Feature Article - Summer 1995
ALAN MUNDE: Performer, Composer, Instructor, and Author by Carolyn Hegeler
One of the world's most respected banjo players, Alan Munde has been involved in bluegrass music for over 25 years in ways as numerous and interesting as his famous breaks to "Sally Goodin'" -- as anchor and major force for 21 years in Country Gazette, as performing and recording artist, music educator, composer, contributor to leading bluegrass publications, to name just a few. Long admired for his creative mastery of adapting fiddle tunes to the banjo, Alan's repertoire ranges from standard bluegrass and Texas swing, to gospel, jazz, and original compositions In the liner notes from the recent Rounder Records compilation album Blue Ridge Express, Ira Gitlin says Alan's playing is "as sharp and solid as a perfect cube of polished granite."
Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Alan says there was a time when he cared little about music, and although his parents enjoyed music, it was never a main part of their lives. "I didn't get interested in music until my older brother, Mike, came home from the Navy in '61, with a cheap guitar and a record on how to play it -- 'Folksinger's Guitar Guide,' by Pete Seeger. I put it on, and thought, 'Boy, I like the sound of that.' So I played guitar for about a year, then in 1962 got interested in the banjo. I went to buy another Pete Seeger record and found out he played banjo. After I got to listening to it, I liked it and decided to get a banjo -- a Vega Ranger, which I recently donated to the IBMA Museum."
Alan's main influence in those early years was Eddie Shelton (see 5-SQ Spring, 1995). "I was in high school or the first year of college, and a furniture store in Oklahoma City had a TV show with country music. Byron Berline was on it and a banjo player named Gary Price; the guitar player, I believe, was Bill Caswell; and the bass player was a track buddy of Byron's who played the washtub bass. All of a sudden, Price was gone and Eddie Shelton was the banjo player. I heard them announce they'd be playing at the State Fair. So I went and saw Eddie play."
Eventually, Alan met Byron Berline, also a student at the University of Oklahoma. "I was in a music store -- I remember I was playing 'Randy Lynn Rag.' Byron came in and was surprised to hear a banjo player. We hit it off, and he started inviting me when he'd go play. He took me up to Oklahoma City to Eddie Shelton's house, and some guys from Dallas came -- Mitchell Land on mandolin and Warren Swindell on guitar. They played this really great music all weekend. And that's how I met Eddie. He showed me all the good stuff and got me going. So I owe a lot to him and am real thankful for that."
Early on, Alan played different kinds of music with lots of different players, which contributed to the versatility and breadth of his playing. He also spent a lot of time in Slim Richey's music store in Norman. Slim, a jazz guitarist, admired lots of different kinds of players and music. "He would talk a lot about how chords worked together, and I incorporated some of that into my playing. If Eddie Shelton taught me a lot about banjo, Slim taught me a lot about music in general. In terms of evolution of a style, I never did have the sense that it was 'my' style. I enjoyed 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' and all the Eastern-grown bluegrass, but also enjoyed the jazz stuff that Slim played. And I enjoyed going with Byron to fiddle contests. I worked up 'Sally Goodin' and 'Dusty Miller' so I could be a part of that scene, even though I wasn't a fiddle player. So if I have a style, it evolved from being around a lot of different kinds of players, and trying to make the music I heard possible on the banjo."
Alan's first band was with high school buddies Lynn Baroff and Brian Neilsen. "We played around and banged out whatever we could. We actually got to see The Dillards play. I knew just a couple of rolls on the banjo, but thatreally inspired me to keep going. Later, Byron and I played with Walter Hawkins (guitar) and Albert Brown (mandolin) in The Bluegrass Gentlemen. They were a step up in that they actually knew some Jim and Jesse and Jimmy Martin songs, and were a little more into bluegrass. After Byron graduated and left, I started playing with Mitchell Land and his group in Dallas -- The Stone Mountain Boys. I would get on a bus and ride down there and play with them on weekends."
Alan graduated from college in January of 1969. "Wayne Stewart had this idea for a group with this kid he knew in Kentucky named Sam Bush, who was probably 15. So I moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and we formed Poor Richard's Almanac. Not long after, I got my draft notice, but before I left, Sam, Wayne and I made this tape, later released by Ridge Runner Records, called Poor Richard's Almanac, that was a lot of the instrumental things we were doing. I then went back to Oklahoma, was rejected by the Army, and worked in Norman that summer."
At a DJ convention in Nashville in October of 1969, Alan heard that Jimmy Martin was looking for a banjo player. Doyle Lawson was in Jimmy's band and helped talk Jimmy into hiring him. Alan had been playing the banjo seriously for only 5 or 6 years when he joined Martin's band. Asked about the days with Martin, Alan says "Before I went with Jimmy, it seemed that the music was just supposed to happen -- it wasn't planned, whereas he had a scheme you plugged into. His was sort of a high-level, professional approach to playing music. He had a sense of style about his music that was very instructive for me, and I appreciate that."
Soon after Alan left Jimmy Martin, Byron Berline was putting together a band to fill contractual commitments for the disbanded Flying Burrito Brothers and asked Alan to play guitar. "On January 1, 1972, he and I met up with the rest of the group and headed for Europe -- Roger Bush; Kenny Wertz; drummer Eric Dalton, whom I knew from Norman; Rick Roberts, guitarist in the original Burrito Brothers and the only Burrito connection; and a steel guitar player named Don Beck. We would open doing country-rock; then Byron, Roger, Kenny, Don Beck (who also played mandolin), and I would perform an acoustic bluegrass set as Country Gazette; and then the electric stuff would come back. They identified us as the Bogus Burritos, which in fact we were."
After the European tour, Country Gazette worked at Disneyland for 12 weeks and recorded their first album, A Traitor In Our Midst. Alan was with Country Gazette from that time until it ended in 1993.
Although Country Gazette could and did play straight-ahead bluegrass, it was considered a progressive bluegrass band. Depending upon the group's configuration, Alan's banjo playing was either traditional or it expanded to take on new voices. Of the first Gazette album, Alan says his playing was "pretty traditional. But on the second album, Don't Give Up Your Day Job, we did two fiddle-type tunes, 'Huckleberry Hornpipe' and 'Snowball,' that helped put my playing of fiddle tunes out in front of people a little more. Another thing about that album is that on 'Honky Cat' (an Elton John tune), I developed a way of playing the banjo, suggested by producer Jim Dickson, that's sort of a combination of the piano and horn parts. That was a different banjo sound dictated by the song. It turned out to be real fun. Then Roland White came into the band. And basically I continued to be a bluegrass banjo player, which I am to this day."
A big change came when Mike Anderson and Joe Carr joined Country Gazette. Mike's desire to do different kinds of songs and Joe's ability to flatpick, as well as his understanding of chord harmonies, led to an exploration of ideas taken from jazz. "I'm not saying I play jazz banjo, just that there are some ideas and harmonies that came from jazz, that can be heard in songs like 'Dog In The Moon' from the American And Clean album, and 'I'm Your Boy' from the All This and Money Too album. It rekindled interest in those styles of harmonies and melody playing from my days with Slim."
Joe, Mike, and Roland were getting more interested in contemporary songwriters. Alan thinks a signature song of that configuration of Country Gazette was "The Tracker," by John Hadley. "It's an interesting song and theme, unconventional for bluegrass, though not wildly different. Also, we recorded 'Eleanor Rigby,' which had some different banjo sounds. With personnel changes, the band reverted to a somewhat more traditional bluegrass band. When Bill Smith came in, but more so when Gene Wooten, the dobro player, and Billy Joe Foster came, the band got more of a bluegrass feel, and I think my playing responded to that--a little more driving."
Alan has written lots of tunes— "Peaches and Cream," "Molly Bloom," "Stymied," "Great American Banjo Tune," "Uncle Clooney," "Munde's Child," among them--all very different, reflecting his broad musical interests and technical abilities. Most were written before he joined the faculty at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. "Playing music full time was what allowed those tunes to take shape. With Country Gazette in '72, I had a lot of time on my hands. For me, it's hard to just sit and write a tune without plenty of time . . . you know, weeks and weeks of fooling not just with the tune but with lots of things. It's more a process of culling things out than it is of having a central theme and developing that. I have to play things, and put my fingers down on the banjo in order to do it, so it just takes more time than I'm able to come up with nowadays."
Alan met Doc Hamilton, from central Texas, early in his playing career. Doc was the first person Alan knew who could play 'Beaumont Rag' in the key of F on the banjo without using a capo. "Later, I explored the key of F in standard tuning without putting the capo on, and I made some discoveries. If you played an F chord and left the 1st string open, you'd get a D6; if you left the 5th string open, which is G, you'd get an F chord with D and A notes, which makes it an F6/9 chord. Putting a roll with that created an attractive sound. Another thing I found marvelous about how music operated, is that you could take an F chord on the banjo, change the F natural note to F#, and you would have a D7 chord. 'Uncle Clooney' is a study in all of this."
Alan has been a leader in bluegrass music education since the mid-70's, when he developed the concept of the group workshop for banjo instruction. Since 1986, Alan has been a faculty member in the Bluegrass and Country Music Program at South Plains College, where he teaches performance and instrumental ensembles, a “Masters of Bluegrass” seminar, and private lessons. He offers advice for all players, but especially beginners: "No matter what the level of your playing, strive to get a good tone. If you're a beginner, it doesn't mean you have to sound bad. You can play very simple ideas, but try to make them sound as beautiful as you can."
Working with students daily, Alan is attuned to the obstacles they encounter, or create for themselves. One problem he sees is students' reluctance to perfect the details of music and technique -- things like how to move their fingers to get a good sound and a good strike of the string. Alan feels students should especially pay close attention to timing, "because that's the glue that holds it all together. I'm not talking about good bluegrass timing, just about being able to play a roll with a metronome. I recommend turning the metronome on and playing just one note in time with the click; then two; then pinches in between; then a simple roll; then a more complex roll. Whatever your level, be sure to play with really good timing. And later, if you've got that, then the whole idea of whatever timing is in bluegrass will come much more easily."
Alan notices that people nowadays don't play along with records, which he believes is critical. "If it's only one song, and you can play only the pick-up notes into the chorus, play that along with the record. Play chords and rhythm along with Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, or whoever you like. Try to find songs slow enough to play along with, and really try to get in the groove of playing along."
Playing without a capo is a goal of many banjo players. If you're always using your capo, Alan says, "the strings always have the same relationship to each other -- the 1st string is always the 5th (note of the scale); the 3rd string is always the tonic (in standard G tuning). The relationship of the strings becomes different if you don't use a capo. In the key of Bb, the 1st string becomes the 3rd and the 5th string becomes the 6th. So each song becomes specific to its key. That's one reason it's hard to do -- if you work up a song in Bb using open strings, you can't play it in C. On the Strictly Instrumental album, I played 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home' in Bb without a capo and it has a real specific kind of sound."
A new hat for Alan is that of author/music historian. He and Joe Carr have worked for the last seven years on Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas. It is published by Texas Tech Press and is available in most book stores throughout the country. With his customary humility, Alan says of this effort, "I never thought I could write a book. As I say jokingly sometimes, I've read a book and I've written a book. There were some discoveries I made about the development of music that I wasn't as sensitive to prior to writing the book. That is, what music really is to people and how important it is to people. To learn about musicians' lives, what they did, how they made a living, and whatnot, made it interesting to write."
Remarkably, Alan and Joe have found time to work on a theatrical piece that chronicles, over the course of four decades, the lives of two musician friends who grew up and played music in West Texas. The play highlights one meeting each decade of these two at the annual Pancho Villa Days celebration in Bolapinta, Texas. "It's based on lots of things Joe and I found from writing the book, and it will include other stories we've written as well as a lot of music. Hopefully, the audience will sense how important music was to these guys . . . they never had a huge career, made a lot of money, or maybe weren't even very good. But it was just incredibly important to them that they play music."
If Alan could be doing anything he wanted right now as a musician, what would that be? "Well, it would be doing this play for lots of money. Also, I'd like to play in a little jazz band, doing jazz standards like 'Just Friends,' 'All The Things You Are,' 'Green Dolphin Street,' 'Autumn Leaves.' I'd like to do it in Terlingua, Texas, at the Starlight Theatre with Slim Richey."
As of this writing, Alan Munde and Joe Carr are awaiting the release of their newest album on Flying Fish, WindyDays and Dusty Skies.
Return to Past Articles
Return to Home Page