Here’s an interview I had a while back. Hope you enjoy it!
Studio: Phillip, please tell us about yourself.
Phillip: I`m 36 years old and live in Waverly, Tennessee on a 370 acre. I`m Grandpa Jones` great nephew. My grandmother was his sister. She was the oldest of ten children, and he was the youngest. They grew up in Niagara, Kentucky…they sharecropped and moved around a lot. When they were young they grew tobacco.
I grew up in Florida, and Grandpa sent me a banjo in the mail when I was about ten years old. Whenever Grandpa would play a show in Florida he’d come and stay with us, and he taught me the old way of playing the banjo. A lot of people call it Clawhammer, but Grandpa used to call it the “thumb-string” because you drop your thumb down and hit the other strings with it too, and that’s the way I play. Some people call it “drop-thumb” or frailing: it really depends on what region you are from. It’s the old time way of playing the banjo and he taught me when I was around eleven years old. My cousin Mark taught me too later on. I played some county fairs when I was young. My dad got me into them and I`d play intermission between acts as they were going off and on. I played twice with Grandpa when he was playing in Florida, which is something I really cherish a lot now that he is gone, especially. On one occasion he played with me so that we had two banjos going at the same time, and that was pretty neat. That was before I got my career started, I was nineteen years old then.
I basically do the same thing that Grandpa used to do. I dress up in old-time clothes because I think it fits the music; the homespun shirts, the trousers, and the hats kind of puts you back in that era of the old time music, as opposed to getting all dressed up and wearing a cowboy hat or something, because I don`t play bluegrass, just the old-time stuff.
I play the guitar also. Grandpa taught me an old two finger style of picking the guitar, and basically I play his stuff. Stringbean, Uncle Dave Macon, Same & Kirk McGee`s material, & Cousin Emmy who is the lady who taught Grandpa to play the banjo. I play some of Coon creek Girls, they were a real popular all girls string band back in the thirties- they were from Kentucky. A lot of good music came from Kentucky. So I play a wide variety of the old time music, I don’t just play Grandpa’s stuff.
They have a festival in Murfreesboro, Tennessee every July. It’s called Uncle Dave Macon Days, and basically there`s nothing but competitions. If you win Old Time Banjo you are the national champion, which means you`re the best in the country in that category. I`ve won the Old Time Banjo contest three times, so I`m a three time national champion, and I’m pretty proud of that! I don’t like to brag, though, saying “I’ve won this, I`ve won that”, because as sure as you do that someone will come and knock you of your perch! It was important to me, though, to be the Old Time Banjo national champion because it categorizes you as Old Time, you`re not bluegrass. That really meant a lot to me. I`ve played festivals from Virginia to Kentucky to Florida, and I`m on the T.V. on RFD channel on the Cumberland Highlanders Show, a weekly bluegrass show that`s on Monday nights. I was on a episode of Tennessee Crossroads, which is on public television where they highlight different things about Tennessee parks, places, people, and things to do and see, so I`ve been getting a lot of good airtime.
Studio: You`ve worked really hard to become the banjo player you are today. Can you guess at how many hours of practice time you’ve put in over the years?
Phillip: Thousands, probably! And lately I Practice more on the guitar because that’s something I just picked up about twelve years ago. I`ve had to teach myself how to flat pick, although in 1996 Grandpa taught me the old time two finger style on picking the guitar.
I wanted to learn this song called Sweet Dream Kentucky, which is the first song he learned how to play. You know, Grandpa didn’t learn how to play the banjo until he was in his thirties! He started out playing the guitar from the time he started on the radio when he was sixteen. Then when he was up in West Virginia at a station, he met Cousin Emmy who was also a Kentuckian, and she taught him the old time drop-thumb style of picking the banjo.
Studio: Do you ever teach banjo?
Phillip: I`ve actually given banjo lessons to several people. One lady was in her forties when I started teaching her, and she picked it right up.
Studio: So, as far a learning goes, age doesn’t really matter?
Phillip: If you want it bad enough you can do it. Everybody knows it’s all in your mind and how bad you want to do something, and you can will yourself to do something if you want if bad enough.
Studio: Please tell our readers more about the television shows you`ve been involved with.
Phillip: Well the one show called Cumberland Highlanders, how I got to be involved with that is I played a festival up in Rosine, Kentucky that’s in honor of Bill Monroe. He was born in Rosine and actually on his home site they`ve restored his childhood home and they have a festival every year – this year it’s October 5th through the 8th. This will be my third year playing there and they take a lot of footage from that and put it on this Cumberland Highlanders show. If you have Direct TV it’s channel 379, and it’s a really big station for rural people because it’s got to do a lot with farming, antique trackers, locomotives, horses, cattle, and music. The show`s on every Monday night and I`ve been on it about six times in the past year and a half. The last time I was on it they dedicated a whole show to me which was really, really neat!
The other show was on public television, a show called Tennessee Crossroads and it’s on every week, but only in Tennessee and southern parts of Kentucky, and northern Georgia. They did a good little piece on me on that show.
Studio: Do you have any advice for people who are working hard on their music?
Phillip: Just never give up! Keep doing what you`re doing, and as long as people are encouraging you and telling you you`re doing a good job, then you`ve got to stick with it. With a regular job it’s hard, but you`ve got to work overtime. The main thing you`ve got to do is let people see you. You`ve got to get to where these people are at that run these different venues, and let them see you. It doesn’t matter if you have to drive an hour or two hours to play, even if it’s for nothing. But the exposure you`ll get, if you`re good enough and the people see you, things will start happening. It may take one year, two years, three years to get your foot in the door, but you can’t give up. You`ll have highs and lows, like everytime I see myself on T.V. I feel so good knowing that someone thinks enough about me to put me on their show, but then there’s days and weeks when you don’t have a show to play.
It’s the response you get from the people that means everything. Whether it’s a small crowd of twenty-five people or two thousand, if they like what you’re doing they’ll let you know it! If you want to be successful in bluegrass or old-time music you have to persevere. You just can’t give up.
Studio: Please talk to us about the differences between bluegrass and old time music.
Phillip: Old time music is where bluegrass got their songs from. They took old timey songs and they adapted them to that style of bluegrass picking, which actually kept a lot of the old music alive and kept it in the public ear. Once earl Scruggs did his style on the banjo Grandpa Jones was the only one that kept the clawhammer style in the public light by playing shows, and he didn’t switch over.
Ralph Stanley was a very fine clawhammer banjo picker and he figured if he was going to make money and keep up he`d better make a change, and he did. But Grandpa stuck with the old time way of playing and he said, “Well I couldn’t play that other style anyway!” But he was so good at what he did, and he was an entertainer.
A lot of people don`t understand about the old time music the way Grandpa played it, the way Uncle Dave and Same & Kirk McGee played it: they were entertainers. They weren’t just musicians who got up and played song after song after song. They`d sing a song, then tell you a joke and make you laugh, then they`d play a serious song. Burl Ives once said, “Give me a song that will make me laugh or cry, I don’t want nothing in between”. How simple is that? The reason Grandpa started telling jokes is because usually they’d have these big tent shows, and you`d have your comedy acts, you`d have your string bands, then you`d have your solo artists. Grandpa couldn’t afford to hire a guitar play or even a comedian, so he’d do the comedy himself. It was just himself walking out on stage.
My dad always said, “You know what was so impressive about Grandpa back in the early days is that after the last act would get done he’d come on there…they`d be clearing out all these instruments and then the stage would open up again and here`s Grandpa walking out with his banjo strapped on and a guitar. He’d walk out there by himself lay that guitar down, and that was him!” That was impressive to have just one person come out and entertain a whole crowd. That’s what I try to do!
I try to keep the crowds entertained. I tell jokes. They`re good clean country humor, and you poke fun at yourself. Grandpa said, “If you poke fun at yourself the crowds will love you!” That’s basically what I try to do, to keep the crowds entertained. I don`t play twenty banjo songs in a row, twenty guitar songs, but I play a real fast hard-driving banjo tune, then I`ll play them a nice easy one, then I`ll tell a joke or two, then I`ll get the guitar out and sing them a yodel song, and the crowd doesn’t get tired of what you`re doing!
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