Q: Is it true that when you got out of college after studying opera at Oberlin, you didn't know how to play the banjo?
A: I didn’t know how to play anything. I had a few chords on the guitar. The only thing I knew how to do was sing without a microphone. I really didn’t start playing fiddle or banjo till I was 23, 24. I’m kind of self-taught. I took some lessons and stuff, but then I kind of locked myself in my room . . . and tried to figure it out.
Q: I don't hear you running around telling everybody how much of a genius you are, even though you did get a MacArthur "genius" grant. Do you realize this is notable?
A: But that’s the thing, I don’t think it is special. I think the thing I learned is that what stops us is not our ability. Yes, it’s easier to learn when you’re a child. Your brain is more elastic, it’s more adaptable. But the biggest asset that children have is they are learning everything. And they’re always failing. When we become adults, we’ve gotten good at something such as our chosen career. We can walk really well. So to suck at something is actually painful and we don’t really like that sensation. So for me, that was my biggest lesson. When I went to Oberlin, I didn’t know how to read music. And that experience just taught me that if you just throw yourself into it and are not afraid to fail, then that’s when you can learn things.
Q: On the Audible podcast "Words and Music," you talk about how, because of your racial background, you were always asked at auditions, "Where are you from?" When you're from North Carolina. How do you not feel just total frustration and annoyance with that?
A: I felt like it’s part of a larger problem I’ve wanted to address with my music anyway, because how I came into music was through the startling discovery of the banjo being a Black instrument. And so this idea of what is Black, what is White — all of that is a moving target and it’s one of the biggest problems we have in the States. We’re so addicted to race when biologically there is no difference between any of us. And how we look has been tied to certain ways of being, for financial reasons, for power reasons, for all these different historical reasons. It’s just like realizing that it’s part of a larger symptom and that each individual person, they’re not trying to be harmful. So I’m trying to think of the larger picture with my music and how can we change the situation. The idea of systemic racism is, for me, the real issue. If we can focus on why we’re so obsessed with race maybe we’ll get somewhere. But I’m just a banjo player. So I do it with my music whenever I can.
Q: "I'm just a banjo player." You can't be boxed in as a musician. You make people think beyond the music. You sing an aria, someone goes, "Oh, interesting." Or you play the most mountain music-y tune and they go, "Wait a second, maybe that doesn't have its origins in Ralph Stanley. Maybe there's more to that."
A: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m all about “and also.” We get really stuck in the “either, or,” which my mom said to me one time. It stuck with me ever since.
Q: On your first album, the song "Last Kind Words" by Geeshie Wiley is haunting. When did you first hear it?
A: I think somebody sent me a link to an article about the song. And it had excerpts from the song. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this song is amazing.” I think I heard the Kronos Quartet version. Then when I did my record with T Bone [Burnett,] we needed something to open the record. . . . And it was the thing. It was absolutely the thing. I mean, Colin [Linden] . . . really just wails on that guitar.
Anying Guo contributed to the production of this story.