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Bill Keith Takes Home the Coveted Brown Jug Award

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Bill KeithWell folks, once again it’s time for the Park Slope Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Jamboree’s Brown Jug Award. The Brown Jug Award is the brainchild of James Reams, a bluegrass musician and bandleader for over 20 years, who conceived of it as a way to recognize people in the Northeast whose impact on the music deserved to be honored but who might be less likely to be recognized by national organizations since for some of them (unlike this year’s recipient), their impact was only regional in nature.

It is with great pleasure that we recognize Bill Keith’s contributions to bluegrass with this year’s Brown Jug Award. The name Bill Keith is practically synonymous with modern day bluegrass banjo. To say that Bill changed the world of bluegrass is not an understatement… it’s a fact. His D-Tuner gave banjo players the ability to easily change notes while playing and that opened up a whole new world of bluegrass. He even has a picking style named after him, the “Keith style.”

But, we’re getting ahead of the story which begins in Boston, MA shortly before Christmas in 1939 when Bill made his entrance into the world. Some say he was born with a banjo clasped in his tiny hands, but in reality he started off playing the ukulele and then moved on to piano where he got pretty good at reading music. As a teenager, he started listening to late night radio broadcasts of country and bluegrass music from the south and Midwest. Once he heard the banjo, his piano playing days were over. He was bitten by the banjo bug and he never fully recovered.

While at Amherst College, Bill was inspired by Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs and learned their two distinctly different styles. Then he began developing his own unique melodic, chromatic or “Keith” picking style because he wanted to play fiddle melodies on his banjo. Bill’s style was popular at local coffeehouses on campus and he was able to work with a local promoter to set up traveling concerts throughout New England for his Dixieland band.

During his tour in the US Air Force Reserves, Bill started building banjos with Tom Morgan and continued playing in local Boston bands where he was stationed. Once his service was completed, he moved to Washington, DC and teamed up with fellow Amherst graduate, Jim Rooney, mandolin player Frank Wakefield and guitarist Red Allen to form the Kentuckians.

Meeting Earl Scruggs in person in 1962 was a life-changing moment and resulted in an invitation for Bill to work with Earl on his latest instruction book, “Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo.” Every tune in that book is Bill Keith’s tablature, even the exercises. While working on the book, Bill was able to travel with Earl on the road and played backstage in some of the warm-up sessions at the Grand Ole Opry. When Kenny Baker heard him playing, he introduced Keith to Bill Monroe and, just like that, he became a member of the Bluegrass Boys.

But the life of a headliner traveling band, just wasn’t Bill’s thing. He preferred sticking closer to home so he hung around with Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band and then moved on to the Blue Velvet Band. In the late 60s, Bill became enamored with the pedal steel guitar. He worked with Jonathan Edwards as well as Judy Collins before teaming up with long-time pal, Jim Rooney, to tour the US and Europe in the 70s and 80s. Returning home, Keith moved to Woodstock, NY where he served as a columnist for Frets magazine and began playing banjo for Woodstock Mountain Review. By the end of the 80s, Keith had once again joined forces with Rooney, this time adding Eric Weissberg and Kenny Koseck to reform their old group calling it the New Blue Velvet Band.

During his time working with Earl Scruggs on the book, Bill became interested in the cam that Earl was using to help him change pitch during a song. Keith and another college friend, Dan Bump (also a banjo player) formed the Beacon Banjo Company (now celebrating it’s 50th anniversary) and they set out to find a better way to make the cam-style tuners. Their invention avoided the necessity of drilling extra holes in the peghead and, in fact, were hidden under the peghead as part of the peg itself. There were no cams at all. Some “fine tuning” on their part ultimately resulted in the Bill Keith D-Tuner (or simply Keith Pegs) and the rest is history.

Bill continues to be involved in the bluegrass recording industry with a guest appearance on Beausoleil’s Alligator Purse album released in 2009. He also continues to issue instructional booklets with accompanying CD/DVDs. You’d be hard pressed today to find a banjo player that didn’t recognize the name Bill Keith and it is a distinct honor to add that name to the list of Brown Jug Recipients.

A Little Nip About The Brown Jug Award

Last year’s winner, Carol Beaugard, definitely wears many hats in the entertainment field and it was a pleasure to have such a well-known and respected personality on hand to accept the coveted Brown Jug Award. Previous recipients of the Brown Jug include such notables as the late singer-songwriter and musician John Herald, Peter Stampfel of The Holy Modal Rounders, Bill Knowlton (who was named Broadcaster of the Year by the IBMA in 1997), Stephanie Ledgin (an award-winning folk and bluegrass music photo-journalist and author) and the late Doug Tuchman, a bluegrass promoter who was instrumental in bringing Bill Monroe and other bluegrass music greats to play venues in the city.

The Brown Jug Award is sponsored by The Clay Pot, a well-known Park Slope business specializing in one-of-a-kind art glass, jewelry and other gifts and collectibles. Other sponsors include The Old Stone House and the Folk Music Society of NY, who provided friendly volunteers as well. The Jamboree is also made possible by the generosity of our hosts, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.

Be sure to catch next year’s Jamboree the 25th and 26th of September at the BSEC meeting house at 53 Prospect Park West at 2nd Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Further information may be obtained by contacting the Jamboree promoter, James Reams, at 718-374-1086 or by emailing james@jamesreams.com. Additional information is also available at www.jamesreams.com.

A Note About The Jamboree

The Jamboree starts with a Friday-night concert at 8pm (admission $10) by James Reams & The Barnstormers, the band that the New York Daily News called “New York City’s bluegrass icons.” No Depression magazine wrote that “James Reams & The Barnstormers deliver an edge that’s missing from a lot of bluegrass being made today.” Sing Out magazine wrote that the band offers “tight instrumental excellence and hard-edged vocals …uncompromising, hard-core bluegrass.”

The event continues on Saturday from 12:30 to 10:30 PM (admission $5 – that’s right, five dollars) and includes workshops; all-day jamming with acoustic instruments only: acoustic guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, Dobros, upright basses, dulcimers, harmonicas, etc.; and evening concerts featuring old-time and bluegrass bands. In 2014 the festivities included the NY premier of the documentary film "Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B."

The Jamboree is heralded as one of the finest events of its kind in the Northeast and attracts musicians and fans of traditional American music from all over the area. Time-Out New York magazine called the Jamboree a “happy little festival,” and indeed it is. Musicians gather in informal groups in the beautiful 100-year-old meeting house of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture and the gardens surrounding the landmark building for informal jam sessions. Attendees who do not play music themselves can enjoy listening to it and stay for the evening concerts.

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