up there and see the show.” I’m thinking, well, you know, that’s two months of work with Bill Monroe! So, I didn’t make that trip with him, I kind of regret it now, in retrospect, because it was just dollars, but I didn’t have it at the time, that’s all.

RC: Did you ever have an opportunity, while you were in California, to jam with the ISB, Gram Parsons or John Nuese?
Well with Nuese, yes, on the east coast, but there was very little jamming with them on the west coast. At one point, that’s funny, I remember I was at one party at a motel. Maria Muldaur was there and Geoff Muldaur…and in came Bob Dyan, and he picked up a guitar and was singing and playing some for about a half-hour. That was kind of nice…and while I was in a restaurant sitting out there John Lennon walked right by my table…as close as Tim is to me right now…and it was kind of a big hit, and actually, I saw, Richard Thomas who played John Boy on the Walton’s on the street…and it was funny running into people you could see on TV.

RC: Speaking of Gram Parsons, what would you say about his contribution to American music? Can you comment on his approach to music and perhaps contrast that with your own approach?
That’s tough to say…I mean, I think he loved country music…original country music, but he wanted to update it, to make it his own. I think he was able to do that –he had a great voice for it and I liked his compositions. I thought he was a real creative guy. I myself, I tend to be more of an analyst and make great efforts to understand the musical structure and even, I would say, the mathematical underpinnings. Not that the math is music, but it helps. It’s a tool to measure it, to understand it, to see how it fits together. I look for patterns that the music suggests to me…I try to work with them and anticipate what’s going to happen next and try to say something about it. That’s where the little bit of creativity creeps in, I hope, at least, that’s more on the improvisation level. I don’t write a lot of stuff or make a conscious effort. I’m not that good with words.

RC: Do you enjoy teaching?
Oh yes I do, I certainly do, because, well, as I said, I’ve thought about not only the music but what a banjo player needs to know to do, at least what I do, and I’ve made an effort to systematize it and break it up into bite-size chunks. I don’t like to teach by rote. I like to teach by principles and by suggesting options of how things could happen and how a student can start playing his own music. I really do enjoy the moment you live for…that moment you see the student suddenly realize something and you know that he or she has a new tool, or a new way to look at what they are doing…that it’s not something they’ll have to write down and lookup in a book later, or something. It’s something they kind of know all of a sudden. I think I really teach for the rare occasions that that happens. It’s a little too rare, but….

RC: Several years ago you published a music teaching method entitled The Natural Way To Music, An Organic Approach to Understanding & Playing Music, Jim D’Ville & Bill Keith, published by Natural Way Music, 2004. As a music educator here in the Hudson Valley I can testify to its effectiveness in teaching, among other things, the challenging and difficult concept of improvisation. I use it in my high school music classroom and at my home teaching studio with some of my more advanced private students. How did you come up with this method book?
“Well, I had been teaching groups and workshops and I tried to insinuate my approach based on the circle of fifths but also include the banjo information…well, because, to my way of thinking, it’s the banjo information…the rolls and chord positions and all that stuff [that] makes it possible to do the musical message and really, in the last analysis, the musical message is, what I think, the knowledge of how the music works is the more important message in the long run. Once you’ve got the mechanics, it’s what you need to know to play. So that became the larger part of the workshops I did and trying to refine that. One of the students at a two-day event, I think we were about four hours a day for two days, and one guy was taking copious notes and I could see him making connections and realizing stuff. He came up to me afterwards and introduced himself as Jim D’Ville and said he’d like to work with me to write a instructional music book based on my method. So for about two and a half years we worked on it and we got it to its present state. That’s the book you see…and it’s really a book about music theory but in the sense that it is not theory. It’s fact. It’s really the way things are and how to operate…how to use that knowledge to make things happen.”

RC: Can you comment on your association with the HVBA?
People in this area are so lucky to have the HVBA. With two monthly jam sessions and other special events there are ample opportunities to network and play music. I joined the organization as soon as I found out about it and even helped out by printing their mailing labels back in the early days. Keep an eye on their website for special events such as the possibility of instrument workshops and concerts by out-of-town artists.

RC: Bill, on behalf of the HVBA, thank you so much for your time and for this interview.
Thank you.

Bill Keith and the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band went on to play another excellent set as the Colony Café fireplace crackled and the rustic, dark-wooded interior provided just the right ambiance for great Bluegrass. At the end of the evening there was a new date being discussed amongst the band members for a possible April performance at the Rosendale Café, stay tuned! Then there’s always the Colony Café, Woodstock, NY, every Thursday Evening at 8:00 pm. Come often, relax and enjoy.

Fred Robbins: Here is my tribute to Bill.

Roy Coates

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