The 10 essential banjo albums | Songlines
Thursday, November 24, 2022

Banjo Albums | The Essential 10

By Nigel Williamson

Nigel Williamson selects 10 vital albums brimming with bluegrass, clawhammer and old-time reinventions

Songlines Essential 10 Banjo Albums

Nora Brown

Long Time to Be Gone (Jalopy Records, 2022)

Recorded in a historic church in Brooklyn, this gorgeous set of 16 traditional tunes and songs combines virtuosity and emotional depth, played by the brightest young star in old-time music on a variety of banjos, including a 134-year-old instrument once owned by her great-great-grandfather. 

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Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn

Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2020)

Washburn performs and records regularly as a duo with her husband and fellow banjo-picker Béla Fleck, but this disc uniquely teams her with Wu Fei and the guzheng (Chinese zither). The combination dazzles with stringed magic on folk songs drawn from North America and China. A work full of unexpected sonorities and surprisingly natural-sounding connections. 

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Flatt & Scruggs

The Foggy Mountain Sound of Flatt & Scruggs (Not Now Music, 2013)

Modern bluegrass banjo really begins with Scruggs. His ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’, which was first recorded in the 1940s with Bill Monroe’s band, must be the most played banjo tune ever. No selection of banjo albums would dare omit him, so try this generous compilation of 50 essential banjo-guitar duets recorded with his long-time musical partner Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Béla Fleck

Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol 3 (Rounder Records, 2010)

It’s hard to pick just one disc from among Béla Fleck’s impressive catalogue, but this stunning set stands apart as something unique. Recorded on Fleck’s travels around Africa to explore the banjo’s roots, his collaborators here include ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté and Oumou Sangaré, along with musicians from South and East Africa. 

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Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

They’re Calling Me Home (Nonesuch, 2021)

Giddens is far more than just a banjo player, of course, and with Carolina Chocolate Drops and on her solo recordings she plays fiddle and sings with a soulful emotion, too. But this album, recorded in lockdown with her Italian partner Turrisi accompanying on frame drum, features her potent banjo playing on most tracks and won a Grammy as Best Folk Album and a Songlines Music Awards nomination earlier this year. 

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Steve Martin

The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo (Rounder, 2010)

Away from playing it for laughs as a comedian, Martin is a seriously accomplished banjo player, which is how he ended up as a cover star for Songlines back in 2010 (#67). This hugely enjoyable album includes contributions from Dolly Parton plus fellow banjo virtuosi Tony Trischka and the veteran Earl Scruggs in one of his final recordings before his death in 2012. 

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Ola Belle Reed

Rising Sun Melodies (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2010)

If your idea of authentic banjo involves a rustic family picking and singing on an Appalachian back porch, Ola Belle Reed is the real deal. Born in the mountains of North Carolina in 1916, this collection recorded in the 1970s on which her banjo-playing and unforgettable, keening voice are accompanied by various members of the Reed clan, confirms her as one of the great unsung wonders of American vernacular music. 

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Pete Seeger

How to Play the 5-String Banjo (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1954)

Not included for its tunes, but because it’s the must-have seminal instruction disc for anyone wanting to play or understand the expansive capabilities of the not-so-humble banjo. Seeger provides examples of techniques such as ‘hammering on’ and ‘pulling off’ and illustrates how to play in folk, blues, jazz, flamenco and Latin American styles.

Andrew Tuttle

Fleeting Adventure (Mistletone Records/Basin Rock, 2022)

On his latest album the adventurous Australian instrumentalist Andrew Tuttle grounds his artful, melodic banjo-playing in a widescreen wash of guitar, fiddle, pedal-steel and electronica, creating haunting soundscapes located between the outback of Down Under and the wide-open prairies of the Old West.

We Banjo 3

String Theory (We Banjo 3, 2016)

Hailing from Galway and consisting of two pairs of brothers on three banjos and fiddle, this band label their exuberant Irish-bluegrass fusion ‘Celtgrass.’ This, their fourth album, is full of irresistibly propulsive tunes and earned them a slot playing for president Obama at Washington’s 2016 St Patrick’s Day celebrations. 

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