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Banjo Legends: An Interview with Tom Adams

Right ! Now I’m really excited about this 🙂 . I’ve been contacting players I like and asking them if they wouldn’t mind answering four or five short, banjo related questions. These are busy people, never the less, Every single player I’ve been in touch with has been extremely gracious and helpful. These are people at the top of their game and yet they are completely bulls””t free. I think you have to admire that .

Anyway, I’ve stuck pretty much to the same five questions for each player. This wasn’t laziness , I just thought it was really interesting to see the different take people had on the same question. Although the questions are only brief , the answers are great and you can see some of the personality and humour in each person shine through. Makes you proud to play the banjo .

So ! … First one up is the right hand man himself Tom Adams . Apart from having a ton of drive and impeccable timing, Tom is also a very nice guy who can write beautiful and lyrical original tunes ( Check out box elder beetles from the Adams county banjo album for a great example of that ) .

Tom was a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys . He also played banjo with The Johnson Mountain Boys, Rhonda Vincent , Lynn Morris , plays guitar with Bill Emerson ( another Ex Sunny mountain boy ) and plays with plenty of other great bands and people.

The interview:

MM: Ok, here goes… Can you remember if there was a particular tune or song , that made you stop and think ‘I need to learn to do that ‘ and made you pick up the banjo?

TA: I think it was in 1977 and I had been playing for about 8 years and I was really taken with Butch Robins’ recording of “Grey Eagle” on his album Forty Years Late. I was trying to learn some melodic stuff at that point in time. I bought Tony Trischka’s book Melodic Banjo and was trying to figure out some of the stuff in there. When I got Butch’s album I just went nuts over his melodic stuff on Grey Eagle and I tried to figure it out but I wasn’t even close. And then Banjo Newsletter had a tab of it and I worked and worked to try to get it to sound like the record. A couple years later when I met Whetstone Run’s banjo player, Jim Runnels, who had just moved from Colorado to Pennsylvania where I live, we got to talking about that album, found out both of us had just learned Butch’s version of Grey Eagle from the BNL tab, pulled out our banjos and started playing it in stereo right there – all 19 parts, or however many Butch had worked out. That was a blast!

MM: Do you have any pre show rituals to help you relax on stage ?

TA: Nothing really comes to mind. I like to not be in a hurry. That’s probably the biggest thing. Allowing enough time to get ready and to have extra time built in because something unexpected is bound to come up. Having enough time to be relaxed before the set starts carries over into me feeling relaxed and prepared when I step onstage.

MM: Early on in your playing, where there any techniques or ideas , ..that you may have had to work especially hard to get , ..but once you got them , really moved your playing along ?

TA: Backward rolls. Definitely. I was fascinated with tunes like Home Sweet Home and Ground Speed and the backward rolls seemed so unnatural to play. When I got comfortable playing them (backward rolls, not those tunes in particular) it opened a whole new world of experimenting with changing the rhythmic feel of a phrase. I began to understand how you can hold the same position with your left hand, but by turning the rolls around with your right, you can use the changing rhythmic feel to turn holding a chord or a single fretted note into an interesting phrase in the tune.

MM: What projects are you working on at the moment ?

TA: I’m working with Linda and David Lay’s band, Springfield Exit, which is based in Winchester VA. David McLaughlin and Marshall Wilborn are in the band, too and we’re just about to get started on an album for Tom Mindte’s Patuxent label. With my banjo teaching business I’m working on some new instructional videos which will be available soon.

MM: Where is the best place for people to go , to find out more about you ?

TA: My home away from home is online at We keep the website open 24 hours a day, so let’s say your flying from London to New York – you can relax during the flight knowing that whatever time of day you land, you’ll still be able to hop off the plane and visit us online.

MM: Thanks again Tom and all the very best from across the pond ! 🙂 Malc

TA: Thank you, Malc. It’s a pleasure

Photographer Staunton I. Cottrell was kind enough to share the great photo for this article. So a big thank you for that!

Tom has an excellent website, with lots of great resources for banjo players. It is well worth the visit. As Tom mentions, it’s open 24 hours a day 🙂 Please let me know your thoughts on the interview in the comments and please hit the share buttons below to share the interview. Thanks! Malc.

Tom Adams in action

Here is a clip of Tom playing Five Speed with the Johnson Mountain Boys:

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