Interview: Ellen Stanley, a.k.a. Mother Banjo


You don’t get much closer to traditional American music than the banjo—actually an African instrument that’s become a bluegrass staple—and you don’t get much better at it than Mother Banjo.

Mother Banjo (a.k.a. Ellen Stanley, who’s also public relations chief chief at the legendary blues-folk label Red House Records) is no one’s dilettante trying a quirky idea. Classically trained on piano, oboe and voice, she’s been hooked on folk music since her teen years when she was exposed to an array of influences including bluegrass bands and old ballads.

She also has a passion for poetry, which doesn’t hurt her songwriting one bit. Sample her song “Green Jacket”: “Your warped wooden door locked me out/Sealed tight with bolts and towels/Solid and strange, you have no give/Boxes stacked high, life on the edge.” It’s a haunting ballad in which Stanley uses her fine vocal chops to mine the stark, age-old wellspring from which country pop stars Jennifer Warnes and Emmylou Harris have drunk their fill. Stanley’s poignant singing, accompanied by Art Vandalay’s tight harmonizing, creates a bittersweet space that draws you in and holds you there, just about hypnotized by the exquisite melancholy.

Mother Banjo’s EP Swing Low, featuring four original songs and a fresh take on the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is an excellent introduction to this special artist. You can catch her in concert Thursday, March 20, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market (Lake Street and Chicago Avenue).

Why wasn’t Swing Low released on Red House Records?
Ha! I would never sign me to the label. First of all, I’m not a full-time touring artist. I’m just starting out on my musical career. Red House is a prestige label in the folk-roots genre and only signs artists who are really top-notch artists. There are plenty of good artists we don’t sign, either because they’re not far enough along in their career, the timing isn’t right, or they don’t want to be on the road.

What prompted you to put “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on the EP?
I’ve always loved that song, and it’s one that not a lot of people record or perform outside of a campfire or sing-along situation. What I particularly love about it is that in this gospel tune everyone gets to go to heaven, and that’s something I can get behind.

You took up the banjo at exactly what age? And what drew you to that particular instrument?
Although I played classical piano and oboe growing up, I just started playing the banjo a few years ago, at about age 24. I fell in love with the banjo in college, when I started to immerse myself in bluegrass and old-time music. People mainly hear it as the flashy 100-m.p.h. instrument, but it has a real haunting quality that is very seductive when it is slowed down. And it has a snare drum right on its head, making it much more percussive than a guitar. Besides, every singer-songwriter plays a guitar, but not many play only banjo.

“In this gospel tune everyone gets to go to heaven, and that’s something I can get behind.”

Banjo-playing women, while not unheard of, ain’t exactly routine. There’s Rhiannon Gidden of Carolina Chocolate Drops. And there’s…well, who else is there?
There are plenty of female banjo players like Alison Brown and Cathy Fink, whose album Banjo Talkin’ was just nominated for a Grammy this year. But these are women who are really known for being instrumentalists. There are fewer songwriters who simply use the banjo as their accompaniment. There are some young ones coming up on the scene like Adrienne Young and Abigail Washburn, but they play with bluegrass bands, and aren’t generally known as solo performers.

What brand of instrument do you play and why?
When I decided I wanted to buy and learn the banjo, I asked every professional banjo player I knew what was the cheapest instrument I could buy that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to own in five years. Every banjo player of every genre said the same thing: a Deering Good Times. They were right; I’m still not embarrassed to own or play it!

You’ve consistenly been active in bringing other female folk artists to audiences from behind the scenes. For instance, there’s the summer series that runs in Elliot Park and neighboring spaces. Who are some of the more memorable artists you’ve produced there?
I helped found Music & Arts in Elliot Park, which has brought diverse music and arts to downtown Minneapolis. As part of this mission, I have started presenting a KFAI-sponsored monthly concert series called “Womenfolk at Gethsemane,” which I host at Gethsemane Church. It features women folk-acoustic artists who play live on my radio show [“Womenfolk” on KFAI Radio] and then play a free concert at the church that evening. It’s a great way of exposing local and touring artists to audiences who might not be able to afford to see them in a nice listening room like the Cedar. The series has featured such artists as bluegrass artist Becky Schlegegl, classical Indian musician Nirmala Rajasekar, rising pop artist Mary Bue, and roots-blues singer Molly Maher.

You’re touring to support your EP. For the next how long? And what’s after that?
Yeah, I’ve played from New York City to Montana, hitting places like Tulsa and Memphis, where I just showcased at the 20th International Folk Alliance Conference. I will continue touring regionally in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin throughout the spring and summer. In the fall, I plan on recording a full-length album. I’m not sure yet where I’m going to record it, but I think it will have a more country vibe, just because my new songs seem to lean that direction. But like Swing Low, it will still have a pretty raw, stripped-down sound since I think my voice and banjo are central to what Mother Banjo’s music is all about.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.