We played mainly along the mid-Atlantic states and around Appalachia. In 2014, I decided to leave the traveling lifestyle and move back to Bloomington, IL where I am from and currently reside. I now teach banjo, mandolin and dobro at the Music Shoppe in Normal, IL and play in a two man band with my longtime friend Kyle Rhoney. We call ourselves Kickin' and Pickin'. You can find us on facebook at facebook.com/kickinandpickin. We hope to start recording our first album later this year. Kyle plays guitar, foot drums and harmonica (all at the same time) and I play banjo and an E-9 pedal steel guitar (not at the same time though!) This year we are on pace to play roughly 40 shows, and are looking to increase that number next year. This was my first year at the festival, and I think I would have probably entered if I had not pre-registered. First off, I think the open style competition is fine. I think it is good to have a mix of both claw-hammer and Scruggs styles in the mix. I think if the competition grows, you may want to consider separating them. I think Scruggs style has more room in its' technique for quicker and more technically proficient melodies, licks, what have you than claw-hammer allows, although I have heard some claw-hammer players that can pull off more technically challenging techniques. Hopefully more younger kids will get wind of the competition and enter, forcing you to open a Jr. and Sr. division too. For the number of contestants you had this year, I thought everything went off without a hitch. I thought it was great to see Uma and Elvin (the 2nd and 3rd place winners) compete at such a young age and do so well. I play Scruggs style banjo, and played “Groundspeed” by Earl Scruggs and “Cowboys and Indians” by Bill Emerson. This was the third time I have entered a banjo competition. So far I am 3 for 3. I won the Illinois State Fair banjo competition in 2014 and 2015, and then the JHMF competition this year. I think it is about time someone puts me in check! Haha. I don't specifically remember the first time I ever performed on a stage, but I'm sure I was nervous as hell. I still get nervous sometimes. It's kind of strange. Sometimes I go on stage and get nervous, and other times I feel really relaxed. I have not pinpointed what the culprit is. I'm still trying to figure that out. When I am nervous, it usually goes away within a few minutes, but not always. My whole attitude going into the JHMF competition was that I am on vacation right now and I just need to go up there, do what I do and have fun with it. It would be awesome if I win, but if I lose, then the other person obviously practiced harder and deserves it more, and it will give me more incentive to do better the next time around. We all want to win, but we all want to have a good time too. Just do your thing and leave it to the judges. My most memorable experience playing a gig has to be when I got to play on stage with the Masters of Bluegrass (Del and Jerry McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Bobby Hicks and J.D. Crowe). They were supposed to play in Bristol, TN in January but a big snowstorm came in and the show got postponed until March. The opening act wasn't able to make it on the new date, and we ended up getting the gig. It was amazing playing on stage with all those living legends. All I could think was how did I end up here playing with these guys? How did I get so lucky? I'll never forget it. I'm not sure what the worst gig I ever played was. It was either my cousin's graduation party when I was about 20. It was a typical Midwestern summer day with temperatures in the 90's and 90% humidity, and the June bugs were flying all around us smacking us in the face and bouncing off my banjo head. That was probably the most difficult situation I was in. Also a band I played in entered the Del Fest band competition. The show went okay, but when we found out we didn't win, some of the band members got real upset and wanted to leave a day earlier than what we had discussed going into the competition. I was upset we lost, but I was at a festival watching good music and having a good time. They couldn't get over the fact we lost and insisted on leaving. That lead to a huge argument. When I try to learn a new tune, I first go through and figure out the basic harmony/chords and rhythm of the song. Then I go through and figure out the basic melody. From there I put it all together and learn the song. At that point, I go through it and try to add some of my own flare and embellish the melody where I can, or learn the melody up the neck, or construct breaks based on the melody. Having a fundamental understanding of the harmony and melody is the most important part. Once you have that, you can just go with it and maybe pull ideas off other songs and add them, or insert some scale runs or tricks you may have picked up elsewhere. When I am playing a song, a variety of different things may be running through my mind. If it is a song that requires a lot of focus or one I am not fully confident with, I am constantly trying to stay one step ahead and get ready for the next chord change, lick, or whatever. I am totally engaged with where I am at in the song and where it is going next. If it is a song that I have played a thousand times, or just one I find easy to play, I may be thinking "look at that goofy hat that old lady is wearing", or "wow, look at her!" or, "what should I eat for dinner". It's very situational. When I approach practicing, I usually just like to start by playing something slow and simple to warm up, and play a few songs that gradually get a bit more complex and faster. When I am ready to begin practicing what I want to that day, I will always start it slow, and gradually pick up the tempo. I not only want to be able to play it, but see what I am doing and theoretically try to make sense of what I am doing. I tend to make myself play something perfectly 5 times in a row before I consider moving on. When I get too frustrated, I just walk away for a while and try again later. I don't want my practice time to be to frustrating or feel like a chore. I find that to be counterproductive. I do have a few bad picking habits. I developed a habit of letting my thumb pick hit the head of the banjo. It has gotten better over the years, but I can't seem to shake it. I also let my right hand tilt downward at the wrist when I should be keeping it straight. I also tend to tighten or clinch my left shoulder when I play, which doesn't allow for the most efficient use of my left hand. These are at least the problems that I am conscious of, and since I have become conscious of them, they have improved. I have met a lot of good pickers who are not very good about taking constructive criticism of their playing. I do my best to not be like that. My advice is to take as much of it as you can and analyze the criticism. Sometimes I find it to be unwarranted, but way more often there is something to it. Even people who do not play music have good criticism, but can not explain it as well. Take all constructive criticism seriously and really think about it. Don't let your ego, emotions or anything like that get it the way. It is always at least worth considering. It may open your eyes to an idea that has never crossed your mind before. I play a Deering Eagle II banjo with all stock parts. I bought the banjo from a phenomenal banjo player named Brandon Green who I was lucky enough to study under at ETSU. He won the banjo as a first place prize at the Merlefest 2012 banjo competition. He has since then won the national competition at Winfield, KS and currently teaches at ETSU and has his own Prucha banjo signature model. I use GHS strings mainly for the affordability and the fact that I have never had one break on me. I use Propik finger picks and National thumb picks. My "banjo heroes" are as follows (in no particular order); Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Bill Keith, Bela Fleck, Scott Vestal, J.D. Crowe, Courtney Johnson, Rob McCoury, Brandon Green, Will Parsons, Tony Trischka, Sonny Osborne, Sammy Shelor, and last but certainly not least, John Hartford.
I have just recently started delving into songwriting. My approach is to record or write everything down as soon as it comes into your head, because you will lose it if you don't. I have a lot of songs that are unfinished or that I don't care for, but there may be a line or two in there that fit perfectly somewhere else. Even if you think it's a stupid song, write it down. It may help you later down the line. My ultimate goal with music is to be able to make it a full time job. It's part time for me now. That way I could do it all the time and not live in a gutter. That would be ideal. Either way, I'm going to keep playing, and try to keep writing, whether it is for the public to hear, or for my ears only. I'm not going to stop. I've spent too much of my life doing it to stop now. Unfortunately living in central Illinois makes it hard to interact with banjo players on a regular basis. There are great banjo players in this area, but are too few and too far between. When I do run into one though, I just like to jam with them and try to learn something from them, and hopefully I can teach them something too. My advice to any beginning picker who wants to make a living at it is don't. If you are on the fence about it find a different career. It's cut-throat and you are going to really struggle financially. If you are gun-ho about doing it though, my advice would be to don't limit your practice to only one style of playing. Try to be as versatile as possible, because it will allow you so many more opportunities to make money doing it. Practice all the time and take your music seriously. People will only take it as seriously as you do. When I am not picking, I am working (carpentry), gardening and spending time with my lovely girlfriend Anna.