“What if Bela’s Drive had the vocals of Chris Thile/Michael Daves?”
You’ve probably never asked yourself that exact question, but I bet you’re imagining it now. Hank Smith, a progressive banjo player from the Raleigh area, has started a project that will seek to make that idea a reality.
Hank Smith’s banjo playing is equal to the best young progressive 5-string pickers on the scene, e.g. Pikelny, Pandolfi, and Thorn, but his career in the last 13 years been largely based in the southeastern jam-band/Americana scene more than the bluegrass circuit. Smith joined one of the top southeastern jam-grass bands, Barefoot Manner, in 2002. “I joined them straight out of graduate school. We toured the country until 2009 as a full-time band, but then people started getting real jobs and such,” says Hank. “But we still like to do fun pick-up gigs and festivals when we can.”
After a few different short-lived projects, Hank decided to tackle the grand poobah of all banjo challenges and lead a Béla Fleck and the Flecktones tribute band, which he called Blu Bop. “It was one of the more insane things I’ve done,” says Hank. “Everyone’s reaction was ‘Well, that’s ambitious!’ but we had some great gigs and raised some eyebrows, and it was also Bela approved!”
Hank, along with six other accomplished musicians, spent a year working up the material, featuring songs such as: Frontiers, UFO TOFU, Sinister Minister, Big Country, and Stomping Grounds. After booking some southeastern shows, Hank was at the 2013 IBMA conference handing out promotional handbills when someone alerted him that Béla and his wife Abigail Washburn were close by in the hotel. “I had never even spoken to Béla before, but a journalist told me I should go over and hand him a handbill. I gave it to him, he looked at it and said, ‘So you’re the guy!’ I had a brief moment of ‘Oh no, this could be bad,’ but he smiled and said ‘I think this is great. Some of the best years of my life were with this band and I think it’s fantastic that someone wants to do this! Best of luck.’”
Béla’s music has always been in Hank’s life since getting his first banjo. “I knew who Béla was before Earl,” he remembers. “I’d been playing his
In a true testament to the complexity of the Flecktones music, it took six great players to fully complete the sound of Bela, Victor, and Futureman. Blu-Bop consisted of Larry Q. Draughn on drums, Myron Koch on saxophones, Paul Messinger blowing the harmonicas, Justin Powell on the keyboards, Hank Smith on various banjos, Lindsey Tims on both fiddle and mandolin, and Scott Warren on bass.
“By watching the other musicians learn this music I realized that it’s still extremely banjo-centric,” says Hank. “These other instruments have to play these complicated 16th note runs that we take for granted because we roll. They can’t do that. It can be very difficult for them to play these banjo runs with the speed and precision required.” After seeing a couple of videos of their performances, Bela sent them a note saying, “This is great! You guys have worked so hard on this. I can’t wait to send it to the other [Flecktones] guys!” (Keep up with future Blu-Bop shows at their website and on Facebook.)
At this point, Hank and fiddler Lindsey Tims had played together in several bands, including Morning After and Barefoot Manner, and decided to record a duo album. “We wanted to honor all the music that we’d been listening to and playing through the years—the more progressive side of bluegrass,” says Hank. “We rushed through it,” Hank remembers. “We recorded and mixed it in our living room in five days so it would be out for IBMA.” The album, Impulse, is an instrumental powerhouse that revolves around banjo and fiddle interplay and can, in my opinion, stand toe-to-toe with any instrumental progressive bluegrass album out there. (You can find it on iTunes and Spotify.)
Impulse fell short of the IBMA instrumental album of the year nomination, but it was still one of the most successful projects Hank had done by this point. When Lindsey decided to take a break from the musician lifestyle, Hank started working on a band that would continue the progressive instrumental side of the album but would also feature strong vocals. Hank knew many great musicians that would work for the project, but replacing Lindsey on fiddle was the part he had to get right. Luckily, he had a lot of experience playing with fiddler Pattie Hopkins-Kinlaw in two other bands, Kicking Grass and The Morning After. Pattie, a classical violinist, started playing when she was 4, and her passion for the instrument took her to Asheville in her young adult years to embed herself in the heart of bluegrass. Her desire to trace the instrument back even farther led her to a backpacking trip through Ireland in search of teachers and jam sessions. “It is always eye-opening to be immersed in a culture that is not your own,” says Pattie. “Understanding the roots of our music was a real learning experience for me. As a fiddler, acquiring the skills that enable me to learn specific bowings, articulations, and melodies to produce a pure Irish sound on the fiddle was compelling. This particular journey changed my perception of the music from the stage and my own personal point of view. It made me contemplate my role as a young artist and educator at that time. I wanted to implement that feeling into my own world, both in performing and teaching.”
Both Hank and Pattie are IBMA Leadership graduates who consistently immerse themselves in both learning and teaching. “I am very passionate about education,” Pattie says. “I believe that as Americans we should learn our indigenous music. I started a violin studio in which my students learn classical and American styles, and like me, they sit in symphonies, read music and chord charts, and can jam on the 12-bar blues. I feel education walks hand-in-hand with my artistry and one without the other would not make me as passionate about my art.”
Bassist Scott Warren, who also holds down Victor Wooten’s lines in Blu-Bop, will be laying the foundation for this project as well. “Scott will add add a whole new element to the bluegrass side of us,” Hank says. “Most bassists can’t play lines and solos like he does.” And to bring back the Drive album with Thile/Daves vocals teaser, we have Ben Parker and Robert Thornhill on mandolin and guitar. They’ve performed as The Reckless Brothers duo since 2011 and sing with the comfortable ease that is the foundation of all the great duos in country music.
A common trait of bands who could be described as having an “all-star lineup” is the varied degrees of musical experience each person brings to the group. “All of the members are seasoned and serious about the music,” Pattie explained. “We all come from different backgrounds but seem to have a common link that has connected us from the beginning. Each individual brings his or her piece of the puzzle to the table, and this ensemble forms its own unique sound.”
One might think coming off the Flecktones tribute project and starting an all-star band might be enough for someone to tackle, but ever the life-long student of the 5-string, Hank has also become an understudy with Jens Kruger. “One of the world’s premier banjo players has taken an interest in what I’m doing,” says Hank, who is still surprised at his fortune. Jens Kruger, easily one of the greatest all-around banjo players to pick up the instrument, is creating some of the most beautiful instrumental music in the world right now, both in symphonic and progressive bluegrass areas. (Check out The Kruger Brothers album Suite- Volume 1.)
Hank describes his time with Jens as “profound” and “life-changing,” and from the sounds of it, quite Yoda-ish. “Jens has taught me to approach the music from outside yourself,” says Hank. “He tells me things like ‘Most people write from the heart or from an intellectual level, but it’s only as good as you’re willing to tolerate. You want people to discover new things about themselves that they didn’t know before. We paint with sounds. You start with a blank canvas and add a color and then another. So you start with a bare bones thing and build it up until you have a beautiful melody. We tweak [our shows] each time a little bit. We try to find the moment where we lose the audience and then we go back and try to fix that part where we thought we lost them. It’s really just melodic content and emotional delivery and inspiration outside of your own mind.’”
The Hank Smith and Patty Hopkins-Kinlaw Band hopes to record a full-length album in January of 2016. “Pattie will write half of it, and I will write half of it,” says Hank. “It will be an evolution of the Impulse album, but with vocals. It will be a one stop shop for all of the musical influences we’ve ever had.”