quote “The Patuxent Banjo Project” by Various Artists

Various artists
The Patuxent Banjo Project
Patuxent Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Patuxent Records is Tom Mindte’s Rockville, Maryland record label and music studio that’s been around a while, but I hadn’t really been aware of it until this extraordinary two-disc, 40-track collection of banjo pickers with ties to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC showed up in a list of recordings eligible for the 2015 International Bluegrass Music Awards.

So, it’s been a while since it was released, but bluegrass music fans who haven’t heard this record yet should avail themselves of the chance to discover first-rate banjo pickers who don’t get name-checked at awards shows or on satellite radio.

The thing that makes this album so enjoyable is the same thing that makes it hard to write about in a concise manner. There are 41 different banjoists featured here, and their range of styles and diverse musical backgrounds testify to the enduring and far-reaching vibrancy of a quintessential American instrument, though that instrument hasn’t been near the mainstream for a century.

Only a handful are names instantly recognizable even to the average bluegrass music fan. It’s not a surprise that their tracks are excellent:

  • “Cedar City Blues” by Eddie Adcock, of the classic Country Gentlemen lineup
  • “My Little Home in West Virginia” by Bill Emerson, a Country Gentlemen co-founder
  • “Sugarfoot Rag” by Tom Adams, known for his work with Blue Highway and Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper
  • “Hot Burrito Breakdown” by Mike Munford, known for his work with Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Peter Rowan, and the Tony Rice Unit
  • “Ninety Degrees” by Mark Schatz, the renowned session bassist and clawhammer expert
  • “Going Home” by Roni Stoneman, of the Stoneman Family and television’s Hee Haw 

Tracks from lesser-known names are no less skillful and entertaining, and the extensive liner notes with short biographies of each player establish just how important the geographic area covered by this collection was to the evolution of bluegrass music beyond the musicians and hotspots of its first generation. Names like Dick Smith, Walter Hensley, Bill Runkle, Don Bryant, Chris Warner, Bill Blackburn, Fred Geiger, John Farmer, and Pete Kuykendall are important ones, and their playing here proves it.

Other nice touches include pairs of individual tracks from siblings Victor Furtado (“The Ghost on Hippie Hill”) and Gina Clowes (“Phoebe’s Lullaby”), and from the mother/daughter pair Murphy Henry (“Hazel Creek”) and Casey Henry (“Purple Creek”); a classical-style piece from Ira Gitlin (“Allegretto con Melanzane”); and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” from Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer.

If all this weren’t enough, Michael Cleveland lends his otherworldly fiddle and/or mandolin talents to a dozen tracks, so there’s plenty here for fans of all kinds of bluegrass and old-time music, as well as those who want to go deeper into all the things a banjo can sound like in the hands of a musical artisan.