By Michael Roberts
Published: Thursday, September 15, 2005
"When you get to the highest levels of the entertainment business," says banjo expert Pete Wernick, "you never know what to expect."
The Coloradan is experiencing this truism firsthand. Since making his recorded debut in 1971 with a band called Country Cooking, the self-proclaimed Dr. Banjo has distinguished himself in roots-music circles as an inventive solo artist, the co-founder of Hot Rize and, currently, the leader of Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five), a group that infuses bluegrass with an unexpectedly jazzy vibe. But on Wednesday, September 21, he'll perform for the largest audience of his career when he guests on Late Night With David Letterman as part of Men With Banjos (Who Know How to Use Them), a quintet that features Earl Scruggs, his all-time musical hero, and comic-turned-movie-star Steve Martin.
Prior to headlining multiplex hits such as The Jerk and the Father of the Bride flicks, Martin incorporated banjo playing into his standup act, and he continues to pick for his own pleasure. He's also an aficionado of other banjoists, and when he mentioned his admiration for Wernick's work in an interview with Banjo NewsLetter magazine, the pair connected through a mutual friend. Shortly after being invited to a party at the actor's New York City apartment attended by the likes of Monty Python vet Eric Idle, Wernick became Martin's banjo sensei, teaching him techniques and encouraging his songwriting. One day, during a break from filming Cheaper by the Dozen 2 outside Toronto, Martin called Wernick about a new composition he was refining, but admitted that he didn't have anything to record it on -- which explains why he wound up playing the tune into Wernick's answering machine.
Cut to March, when Martin asked Wernick if he would like to participate in a September 24 banjo summit at NYC's Directors Guild of America theater in conjunction with the annual New Yorker Festival. Wernick told Martin he was already booked, having committed to take part in a banjo festival in Ireland -- "but two days later, a gong went off in my head, and I was like, 'You idiot,'" he recalls. He subsequently joined the lineup of the show, which sold out in five minutes -- and in July, he experienced another pleasant surprise. "I got this very dry, strictly informational e-mail asking if I was available to be on the David Letterman show on the 21st," he says. Also receiving invites were Wernick's wife, Joan, and their son, Will, who will supplement the banjos with guitar and mandolin during both New York appearances.
The Men With Banjos moniker sounds like a typical Martin joke, but Wernick's the one who came up with it, and he believes it's apropos. Tony Ellis and Charles Wood, two of Martin's other recruits, are widely respected for their virtuosity, and the venerable Scruggs, now 81, initially inspired Wernick to devote himself to the banjo. "I first saw him play when I was fourteen or so," he says. "There's no doubt that he's singlehandedly responsible for changing my life." Wernick hopes a few of the young musicians who hear the Men unleash "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Scruggs's signature song, on Letterman will have similar reactions: "I'd like to return the favor Earl did for me." As for Martin, Wernick notes, "He's shy about his playing, but he's quite good."
At this point, there are no plans for the Men With Banjos to record together, and Wernick refuses to pressure Martin on the subject. "I don't let myself think about that," he admits. Upon his return from New York, he'll focus on smaller-scale projects, including a November banjo camp in Boulder (check www.drbanjo.com for details) and a twice-monthly Flexigrass residency beginning October 4 at the D Note, 7519 Grandview Avenue in Arvada. Still, he's excited that the instrument he loves will receive some rare spotlight time.
"Three minutes on Letterman, with banjos front and center?" he asks. "That's a pretty big deal."
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