Hank Smith, building a bluegrass community by banjo and committee | Instrumentalist | Indy Week

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Hank Smith, building a bluegrass community by banjo and committee



The banjo rules everything around Hank Smith—well, almost. He's played it in multiple traditional outfits for almost a decade, added the banjo to area pop-rock acts, built the world's only tribute to Béla Fleck and taught frequent five-string lessons.

But he's more than a skilled picker: He hosts a weekly music series at Tir Na Nog called Beer & Banjos, meant to show that the instrument can reach outside of the bluegrass songbook. In recent years, he has become a genre ambassador for the Triangle, too. He's immersed himself in the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual World of Bluegrass conference in Raleigh, becoming an emissary between the organization and the city.

Smith, however, wasn't always so keen on IBMA. When World of Bluegrass was still based in Nashville, he attended the program as a member of The Kickin Grass Band and wasn't impressed. When the institution brought the event to Raleigh, though, he saw how the city and IBMA mutually benefited from each other. IBMA got an engaging and engaged host city that accommodated it, and Raleigh got another event and an extra economic boost—last year, visitor spending topped $10 million.

Earlier this year, Smith participated in IBMA' s "Leadership Bluegrass," an intense program where participants learn the ins-and-outs of the bluegrass business, from booking and promotion to media and musicianship.

"If I'm going to make a career out of this," Smith explains, "I should have some knowledge of the industry that supports it."

One of his classmates was Ron Raxter, a founder of the roots-music syndicate PineCone. Raxter recruited Smith for a local organizing committee for IBMA. When IBMA returns to Raleigh in September, he will lead a conversation on the state of bluegrass. He hopes to encourage talk about tradition, progression and diversity in a corner of the music industry generally dominated by aged white men.

Smith points to these new duties as an extension of the community outreach work he has long done with the Boys & Girls Clubs.

"This is essentially the same thing, except I'm doing it with bluegrass. I can use those skills that I learned in that context to put towards this now," he says. "I feel like it's just part of my job."

LOCATION: A spare purple bedroom at the back of
his Raleigh home near Lake Johnson. Smith uses the
space for gear storage and private lessons.

AGE: 37

INFLUENCES: Béla Fleck, Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger,
Jens Kruger, Steve Martin

KNOWN FOR: Since moving to Raleigh from Rock
Hill, South Carolina nearly a decade ago, Smith has
played banjo in bluegrass and bluegrass-plus acts
such as Barefoot Manner, The Kickin Grass Band and
The Morning After.

HEAR AND SEE: Smith’s main project is Blu-Bop,
the first—and, right now, only—Béla Fleck and the
Flecktones tribute act. Mastering Fleck’s unique
style and his ensemble’s complicated compositions
took the band a year, but they’ve played steady local
gigs (and MerleFest) since early 2014. Smith even
got Fleck’s approval for Blu-Bop during IBMA’s 2013
debut in Raleigh.

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

ROLAND GR-20 SYNTHESIZER & GK-3 PICKUP The Roland GR-20 synthesizer and GK-3 pickup work together to transform the Crossfire’s sound into something otherworldly. Smith’s setup allows him the option of using the synthesizer or the processor or both, often to strange and delightful effect.

“It takes a computer signal, essentially, from the strings itself, processes it through its own pickup up at the top and then sends the signal to the pedal, which then turns it into whatever. It’s all digital,” Smith says.

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Smith bought this contraption in 2003 and, long before launching Blu-Bop, used it to experiment with tone and texture in other bands. A giant pedal board contained within a single machine, it takes input from the banjo and manipulates each note. The processor’s “vintage” sound, as Smith puts it, makes it useful for nailing the Flecktones’ flair, but he’s beginning to reconsider its efficiency. “This thing can do, like, 380 different sounds,” he explains, “but I only use, like, eight of them.”

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Smith uses National “nickel silver” finger picks on his middle and forefingers, allowing precision on the banjo’s thin steel strings. For his thumb, Smith uses a plastic Golden Gate pick: “It’s actually a dobro thumb pick, because it’s got an extra bit of plastic on the end. It’s also a heavier gauge pick, so it rests more comfortably. You can get more out of it with less effort.”

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Smith first encountered the crazy-looking Crossfire in a Deering catalog when he was 16 years old. He drooled over it for years before his parents purchased it as his college graduation gift in 1999. It’s got a head, rim and tone ring like a typical acoustic banjo, but its back includes pickups like those of an electric guitar. The instrument’s thinner neck means it’s built for speed, making it useful for tackling Fleck’s quick licks.

“You can feather-touch it,” he says. “You barely touch the thing, and it’ll respond the way you need it to.”

But the additional gear Smith uses to pull off some of the Flecktones’ idiosyncrasies are meant for electric guitars, meaning Smith sometimes has to fuss with his rig to make the equipment compatible: “With all this stuff, you have to learn how that works in the context of the banjo.”

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Banjo heads function as a blank slate on which pickers can develop their tone. Like drums, banjo heads can be tuned to specific notes, which impact the instrument’s overall sound.

“If it’s tuned up tighter, it’s higher in pitch. It’s going to have a real Ralph Stanley, clangety-clang-clang sound. They usually tune those heads up to a B,” Smith says. “I tune mine to F sharp, because it gives it a warmer tone. The Remo heads are pretty standard. They have a transparent sound, so it’s on you to make it sound the way you want.”

A six-year-old Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever.

  • Photo by Alex Boerner

“It offers a stereo chorus sound. These amps were built for keyboards, guitars—really, keyboards. Guitarists would use them to get that big full sound,” he says. “It works great for banjo because banjo has a lot more frequency range than a guitar does, particularly in the high end. You want to capture all of it.”

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