He’s a huge figure in Colorado bluegrass music. As a teacher, Pete Wernick, aka “Dr. Banjo,” has provided the starting steps for scores of banjo players; his book, simply titled “Bluegrass Banjo,” remains a definitive volume in banjo instruction. His band Hot Rize, of which he’s been a part of since day one, has influenced every bluegrass and jam band in the state and beyond.
In addition to his other bands, which include bluegrass band Long Road Home, banjo-driven swing bands The Live Five and Flexigrass, and his duo with his wife, Joan, he’s been an ambassador for the genre and dedicated educator.
Pete and Joan Wernick will perform Friday (tonight) at the Indigo Room at iAM MUSIC.
Easier and cheaper travel, less equipment and work trips with your wife are some of the obvious advantages of the duo shows. But there’s also the fact that in the duo situation, the banjo is one of the primary instruments. That allows Pete to tastefully back up Joan’s guitar playing while also stretching out and taking the majority of the solos.
“I get to orchestrate the kind of sounds I want to hear. I just don’t go to generic playing; I try to be the sounds that the song deserves, like the soundtrack of a movie,” he said. “That’s a challenge for a banjo player, and it took a while before I could drop the typical bluegrass that I’d do in a bluegrass situation. There’s a certain role for the banjo to play, and here, I’m half the band; it’s fun and challenging.”
The Wernicks will dip into some originals that span their musical career, in addition to music from the bluegrass canon, and other songs Pete describes as “offbeat.” His playing is perfect accompaniment to Joan’s guitar and her loaded-with-soul voice. Their playing ability combined with the songs pulled from the bluegrass canon and their original repertoire are some of the best offerings in bluegrass and folk. But beyond their musical talent, which is bursting at their seams, seeing the couple in a setting like The Indigo Room is the next best thing to being invited to their dining room table for coffee and pie. Their dedication to the craft, and dedication to each other is a big part of the charm.
“There’s something about seeing a married couple play. When we play at The Indigo Room, it will almost be the 50th anniversary of the month we met in Boulder,” Pete said. “The Beatles song ‘Get Back’ was just being released, that’s where we met, and we’ve been a couple all this time. You can kind of tell we know each other pretty well when we’re on stage together.”
Pete Wernick remains dedicated to the whole bluegrass lifestyle, quick to say that part of the draw of bluegrass is that it is void of hype or attitude that may be present in other entertainment circles. With no gimmicks and little support from “the music business,” it’s a style of music that relies on the human connection between artist and fan.
“If you’re in the bluegrass scene, it’s some of the best people you’ll ever meet. I used to not have a clue about why that was, I would notice it, people that go to bluegrass events are the kind of people that you like and that you’d be friends with. Then I realized that one of the things about bluegrass that stands out to me is it’s very for real. It’s authentic, it’s not phony in any way that I can tell, and people are working together as a team to play this music that has deep roots in American culture” he said. “We’re all in this together, and we’re trying to climb the same mountain. I’m just a regular person playing bluegrass, having a great time.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.