The Metronome Diary 

Banjo Connection

When my first close friend began doing it, I have to admit it seemed cool. The mid-twenties are a hard time, I thought; we all need our little crutches to help us get over the rough spots. But when, six months later, another close friend picked up the habit, I started to get a little nervous. I knew I should have said something to both of them, but it's just not a subject that comes up in normal conversation. Besides, they seemed fine -- they weren't missing work or pawning their clothes or anything.

When a third friend started talking about playing the banjo, though, I knew I had to do something. From previous conversations with my two banjo-stricken friends, I knew where they went to get their weekly fix. With much trepidation, I grabbed the Yellow Pages. A half-hour later I was walking up the steps to the 5th String in Berkeley.

The 5th String is the kind of music store immune to the gaudy impulses of modernization. Apart from the racks of CDs, inside the shop it could still be 1964. The cash register is hand-cranked, ancient Mel Bay instructional tomes and "Fingerpick the Beatles" booklets line one wall, and soft bluegrass music floats down from the wooden rafters. And hanging everywhere -- like carcasses in butcher's shop -- are dozens and dozens of beautiful stringed instruments.

The owners of the 5th String, Larry and Phyllis Bowen, opened the store in San Francisco in 1976, moving to Berkeley after the 1989 quake. They sell only acoustic instruments ("electric and acoustic instruments don't mix" says Larry authoritatively). In a small room in the back of the store, the affable Phyllis -- large-lensed glasses perched in a nest of thick black hair -- instructs her thirty regular students in the mysterious ways of the banjo.

Phyllis has been teaching banjo for over 27 years. Her half-hour, one-on-one classes are cheap -- $11 a pop -- but her hard-gained knowledge is priceless. Especially when it comes to getting answers as to what drives perfectly normal, responsible people to the banjo.

It turns out that interest in the instrument has been pretty steady over the last thirty years, with a few predictable surges. Every time Bonnie and Clyde runs on cable, for instance, Phyllis' workload increases. Ditto for popular pickup-truck ads featuring banjo. The most recent boom came thanks to the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured plenty of bluegrass and old-time country on its soundtrack.

According to Phyllis, most of the newcomers lured in by ads or movies arrive at the 5th String with a new banjo and one song on their mind. I'm sure she's talking about "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie, which is the only song that might impel me to take up the banjo. Phyllis just laughs, though, when I guess it. (It turns out that nobody in all her years of teaching has ever asked to be taught "The Rainbow Connection.") Nope, everyone wants to learn either the dreaded "Dueling Banjos," or the Beverly Hillbillies theme.

Phyllis tries not to discourage them right away. She teaches Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo, a dexterous, fireball fingerpicking style named for bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs. Her clients range in age from ten to sixty, and she teaches an equal number of men and women. It wasn't like that when she started teaching bluegrass banjo back in 1974.

"When I started playing, it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to play old-timey," she says, referring to the older, more laconic pre-bluegrass style. "If you could sit with a long dress in a rocker and be real quiet and strum and sing it would be okay. But you didn't play straight bluegrass."

A strong-willed woman, Phyllis frequently found herself on the wrong side of the gender divide at social get-togethers. "If you went in the living room to pick with the guys, you couldn't get back in the kitchen to talk to the gals," Phyllis recalls, laughing. "It isn't like that now."

I have a hundred more questions for Phyllis, but it's closing time, and she's had a long day of teaching. I thank Phyllis for her time. She pats my hand, and I'm getting ready to leave when I see something flash out of the corner of my eye. It's a Goldtone five-string, gleaming chrome, its headstock and fretboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I consider it for a second too long, then tear my eyes away, walking quickly toward the door.

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