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Banjoist Noam Pikelny brings his West Virginia-learned skills to 'Mountain Stage'

WANT TO GO?

"Mountain Stage"

With Billy Joe Shaver, Matraca Berg, Noam Pikelny & Friends, April Verch and the Caleb Klauder Country Band.

WHERE: Culture Center Theater

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: Advance $15, at the door $25

INFO: 800-549-TIXX or www.mountainstage.orgCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Noam Pikelny might never have picked up the banjo if his brother hadn't picked up a mandolin first or his mother hadn't picked up a baseball.

The banjoist, who performs Sunday night on "Mountain Stage," took a circuitous route through the banjo arts that began in Skokie, Ill. but eventually led him to Elkins.

"My brother was 10 years old when he fell in love with the mandolin," Pikelny said. "He was subjected to a bluegrass show at school and wanted to play."

Their parents, both of whom played a little music, got Pikelny's brother a mandolin. Pikelny and his mother took him to the lessons.

"So while he studied the mandolin," Pikelny explained, "I was out playing catch with my mother."

After two years and countless hours of tossing a baseball back and forth, Pikelny had become very jealous of his brother's new musical hobby. He told his parents his parents he wanted to learn an instrument; they suggested the banjo.

Pikelny said, "I guess they figured that if I could figure my way through the instrument and carry a tune, my brother and I could play music together."

Also, he thought, the banjo was a very visible instrument on the local folk music scene in Chicago. Pikelny had no opinion. He was 9 years old.

"I was like, sure, why not? Sounds cool."

His parents rented a banjo and got him lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. While he studied, his brother's fascination with the mandolin waned.

"We did realize our parents' dream of performing together: once," Pikelny said.

They played at an open mic when he was about 10 years old. "We played 'The Spanish Fandango' or what is called 'The Union Maid.' That was our one moment in the sun."

They never played together again.

"Artistic differences," Pikelny joked.

Like a lot of budding folk players, Pikelny began with the claw hammer style banjo -- then he discovered Bela Fleck, who played the instrument three-finger style, like bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.

"It was this magical sound," he said. "I'd heard bluegrass banjo, and this sounded nothing like it."

At 10 years old, Pikelny decided he wanted to follow in Fleck's musical footsteps. But in order to do that, he was told he had to first study Earl Scruggs and banjo great Tony Trischka because "that's what all the greats did, regardless of where they ended up."

Pikelny heeded the advice, but said within a few weeks, he became totally enamored with bluegrass, which kind of presented a problem. "I started to see the limitations of bluegrass in Chicago."

In junior high and high school, he traveled out of state to learn about bluegrass, which brought him to The Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins.

"I don't even know where we got the brochure," he said. "But we got it, and I signed up for classes."

For a week in the summer for four years in a row, Pikelny studied with some of the best bluegrass pickers and players in the world: Craig Smith, Tony Furtado and George Shuffler, who played with Dr. Ralph Stanley.

"As a kid who would drool over banjo magazines, these were Hollywood celebrities to me," he said.

Pikelny said his experiences in Elkins changed his life. It wasn't just that he learned technique (which he did) or got to test his skills against others (which he did), but he also got to meet like-minded people. They showed him that life in this kind of music was possible.

"The people I met there became role models to me," he said. "I identified with the group. I came home every summer wanting to be a better musician."

He did. Pikelny grew up, honed his skill and developed his talent. He joined bands like Leftover Salmon, The John Cowan band and The Punch Brothers, a progressive bluegrass band formed by Nickel Creek's Chris Thile.

Pikelny thinks of himself as still learning and still exploring the banjo. Sometimes that has meant transcribing the music of other instruments to the banjo. Lately, the instrument he's working with is the pedal steel.

He hasn't got it yet.

"The pedal steel has moved me out of the box of what is comfortable for me musically."

Meanwhile, Pikelny said his brother still plays the mandolin a little.

"He also plays the Irish bouzouki, flies glider planes and teaches at a high school outside of Chicago." Pikelny laughed. "He's got like a million hobbies."        

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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