Eddie Adcock and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” are what led George Usinowicz to the banjo. Neither Adcock nor Nitty Gritty have much to do with each other, aside from both being respected musicians who have been influences in the acoustic and roots music world.
However, for local musician Usinowicz, banjo player in the long-running, Sunday night Diamond Belle Saloon staple The Blue Moon Ramblers, they were the ones responsible for him picking up a banjo and setting him on his musical path, a path that has resulted in his playing music in the Belle every Sunday (with the exception of the past five weeks) since 1988. Three of those years were with The Marmot Mudflaps, the last 29 with The Ramblers.
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is arguably one of the most influential records in the history of bluegrass and country rock, leading scores of people to digging into roots music, including Usinowicz. And it was catching Adcock in Nashville, Tennessee, that made the New Jersey native, who had been checking out folk music heard all around early 1960’s New York City, perk up an ear and gravitate toward the banjo.
“I enjoyed urban folk music. Not hillbilly folk, something with more urban flair,” Usinowicz said. “In Nashville, I heard Eddie Adcock. He played a full set of Paul Simon with a six-piece bluegrass/newgrass band. And I loved the banjo, and I like more than a twang sound, but I tell you, this band blew me away.”
Yet before he could dig into music, before he purchased the Gibson Mastertone banjo from Washington, D.C., mandolin player John Duffey of the famed bluegrass band The Seldom Scene, which is the banjo he still plays today, he had to get through the Vietnam War. Usinowicz served as a First Lieutenant Combat Engineer Platoon Leader, experiencing combat and eventually being awarded two Bronze Stars.
“My life was pre-Vietnam and post-Vietnam, it changed my life completely,” he said. “But the reward I got out of it was like an awful lot of veterans, they looked to escape somewhere up in the hills to get away from it all, and so that did it. Purgatory was really rewarding for me, both Purgatory and my banjo were probably two of the most important things for me to try to de-stress out of the experiences that I had in Vietnam.”
After the war, he spent some time in Europe, enjoying “people that spoke six or seven languages and not using graphic violence” before ending up in the Washington, D.C., area. Then with that newly acquired Gibson Mastertone and a need to still “get away and escape” from his experiences in Vietnam, he landed in Southwest Colorado, living in a cabin across from Purgatory, building ski lifts, playing banjo.
Usinowicz refers to his life in Southwest Colorado as “blessed”; it’s a life that’s included raising two sons, speaking on the National Mall at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on three occasions and playing banjo, with much of that banjo time spent with The Blue Moon Ramblers. A proponent of the idea that all musicians should hold down a weekly gig right along with practice, the band continues to bring out his best.
“I look at it as it takes a village,” he said. “Alone up there I would bomb, but with such wonderful performers and personalities and repertoire ... our repertoire is vast and expansive, from ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ to ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’”
COVID-19 has forced a temporary break. While a drag for the band and the regulars who dig on the Ramblers, this also sends out a reminder – this band is made up of friends. Suddenly, a lot of people are concerned with one another’s well-being.
“These weeks being away, my texts to the band are more about just their personal well-being. Music with The Blue Moon Ramblers is secondary,” Usinowicz said. “The transition of priorities has gone from The Blue Moon Ramblers are my band, to The Blue Moon Ramblers are my friends.”