ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 9, 2002
By Steve Newton
Who’da thunk that the lowly banjo would ever be perceived as such a cool instrument? Okay, so it isn’t exactly fashionable, but in the hands of innovative pickers like Bela Fleck and Tony Furtado, it’s certainly getting known for more than just “Dueling Banjos”, the soundtrack for gap-toothed mountain men to rut soft city guys by.
While not as widely known as Fleck, Furtado has been getting attention ever since he was 19, when he won the first of two U.S. National Bluegrass Banjo Championships.
“I was just out of high school,” he recalls, on the line from a tour stop in Ashland, Oregon, “and I was looking for any possible way into the music business. And I had been goin’ to all these fiddle contests, and seeing these kids learning these tunes and just going up there and winning instruments. I was like, ‘Well, I want to try that!’ ”
Although he made a name for himself on banjo, lately Furtado—no relation to Nelly, so quit worryin’—has devoted himself to mastering slide guitar. That’s what he’ll be focusing on when he brings his current band, the American Gypsies—ace drummer Tom Brechtlein (Chick Corea, Robben Ford), horn player Paul McCandless (Oregon), bassist Myron Dove (Santana), and pianist and Hammond B3 player John R. Burr—to Granville Island’s Backstage Lounge on Friday (May 10).
“I also played classical guitar when I was a kid,” he explains, “so that helped me relate to the guitar better. But now I only relate to it in open tunings. Even before I played banjo, whenever I would hear slide guitar I would just go nuts, like, ‘What is that? I’ve gotta learn how to do that!’ So it took a while to get the guts to pick it up and make the career change, essentially.”
Furtado became entranced by slide guitar via Ry Cooder’s 1974 album, Paradise and Lunch (although he picks the “gorgeous” Boomer’s Story of ’72 as his fave Cooder release). He says that his main goal with slide is to emulate the human voice, and he raves about the lyrical style of players like Cooder and Bonnie Raitt.
“It’s not even about the notes they’re playin’,” he points out, “it’s the expression that’s within it.”
As well as honing his bottleneck skills, Furtado has been concentrating on his singing and songwriting of late, working to develop an original approach to exploring American roots music.
“It’s all an evolution,” he posits. “Ten years ago I was only playing banjo, kinda bein’ a sideman, and then I just realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I realized that it shouldn’t be about the instrument, just about what I want to play and how I want to approach the tunes, you know.”