For some, the banjo may remain the stereotypical soundtrack of Appalachian misfortune, but on a musical level, it’s as important to some music as a Gibson Les Paul is to hard rock or a Telecaster to country rock and rockabilly.
It’s one of the more identifiable sounds of country and bluegrass music. Save for a top-tier few, a lifetime of practice might land you a few jobs that will give you the opportunity to play a bunch of music and see the country from coast to coast. Might.
But it’s working for Andy Thorn. The North Carolina-born banjoist began his musical partnership with Colorado in 2003 on a ski trip. Famed dobroist Anders Beck overheard Thorn playing in the now-closed Canyon Music on Second Avenue. They hung out, skied and played some. Thorn kept at it, winning the banjo contest at Rockygrass, along with the band contest with his new friends, the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band. They made a record, played some shows and dispersed.
Thorn continued to play, including stints in Natural Bridge with Larry Keel and with Big Fat Gap. Now he’s in Leftover Salmon and the Emmitt Nershi Band, both of which will come to Durango in the next month. Leftover Salmon will play March 10 at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and the Emmitt-Nershi Band will be in town tonight at the Abbey Theatre. That’s Drew Emmitt on mandolin and vocals, Bill Nershi on guitar and vocals, Thorn on banjo and Johnny Grubb on bass. Opening the show tonight will be Waiting on Trial.
For Thorn, a lot of notes have been played since that day in the music store. He was a college student studying jazz guitar and playing bluegrass on the side, with little intention of eventually making Colorado his home.
“I didn’t think I wanted to move out here until I realized how fun it was,” Thorn said. “Once I saw the scene in Durango, and then the whole Colorado scene, I was into it. It was really fun.”
Thorn started playing with Emmitt at the urging of fellow banjo player and Infamous Stringduster Chris Pandolfi. He started filling in, then joined the band and moved west. And it was Thorn’s relationship with Emmitt that led to an invitation to join Colorado favorite Leftover Salmon.
“It works out well for me because Drew and I have the same schedule,” Thorn said.
Emmitt and Nershi remain exciting to play with. Nershi’s old band String Cheese Incident outgrew Durango venues ages ago, and Emmitt rolls through town on a semi-annual basis. Both have been established musicians in Colorado and on the national festival circuit for years, and in Thorn they added a hot banjo picker who straddles a fine line between traditional and progressive playing.
Thorn is having a good time, too.
“It’s a lot of fun to stretch out more, and those that come to the show will see that,” he said. “We’re a pretty traditional bluegrass band at times, but at times we’ll take it completely out there, and it’s really fun to do both.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.