Banjo close-up

With the help of a banjo, a diverse cast tells America’s story through their own stories

Country music’s diverse history and unique storytelling potential gives everyone, from every walk of life, the power to share their story through song. As an underwriter of Ken Burns’s upcoming Country Music documentary, we’re proud to support his work in fostering general cultural understanding as we better understand our shared history. What would you like the power to do?

"Wagon Wheel", sung by artists across America, shows us that nothing connects the country like country

Rory Hoffman shows us how he mastered 20 instruments despite being blind from birth.

After growing up on a cattle ranch in North Dakota, I moved to Nashville, TN, to chase my dreams of being a country musician.

I started playing the guitar when I was three or four years old, and I couldn’t wrap my hand the neck. I realized that I could put my hand on top of the instrument and make chords that way. So, this unique style of banjo playing is how I taught myself guitar, and that’s what makes my sound so special.

Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane explains how cultures collide in country music.

I grew up in France and Italy, so when I discovered American folk music it was a totally new territory for me.

The banjo is a really melodic instrument when played in certain styles, despite what people typically think when they hear "banjo”. It has a rich history, originating in Africa before becoming an integral part of American music.

Music brings people together in many ways. It is a universally enjoyable experience for many folks from all paths of life. The history of much of American music involves the merging of two or more cultures. That's what makes it so unique.

Merrick Adams

Merrick Adams tells us how he came to love the banjo.

I live in Powder Springs, GA, just outside of Atlanta. As the tenth of eleven children, I live in a loud, crazy house, sometimes musical, sometimes just noisy. I have sung in the church choir since I was five years old and it is a blast.

I was drawn to the banjo when I was 12 years old and have been playing for about eighteen months. Before, I begrudgingly played the piano and didn’t really excel at my lessons because I didn’t like it. Then I saw a video of the comedian Steve Martin playing the banjo, and you could see him and his audience obviously having fun.

Music is the kind of thing that naturally draws a crowd. If you sit down and start playing, people will immediately go to that sound. Whether they stay or not depends on how well you play it. Music brings people together in more ways than one. It is a way for people to get to know each other better, as it reveals something you have in common with other people.

There's nothing quite like country music. It has given me the power to make other people smile, nod their heads and even tap their feet.

I'm still learning, and have a long way to go, but it feels good making other people feel good. I like to call the banjo a "joy machine" and for me, it lives up to its name. It's impossible to be sad while playing or hearing the banjo.

Michael Ricks

Michael Ricks on how country music became his outlet for telling his story.

I was born in Toledo, OH. Growing up, I moved around often before I found a love for country music.

After a period of time, I found myself wanting to expand creatively. Having already played guitar and fingerpicking for over ten years, I picked up the five-string, open-back banjo and found an entirely brand new sound.

I believe music can bring us together. If you look at the banjo itself, it is a hybrid of African and European designs and sounds. There's the proof right there. Every time you hear and see music artists of different backgrounds coming together, it shows us that we can also do this, not only in music but in daily life.

Annie Staninec

Annie Staninec explains how music is the great unifier.

I grew up in San Francisco, CA, which has a huge population of young musicians interested in traditional bluegrass and early country music.

I was born to musical parents, and they actually met at an old-time (early country) music party in Japan. They encouraged me to begin playing from the time I was a small child.

Music is such a powerful, pure and intimate form of communication. It can truly transcend politics, backgrounds, gender, age and race. This is especially true of folk and roots music because it's so accessible to a wide audience. It doesn't require a formal musical education or sophisticated instruments, and the themes are simple and universal – family, love, hard times, home and heartache. I have played music with people from age 8 to 80, arch conservatives to radical liberals, firmly religious to staunch atheist, sometimes all in a single session.

Country music has given me the power to share joy with millions of people all over the world, regardless of race, color, culture or creed. It has also allowed me to do something I truly love for a living.

Brad Napp

Veteran Brad Napp on the empowering nature of country music.

I grew up in Silas, AL. That’s in Choctaw County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama with one of the highest unemployment rates. Those humble beginnings are responsible for my addiction to music.

We’ve all heard it said, “We can’t all talk at the same time, but we can sing at the same time.” People from largely diverse backgrounds may find it difficult to find common interests or views to engage in discussion, but I’ll bet we can find a song we all know.

Country music gave me the power to open doors to lifelong friendships that I may have never opened any other way. Country music has always been my constant and has given me the power to work through grief, sadness, uncertainty and over two decades of traumatic events as a soldier and a law enforcement officer. It made me fearless when speaking in public and gave me memorization skills and confidence. Most importantly, as a child, country music gave me the power to make my mama smile.

Abby Posner on queer identity and making it as a country musician.

I’m from Los Angeles, CA, and I have been working as a musician for over sixteen years.

Country music has given me the chance to break the mold of what we think a country musician can be. You don’t have to look a certain way to play country music. You can be a queer person, you can be a person of color. There is a door that is opening for anybody on the “outside” to enter the industry. If you have a story to tell, country music is the platform to tell that story.

Ketch Secor

Ketch Secor, of Old Crow Medicine Show, on the diverse roots of his country hit “Wagon Wheel.”

After moving from Harrisonburg, VA, to New Hampshire, I came to miss the South a bit. That’s when I starting really getting into music and writing songs.

“Wagon Wheel” had an interesting beginning. I heard a bootleg album of Bob Dylan's when I was 17 years old, which included just a fragment, essentially the chorus of what is now “Wagon Wheel.” I wrote the verses to it and when I wanted to record it, I reached out to Dylan for permission. Dylan's people told me that he got the "rock me mama" refrain from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, an African-American R&B artist. So, I contacted Crudup's publisher about the "Rock me mama like a wagon wheel" verse and they told me that Crudup had got it from an earlier African-American blues artist.

After Darius Rucker released "Wagon Wheel" a few years ago and it reached number one, I concluded that the song's 90-year-plus journey to finally hitting number one included three African-American artists, a Jewish kid from Minnesota and a skinny 17-year-old high school student from New Hampshire. What a wonderful story about the mix of American music.

Dom Flemons discusses the African roots of country storytelling.

I was born in Phoenix, AZ, and grew up with a passion for American folk music. My music-playing has led me to become a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter.

I love this music because there are a lot of different stories in the African-American community that can be told through the story of the West. People are able to go into their own cultural heritage and identity, and represent that in music. And there’s nothing better than that.

Don McNatt

Don McNatt talks about life on the road as a songwriter.

My dad was one of four brothers, all of whom had careers as musicians for some or all of their lives. So, it was natural and sort of required that all of my cousins and I play something.

What I love about country music is the emphasis on the lyrics. Country writers take clever to a higher level and do the best job with songs that will hit home for listeners. This is why I’m a songwriter. I’m not one of the household-word guys that made a pile of money from this but I’m still here, still love to play and I’m making a living. I’ve been able to see a good portion of the planet due to a life of performing.

Overseas, you really see overwhelmed faces when you play the music that you simply grew up playing. It’s a whole new appreciation for country music’s power, wherever it’s heard. So many smiles, even tears of joy, remind you of what made you want to play in the first place.

Amythyst Kiah

Country music helps Amythyst Kiah come into her own as an artist.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chattanooga, TN, with my parents. I've always enjoyed seeking knowledge off of the beaten path.

I found a link between the alternative music I was listening to and playing, and the old field recordings I was listening to in school. The banjo became of interest to me about ten years after I started playing guitar. I learned clawhammer style, which allowed me to be rhythmic and play the melody at the same time. Through that, I learned that its origins are from the West African lute family, and how early American folk and country music was a blend of African and European influences. It still is today.

Music has and always will have a way of disarming people. The way music makes people feel, regardless of any supposed “birthright,” is the ultimate truth and should guide us. Every one of us has a unique personal life journey, and certain music hits us in a certain way.

Country music has given me the power to realize the depth and complexity within the very music itself, and in turn, allowed me to recognize my own complexity as a human being and as an artist. I want others, of all walks of life, to be comfortable in following their creative pursuits.

Collin Gundry

Collin Gundry on the hopes and triumphs of country music.

I grew up just outside of Nashville, TN, in Hendersonville. It was great, because Hendersonville was really a community that developed due to the overflow of Nashville.

Growing up, many of my friends’ parents worked in the music industry. Whether it was songwriting, producing, managing. Even as little kids, this generation was playing around on their mom's guitar or their dad's drum set.

Music has an incredible ability to bring people together because of its storytelling qualities. The best stories are always ones that the audience can relate to. You can put yourself in the character's shoes and understand and empathize with their struggle because you've been there before. Maybe you're there right now.

Music has given me the power to tell my story. I'm not always the most expressive. I spend a lot of time observing and analyzing, so when I write songs it's my opportunity to share myself. When I have the floor, I can share my beliefs, my hopes, my faults, my triumphs and my everything.

Ivy Phillips

Ivy Phillips shows how old music can captivate young music lovers.

I grew up in a little country town called Chapmansboro, TN. It’s about 30 miles west of Nashville. Living so close to Music City influenced me in so many ways. It gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by a variety of great musicians and different genres of music. I was not only able to listen to all the amazing players, but I was able to join in on the fun.

I started playing bluegrass fiddle when I was four. I began attending contests and festivals not much longer after that, and these journeys led me to the clawhammer banjo.

I think everyone has a love for music in some way or another. Music has no filter, no gender and no race. It welcomes everyone with open arms.

Originally published 7/25/2019