Mark Johnson & Clawgrass

Bridging the Gap

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The difference between bluegrass banjo and clawhammer banjo may not be obvious to those who don't spend a lot of time listening to banjo players, but the difference is significant: bluegrass banjoists play in a three-finger picking style, using steel picks and an arpeggiated "rolling" technique that results in the immediately identifiable "shower-of-notes" bluegrass sound. Clawhammer players use the thumb and the backs of their fingernails to smack, strum and pluck the strings in a style that is usually associated with old-time string band music; it's a funkier, rounder sound that most people immediately (and correctly) identify with musical traditions far older and closer to the roots of folk music than bluegrass is. That's why this album by clawhammer banjo virtuoso Mark Johnson is such a hoot and a delight; it's a bluegrass-style outing in every way, with a full band and bluegrass harmonies, but also with the chunky, clawhammer sound of Johnson's banjo. It works just fine; although the album starts off on the wrong foot with a kind of dorky song about the intractability of mules, it improves quickly: there are several duets between Johnson and guest guitarist Tony Rice, a lovely and affecting rendition of "Sally Anne" (the version with lyrics) and a very sweet instrumental that Johnson wrote in honor of his daughter Kayla Anne. Very nice.

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