As much as she loves the traditional bluegrass that has informed her life and music, even singer Rosanne Cash can’t resist telling a banjo joke: “What do you call all the banjo players in the world at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”
The daughter of Johnny Cash cracks up, laughing heartily over the phone during a break in her tour. It’s not necessarily what one would expect from the host of the upcoming broadcast “PBS Arts From the Blue Ridge Mountains: Give Me the Banjo.” But part of the idea behind a new series, “PBS Arts Fall Festival,” which begins Friday, is to bring some new zest to the somewhat musty format of public television arts programming.
“The banjo was integral to so much music I loved,” says Cash, 56. “It has deep associations with Appalachian bluegrass, and, you know, maybe that’s why some people dismiss it, people who are into rock.” Although she doesn’t play the banjo, she became “obsessed” with the Earl Scruggs Revue at age 19, she says, and went on to sing with the banjo legend, who is featured in “Give Me the Banjo.”
The broadcast Nov. 4, sketching the history of the archetypal American instrument, is narrated by actor, comedian and banjoist Steve Martin and is one of nine installments, meant to highlight the diversity in arts programming across the nation. Included are ballet from Miami, rock from Seattle, opera from Los Angeles and a dance documentary from Chicago.
With the series, PBS says it aims to create a viewer destination on Friday nights. Celebrity hosts will open and close the programs and introduce locally produced segments that accompany the main programs. The premiere features actor Rainn Wilson of “The Office,” hosting a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. (Wilson performed in Guthrie productions in 1996 and 1998.) Other guest hosts include Andy Garcia, Linda Ronstadt and Paula Zahn.
The series content will look familiar to PBS fans: The fall festival is made up in part of programs that bear such long-
established names as “American Masters” and “Great Performances.” But Paula Kerger, PBS president and chief executive, says that those programs had been strewn throughout the schedule and that this marks the first time the network has consolidated arts on one evening.
The shows will air on member stations and be made available to teachers online as part of PBS education efforts. The series was several years in the making, Kerger said, because PBS had to raise enough money to showcase as many cities as possible.
The broadcasts will also give local public stations a role: They get a piece of each program, a cut-in time allotment during which they can air content of their own, if they choose to highlight and promote their communities’s performance and arts scenes.
“Friday night is when people sort of wind down from the week and start to think about the weekend ahead,” Kerger said. “I think that gives sort of an added push for people. If they see a ballet performance that they like, if they see an opera performance that they like, they might feel inclined to really look at what’s happening locally, which is why we wanted to sort of glue together the local perspective of the arts, as well.”
Whereas television once offered a decent allotment of high-culture fare through cable networks such A&E and Bravo, those networks have moved away from arts programming and toward the cathode-ray-tube equivalent of junk food for the eyes: reality shows along the lines of the various “Real Housewives,” “Top Chef,” “Hoarders,” “Intervention” and so forth.
This left a void that PBS seeks to fill, Kerger says.
“We are America’s largest stage. More people watch a performance of the Met on public television than could possibly fill all the opera houses in the country, and so what we have been able to create is a space [so] that everyone can participate in the arts.”
It is unlikely that “Give Me the Banjo” will ever compete with Bravo’s “America’s Next Top Model.” But, from Kerger’s perspective, that is why public television exists — to offer enriching alternatives: “No matter where you live or what your economic means, you have access to the best performances.”
As Cash put it, “It’s one of the things that PBS does the best — the arts and taking it seriously and not pumping it up into celebrity culture, but real art and music. And that’s why they’re so invaluable on the American landscape.”
“PBS Arts Fall Festival” will air Fridays (except Dec. 9) through Dec. 16, beginning this week.