Last fall, I was invited to attend a live musical performance at the Jalopy Theater and School of Music and write about it for Big City Folks. It was the release show for “Sidetrack My Engine”, the second album by 16-year-old Brooklyn-based banjo virtuoso Nora Brown. I gladly accepted. Below is my account of Brown’s 25-song, two-set show, with some added bits of information that I researched after the fact and included here for context. Plus, a bonus interview I conducted with Brown after the show.
By Ben Bar
On September 25th at 8:30pm, I arrived at the Jalopy, which I’d never been to, admittedly. The venue—a small, cozy space with an exposed brick interior and stringed instruments on the walls—occupies the ground floor of a 90-year-old building tucked away in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, right by the border of Carroll Gardens (though some old-school Brooklynites consider this to be part of Red Hook). Founded in 2006, the nonprofit theater-school-bar-café even has its own label, Jalopy Records, with a roster of 28 artists, including, of course, Nora Brown.
The album itself is a 7-track LP clocking in at just shy of 20 minutes, containing the kinds of old-time (a type of American folk music) traditional songs played in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee that Brown is known for. It also features Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton on bones, and Jackson Lynch on fiddle, the latter of whom would later accompany Brown on some songs during her release show, as would fiddler Stephanie Coleman. Though Paxton was originally scheduled to accompany Brown during the show, he unfortunately could not make it.
Image courtesy of Norabrownmusic.com
Dressed in a light blue, short-sleeved, button-down collared shirt, and tall brown boots under dark blue slacks, Nora Brown took a seat on stage. Her light brown, balayage hair, which she wore up, caught an extra blondish tint from the strong stage lights. Eli Smith, a singer-songwriter who runs Jalopy Records, gave a brief introduction while an animated Brown emphatically expressed her approval in real-time, using comical gesticulations. After a hearty applause from the audience, Brown plucked a nearby banjo string to get in tune, and got things started with an a cappella performance of the Nimrod Workman ballad “Oh Death”. Free from the distractions of other sounds, we were able to take in the pure sound of her earthy, quasi-whispery voice as it hit, and sustained, satisfyingly low-pitched notes punctuated by delicate high ones.
After that powerfully somber opening performance, Brown restored the show’s jovial, casual atmosphere with a hard-to-believe second-hand anecdote of a 95-year-old Nimrod wreaking havoc during field recordings of his music by crab-walking and intentionally tripping people. She kept the good vibes going by using her trademark instrument to treat us to a rendition of the playful Fred Cockerham tune “Little Satchel”. This particular banjo was a metal-stringed Gibson “Snakehead” circa the early 1920s. During the extended, vocal-free post-choruses, Brown carried the melody with some skillfully executed, slick riffs, and although she established the beats very clearly with the banjo alone, she also occasionally threw in some good old-fashioned stomping, which ended up being a common occurrence throughout the show.
Switching things up again, Brown busted out a nylon-stringed, fretless banjo (one that her father had made in the style of a pre-Civil War replica), and played an instrumental song that started off plodding, only to gain considerable speed after a bit. Back on the Gibson, Brown played “Frankie and Albert”, the second track off her new album, but not before joking that she’d written the song based on a murder she’d committed, which deservedly got plenty of laughs. Truthfully, though, the song is a murder ballad based on real events. It also has several incarnations, including a jazz standard version, and these incarnations have been performed by a lengthy list of big-name artists and genre pioneers, such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, and Sam Cooke.
As a tribute to “Blind Boy” Paxton, Brown played one of his songs on her fretless banjo, which, like the prior song she’d played on that instrument, nearly doubled in tempo partway through. She followed this up by switching to her Gibson and playing “Cumberland Gap”, which she learned from the late great Kentucky banjo guru Lee Sexton (there’s actually a wonderful video on Brown’s YouTube channel of her playing this song with a 90-year-old Sexton, who is approximately seven times her age in the video).
The seventh song of the night was the instrumental “Flowery Girls”, by Tennessee banjoist Omer Forster. For this part of the show, Brown brought out a much smaller, silvery, nylon-stringed Luscomb banjo. Someone in the audience asked her about its origin, prompting her to explain that it had belonged to her great, great grandfather, who’d lived in Nashville. Remarkably, the plucking of “Flowery Girls” is done using only the thumb and index finger, and it contains many long sections during which the fretting hand stays very high up on the banjo’s neck. Next, Brown changed to an acoustic guitar (a 1940 Epiphone Byron) with a capo on the fourth fret, and played a few verses from the first (and only) song of the night written in the current millennium, “I Dream a Highway” by Gillian Welch.
Next on deck was the opening track of Brown’s new album, an instrumental traditional Missouri fiddle tune titled “8th of January”. For this, Brown brought back the Gibson, and, appropriately, Jackson Lynch joined on fiddle, imbuing the song with an enhanced rhythmic component that made it stand out from all the prior songs. Impressively, the two gave a joyful performance that was, at the same time, tight and frenetic, even though this was Brown’s ninth consecutive performance. Following “8th” was the second wildly-popular traditional standard of the night, “Liza Jane”, which was also the third song off Brown’s new album. She kept her banjo, but Lynch tagged in a new fiddler, Stephanie Coleman, who struck the strings coll’arco like nobody’s business, while singing the same vocal parts as Brown at times.
Before launching into the penultimate song of the first set, “By the Waters of the James”, Brown explained that it’d been notably covered by Kentucky-raised Appalachian folk duo The Local Honeys (Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs). This song saw the return of Lynch, who played the guitar Brown had used earlier. He mostly stayed in the lower register of the Byron’s range, adding some nice bass depth to the song, while Brown and Coleman kept their same instruments, an arrangement that lent the show a newfound sonic fullness. Brown’s final pre-intermission song, an instrumental Virginian fiddle jam titled “Hell Among the Yearlings”, involved no personnel or instrument changes, and memorably included a simple, well-placed, four-note ascending banjo riff, which would cut through the soundscape occasionally, adding further richness. A broadly-grinning Brown seemed more in her element than ever.
Eager to see what else Brown had in store for us, I grabbed some food during the intermission and came back ready for more.
Nora Brown with Jackson Lynch. Image courtesy of Norabrownmusic.com
Brown kicked off the second set by using her Gibson to play a nameless, instrumental song known as “Will Davenport’s Tune”, taught to Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport by his father, Will. Much like “Little Satchel”, this song put Brown’s high-agility banjo playing on full display; at times, it even sounded as though two separate melodies were being played simultaneously. Afterwards, as she tuned, she amusingly let us know that not only is there a YouTube video of Clyde playing that song, but in the comments section she left a note correcting someone who’d mistaken it for another tune, “Shady Grove”.
The next song, “Southern Texas”, was much slower and more serious, and was taught to her by banjo master George R. Gibson. This song seemed to have a bit more of a pop or country element to it than the others. After that, Brown played “Coal Creek March”, an instrumental song she’d learned from Eli Smith, commemorating the 1890 coal mining war in Anderson County, Tennessee. Next, she played the fifth track off her new album, “Wedding Dress” (my personal favorite track), using her fretless banjo, which made this the first post-intermission changeup. This tune was one she’d learned from the late musician and folk music documentarian/revivalist John Cohen.
The fifth song, a jaunty ditty called “Green Sleeve”, was originally collected from the playing of a man named Henry Hall, in a village called Cave-In-Rock, located in the southern tip of Illinois. As such, Brown’s Gibson-playing was accompanied by the fiddling of Coleman, who explained that she, too, hails from the Prairie State. For the following song, Coleman stayed, though Brown switched to her fretless banjo. This song, titled “The Very Day I’m Gone”, was popularized by Kentuckian ballad singer Addie Graham, and is also the fourth song off Brown’s new album. Perhaps the slowest and most melancholic song yet, it featured gorgeous, airy vocal harmonies in the choruses, not to mention the lyric from which the album takes its title.
And if you say so
I’ll railroad no more
Sidetrack my engine and go home, mm-mm mm
Sidetrack my engine and go home
This may have been my favorite performance of the night, simply because of how captivating I found it.
While Coleman and Brown tuned in preparation for the subsequent piece, Brown demanded that Coleman break the silence. Coleman obliged her by sharing an observation of hers that Brown had been pointing her banjo at Coleman while tuning it, almost as if to increase the likelihood that, in the event of a string breaking, it’d hit Coleman. Brown responded by telling a story about herself and Coleman getting covered in “sweat beetles” in the Nethermead of Prospect Park. I’m still unclear on what sweat beetles are, but it made for outstanding stage banter.
Brown’s seventh song, another energetic, traditional instrumental tune, titled “Jaybird Died of the Whooping Cough”, had Brown again switch back to the Gibson, and would be the night’s final duo with Coleman. Lynch replaced Coleman on fiddle for the next song, “Green Valley Waltz”, and joked that he learned it in “Green Valley”, further clarifying that he learned it from “the folks in Green Valley”. The sixth song off the album, it included Brown and Lynch singing the same part quite often, with frequent, soulful falsetto from Lynch. Brown kept the same arrangement for the following tune, “Going Down the Lee Highway”, on which Lynch delivered many superb fiddle trills.
Afterwards, Lynch switched to the guitar, and Brown put away her banjo, which was the first time since the opener that she’d not been holding an instrument during a performance. This song, titled “Your Long Journey”, originally written by North Carolinian Doc Watson in 1963, had Brown and Lynch singing in well-synchronized unison throughout. Then, Coleman returned, Lynch resumed his fiddling duties, and Brown picked up the guitar to hammer out nothing but lead melodies, this time on another Watson song (co-written by Gaither Carlton), “Double File”. The twelfth song, titled “Hares on the Mountain”, was another that’d been covered by The Local Honeys, though the earliest version of this song was published in London in 1902. This time, Lynch was on guitar, Brown returned to her Gibson, and Coleman stayed on fiddle.
The trio kept the same arrangement for their closer, yet another bouncy, traditional instrumental fiddle jam, “Wild Shoat”. While tuning beforehand, Brown had quizzed the audience to see if anyone knew what a “shoat” was. Someone conflated it with a “stoat”, but luckily, someone else gave the precise-enough answer of “pig” (it’s a piglet, which Brown ultimately took great care to make sure we understood).
After the show, I approached Brown to congratulate her on the album release and excellent show, and to ask for the tuning she used for “Little Satchel” (to fulfill a friend’s request). She happily obliged me, even going so far as to write the tuning on a piece of paper and leave a thoughtful note about which string would most likely to break. I went home feeling enriched, and very curious. Much later, I shared some questions with Brown via email, which she gave terrific responses to via voice memo. Read on to see what she said!
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image courtesy of Norabrownmusic.com
Ben: What about the banjo do you love most?
Nora Brown: Something I love about the banjo is, just like all instruments, there are unique qualities that make it sound the way it does. One of those big qualities would be that fifth string, that drone string. That is specifically very prevalent in old-time music and claw hammer banjo. Because it’s not fretted, it stays in that pitch throughout the song, which is why it’s called a “drone”, where it’s that same note you’re gonna hear consistently throughout the music. This is a really cool quality about the banjo, and it’s maybe subconscious, but I think that’s maybe of one of the reasons the banjo sound sticks out to some people.
Ben: Are there things you feel that you can do with a banjo that you can’t necessarily do as easily, or at all, with other instruments?
Nora Brown: Something that I like doing with the banjo—that I can do with the guitar, but it’s just different on the banjo—is singing with the banjo. I know that in most scenarios, I guess kind of what most people are used to seeing, is the banjo being played in a group as a melody instrument, and not always to accompany a vocalist. But in eastern Kentucky traditions, there’s a lot of singing with the banjo. Which I think is just a very cool idea, because the banjo is often a melody instrument, so when you use it as a backup instrument as well, it creates this cool combination. You sing, and you back yourself up, and then in the instrumental breaks you use the banjo to its full potential, showing off the melody aspect, but then when you get back to singing you show that it can effectively back up your vocals. That’s something that I find very fun to do with the banjo.
Ben: Do you have plans for a third album?
Nora Brown: I do actually have plans for a third album; it’s in the works right now. I recorded it in May 2021 in St. Anne’s Church, which is a beautiful space in Brooklyn, and it’s actually where the Brooklyn Folk Festival happens. We were able to use the space for two days. It was really, really cool to move around in different parts of the church and record using different sounds and experiment with the location.
Ben: What do you think you might try to achieve with that album, on an artistic level, that you weren’t necessarily trying to achieve with either of your first two albums?
Nora Brown: This is a good question, because right now I’m working on the cover art and fun stuff like that, and I’m thinking about what’s different about this album and how that’s gonna be reflected within some of the artwork on the album. I do think that there are some differences from my earlier albums, a big one being that I have a little bit more individualism on this one, because I didn’t have a producer and I wasn’t really collaborating with other people, so it’s really just me playing banjo! There’s a lot of instrumental stuff, there’s some vocal tracks too, and I think it’s a little bit more of a deep dive into my repertoire. There are definitely some more unusual pieces there that may not be as approachable as some of the other stuff that I have, but I’m excited for this. It was really cool to record while having that flexibility, making my own path, and choosing things, and just kind of experimenting with different sounds and trying different songs on different banjos. It was a lot of fun! I’m excited for this. There’s a little more individualism on this one. It’s a little more personal.
Ben: About two months before the release show for “Sidetrack My Engine”, you posted to your YouTube channel a video of yourself doing a guitar cover of “Between the Bars”, the Elliott Smith song. I think it’s the only pop or rock song cover you’ve got on your channel, and it might even be the only such song cover that’s available to the general public. Do you have any interest in continuing to explore genres outside of old-time traditional American music, whether on guitar, banjo, or another instrument?
Nora Brown: I did make that video of Between the Bars, the Elliott Smith song. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. I love it very much. I’ve been doing a lot more non-traditional stuff recently, because I’ve been picking up the guitar, and trying stuff out on it. I’ve been doing a lot of Gillian Welch songs. Yes, I am always very interested, whether with a guitar or banjo, in trying new stuff. It’s always very exciting to me when I come across something that is not traditional but that I think would work well on a banjo. For example, I learned this tune “Sir Duke”, the Stevie Wonder song, from a friend, Taylor Ashton, at Miles of Music Camp, and learning all that was very cool. That solo part for the trumpet…[heavy sigh]. In conclusion, I really do enjoy trying out different genres.
Ben: I think it’s fair to say that the banjo is underrepresented in contemporary pop and rock music, which is a shame. Off the top of my head, the banjo solo in Pavement’s “Folk Jam” is pretty cool, but I struggle to name many other examples of good banjo representation. By comparison, the ukulele seems to have been having somewhat of a moment. Are there any contemporary pop or rock artists you’d be interested in collaborating with, either because you think you’d vibe with them, or because you think their music could particularly benefit from some world-class banjo playing?
Nora Brown: I agree that definitely the banjo is underrepresented in a lot of contemporary pop and rock music, which I also agree is a shame. I think the banjo could be a great addition to a lot of contemporary tracks. As for this question, definitely, yes. I obviously have a lot of contemporary artists that I listen to that I would of course love to collaborate with, but I also have already done a little bit of this: playing on friends’ recording projects, and they kind of direct me in the way that they are interested in hearing the banjo, and I fill it in. So, I’ve done stuff like that before, using the banjo in other genres to accent or complement some of the sounds that are already happening. I know that contemporary artist Phoebe Bridgers definitely uses a lot of banjo in her music. I don’t know if she would be considered pop or rock but I think it’s really cool that she, as a contemporary artist, is incorporating that into her music. So, it goes without saying that as a big fan of Phoebe’s music, I would of course love to collaborate with her and with other artists of the like. I know that there’s been a rise in folk-rock kind of blended artists recently. So, yeah, for sure.
Ben: I understand that you’re not 100% committed to the idea of lifelong, full-time musicianship. Of course, you’re still in high school, so you still have all the time in the world to explore and grow. Do you have any ideas about what path you might want to go down aside from full-time musicianship? Is anything else calling your name, or at least piquing your interest?
Nora Brown: Yeah, I am not a hundred percent committed to being a full-time musician, but I definitely, of course, wanna play music as long as I live. But in the future, I’m interested in pursuing environmental activism and the environmental sciences in general. That’s about it! Of course, I’m still in high school and I’ve just started looking into colleges and looking at that stuff so I’m nowhere near understanding what I’m gonna do in the future, but I do have a couple of ideas.
Ben: You mentioned in another interview that people don’t always take the banjo seriously as an instrument, because they don’t understand its complexity or its history, which is a thing you’d like to change. In American popular culture, perhaps the most well-known banjo tune is “Dueling Banjos” (originally “Feudin’ Banjos”), which was written in 1954. As you know, most of the banjo tunes you play were passed down organically, from one person to the next, across many generations, and we’ll probably never be able to figure out who originally wrote them, if it could even be said that they have authors. So, compared to the tunes you play, “Dueling Banjos” is from a completely different era, and is the product of a completely different song creation process. Ultimately, while it is a neat tune, it doesn’t bear any of the stories or history that the tunes you play do, despite being more popular. And this isn’t an isolated case. Don’t even get me started on the Swedish 1995 club hit “Cotton-Eyed Joe”. Is this something you think about from time to time? How do you feel about it?
Nora Brown: Yeah, I’ve mentioned before that the banjo has this almost comedic aspect to it, as perceived by many people. That’s definitely due to popular media portraying it this way and leaving out a lot of the complexities of its history. I do think that there has been growing knowledge with players like Rhiannon Giddens, who has dedicated a lot of her career to sharing the knowledge and the history of the banjo, and I think she’s done an amazing job of exposing people to the African roots of the banjo and sharing a more accurate depiction of what the banjo really is. I think that’s really incredible, and that’s exactly what we need. Because once people understand that there’s just so much more to the instrument, I think that can really change people’s perspectives on why it’s so valuable, and reposition the banjo’s role in American history.
Ben: If you had the power to cause any traditional banjo tune of your choosing to magically become the most popular banjo tune on earth, would you exercise that power? If so, which tune would you choose? Other than one you’re known for, of course!
Nora Brown: I think that’s a fun question, but I think that if we were to focus on changing the narrative around the instrument…if people like Rhiannon Giddens were spreading this message and repositioning and revisiting the history of the banjo that is so set in so many people’s minds…when many people hear that the banjo is an African instrument, I’ve seen people get this puzzled look on their faces, because it’s been so overly pushed as this white, white instrument, which is obviously very, very inaccurate. Something that I try to do is to share not only the history of the banjo, but also the regional specificities and attributes of certain styles of banjo music, and the diversity of the instrument and of the music played upon it, which helps reframe the banjo as a very complex, valuable, and incredible instrument.
Ben: You clearly admire and respect the banjo masters you’ve worked with, and they seem to have been very welcoming and happy to teach you, both because of your immense talent, and because you’re keeping the tradition alive. Hopefully, you’ve experienced nothing but full-hearted support. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like someone wasn’t so open to you being a steward for old-time traditional American songs, because of who you are, or because of who they believed you to be? In other words, have you ever felt like you had to overcome unnecessary obstacles to get to where you are now, either because of your age, your gender, where you grew up, or anything else?
Nora Brown: Yeah, I wanna thank you for asking this question. I really appreciate it, and the answer is yes. I’ve definitely been in situations where I feel like people aren’t as open to me being a steward of old-time music, and being maybe less enthusiastic about me being one of the people keeping the tradition alive. As a young woman that is playing a mainly male-dominated genre, I do often face people feeling the need, or feeling that they have the authority, to give me direction or to tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing in playing this music. I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve learned to expect it from certain folks. But then there’s the other side of it where, growing up here in the city, in Brooklyn, sometimes people are unhappy about me carrying on playing old-time traditional music without having the roots and the origins in Appalachia. I think this is almost a different side of this coin versus the gender and the age thing, because in some ways I do respect this, because, truth be told, it is not my tradition, and in most of the songs I sing, I’ve definitely not experienced any of the things I’m singing about. But a lot of what I do is share the history of the songs that I play and the people I learned them from and the background of a lot of my music. I think that by doing that, it promotes the knowledge of, and a greater understanding of, old-time and traditional music, and that is valuable in and of itself, no matter if it’s coming from someone from New York City versus coming from someone from the mountains. Thank you so much!