If the banjo was an actor in today’s movie industry, it would be suffering from a severe case of typecasting, relentlessly placed in the role of Appalachian hillbilly instrument, a medium suited only for bluegrass, country and folk music. It’s nothing new — in the 1830s, the banjo was cast as a derisive representation of American slaves, as white artists took to the stage in blackface, plucking the instrument they’d learned from African- Americans on plantations.
“Is there an instrument that comes with more cultural baggage than the banjo?” asks writer Erik Spangler in a late 2014 article for NewMusicBox.
But there are those who see past the instrument’s stereotypes, who love it in spite of its baggage, like Boulder-based banjo virtuoso Jake Schepps, who’s made a career of pushing through false genre boundaries and redefining where the banjo “fits” in music.
“In around 1900, the banjo was this high society instrument. It was big in Britain,” Schepps says. “People would pose for photos holding a banjo — [just] like they would put fancy books on a shelf behind them, they would hold a banjo to look more literary. People played all this light classical parlor music and ragtime. People made sophisticated music, but [the banjo eventually] went out of style until Earl Scruggs picked it back up [in the 1940s]. [The banjo] has taken this incredible path that’s dark and exciting and interesting and quirky. It’s a deep well for sure.”
Born in Texas and raised in Maine, Schepps didn’t drink from that well as he grew up — then he headed to the University of Colorado Boulder.
“At 20 years old I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and saw Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Strength in Numbers and it totally changed my world,” Schepps says. “The banjo scene here in Boulder was certainly not traditional, so I had all of these inspirations from all sorts of [places].”
Inspiration came from folks like Mark Vann, banjoist and founding member of Boulder-based jam-grass pioneers Leftover Salmon. Schepps took lessons from Vann and immersed himself in the new bluegrass jamming culture that bands like Leftover Salmon and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones were creating.
“As I became a recording artist, as I studied music, my ear led me to all sorts of places and different styles of music. I was early to recognize that I was learning music and being put in situations to play music there was no banjo version of those tunes, of this style of music,” Schepps says. “It made me realize both the string band and the banjo in particular — while banjo has been in a lot of different settings and has been around for centuries if you take it back to Africa — it’s really new and really has not been that explored, all things considered. So I can take a short lateral step into some terrain and it’s completely new and uncharted.”
Schepps ain’t just whistling Dixie when he says “uncharted” — along with the four other gentlemen who make up the Jake Schepps Quintet, Schepps may have created the first collection of longform works written by contemporary classical composers for the traditional five-piece bluegrass string band with the quintet’s newest album, Entwined.
“The concept for this record, of commissioning contemporary classical composers to write a piece for an ensemble, there’s nothing new or special about that — it happens all the time, thousands of times a year,” Schepps says. “What’s special about it is that it’s a string band.”
The four works that make up Entwined began to take shape back in 2011 after Schepps had just released an album honoring the music of Béla Bartok, a Hungarian composer and pianist known for his collection and study of Eastern European folk music.
“There were several things that went into the idea for the Bartok project, but it was really to see what does a classical composer bring to folk music that I can maybe learn and bring to the music I like to play,” Schepps says. “What would Béla Bartok bring to ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ to make it his own? And how can I learn from that and bring it into my own musicality? The same idea with this [album]: things that are fairly pedestrian in modern jazz and modern classical music don’t cross over into the string band world very much at all. And so that was my idea: what compositions that these people are working with day to day, having studied fugues and all sort of stuff, could I bring into the string band lexicon and my own musicianship?”
Schepps certainly isn’t the first banjoist to undertake the harrowing job of reshaping society’s narrow vision of the banjo — it’s a battle Béla Fleck has been fighting since the late 1980s.
“He worked hard in the early ’90s to keep the Flecktones records out of the bluegrass bins — it’s been an uphill battle for sure,” Schepps says. “I continually encounter that as well as I apply for grants and people listen to the music and say, ‘These guys can’t get past their bluegrass roots.’ I say we’re playing a Béla Bartok piano number note for note. I would not consider this anything remotely like bluegrass and it’s that the listener can’t get past the bluegrass connotations of the instrument. I think that’s part of the youth of the instrument and the strong stereotypes with Hee-Haw and things like that.”
He adds with a laugh, “It will go away 100 years from now, 200 years from now, I don’t know.”