Rudy Lyle: The Unsung Five-String Banjo Hero – Interview with the Author
Max Warham is a man on a mission. His new book, Rudy Lyle: The Unsung Five-String Banjo Herounveils the story of an artist with a profound influence on the current trajectory of bluegrass music, and more specifically the banjo in particular.
Lyle performed with Bill Monroe, but sadly never achieved recognition or notoriety beyond the small circle of his peers. Wareham sought to remedy this and as a result the book offers a comprehensive portrait of the artist, including his life story, playing technique, transcriptions of his work and interviews with family. , friends, colleagues and admirers of Lyle. . The latter included Sonny Osborne, Bill Emerson and Tony Trischka, who expresses his admiration up front.
The book also includes a wealth of never-before-seen portraits, adding even more depth and dimension to Lyle’s story.
Wareham himself approaches his subject from a conscious point of view. He previously studied banjo with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith, and performed with Peter Rowan on the latter’s latest album, I call you from my mountain. An academic by profession, he has taught music lessons with a strong focus on bluegrass, in addition to practicing his skills in a variety of other idioms as well.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Wareham about his book and why he wrote it.
BLUEGRASS TODAY: First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
MAX WAREHAM: Thank you very much for asking them!
To begin with, what inspired your interest in Rudy Lyle? In other words, what prompted you to write this book?
I actually walked into Rudy Lyle by Peter Rowan. Peter and I are family – he and my dad are cousins, but for convenience he sometimes calls me his nephew. Over the years he taught me a lot about music. I once asked Peter if he was influenced by Lester Flatt as a singer. He replied “Not really” and explained that he was much more inspired by the “high lonesome sound” of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. I had heard of the “high lonesome sound” before, but didn’t really understand it until I looked through and listened to Bill’s discography, and really studied the music. Rudy Lyle was the banjo player on almost all of these sessions. He was working alongside Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin to really develop the framework that had revolutionized American music a few years earlier when Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined Bill Monroe’s band. However, I believe this group, with Jimmy Martin and Rudy Lyle, was a more complete artistic vision of Bill’s, and many people I’ve interviewed feel the same way. Rudy is therefore very important, historically, as someone who was instrumental in helping Monroe develop bluegrass music.
I started to learn more about Rudy in order to deepen the tradition myself. I was surprised how little information there was about him, let alone material for those who wanted to know more about his style. I have a lot of transcription skills from my jazz guitar studies, so I thought I’d write this book so that people who want to learn more about Rudy’s style and life would have a resource to do so.
You call him “the unsung hero of the five-string banjo”. Why do you think he never got wider recognition?
It’s a good question. I asked myself the question. Rudy was the first banjo player to record with Bill Monroe after Earl Scruggs. These are very big shoes to fill. Second, Rudy went to fight in Korea in the summer of ’51. He was in the service for two years and unfortunately saw some extreme combat during that time. He returned with PTSD and severe hearing damage. The banjo never seemed quite right for him from then on. After another year playing banjo with Bill Monroe’s band, he began to focus more on electric guitar, mainly because it was easier for him to hear. He actually had a very successful career as a sideman playing with Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Red Rector and a young Patsy Cline. He co-led a band with Benny Martin. He mainly played in the Hank Garland style. But I think the fact that he stopped playing the banjo at a relatively young age is a big part of why he’s not better known.
How would you describe his legacy? How did he influence the banjo players who followed him? How did he influence you?
Comparisons with Earl Scruggs are inevitable. Earl had perfect style – everything was milk and honey, it was well thought out and it was perfect. Rudy, on the other hand, was driven more by fire and electricity. He often improvises his breaks. Rudy was playing from the seat of his pants, taking risks and soaring to great heights. This energy was a perfect match for Monroe’s vision for music, at least for this time of “high loneliness”.
He also had a very compositional approach to backup. He would create these hooks that he would play as a backup that would become as integral to the song as the lyrics.
Although not as well known as it should be, it has influenced many masters of the instrument. I let them intervene:
Sonny Osborne said: “He was a hell of a player. He thought he was playing the banjo, he changed everything. If you go to a banjo player and you talk about Rudy, and they don’t want to agree that he’s gone beyond Earl, tell them “Go learn raw hide exactly as he played it, then you come back to me and then talk to me.
Bill Emerson noted, “Of all his banjo players, Rudy Lyle suited Bill Monroe better than anyone – including Earl Scruggs.”
This is from Butch Robins: “In the earliest form of music, Rudy was my favorite banjo player. I thought it fit Monroe’s style of playing this music, whether on raw hide Where The White House Blues. He had an idea of music that matched what Monroe was at that time.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
My hope for this book is to give Rudy his credit, to frame him properly in music history. I also want to give a resource to musicians who want to learn more about his playing and who want to incorporate parts of his style into their own playing.
Do you think the book will have a wider reach than those who consider themselves banjo aficionados?
I think anyone interested in bluegrass music will find Rudy’s story interesting. I was able to speak with some of the music masters, and their lyrics are all here. They all tell great stories and collectively paint a very nice portrait of a brilliant guy who has been almost forgotten.
Why is this book important?
One of the things that fascinated me when studying Rudy’s acting was his process. If he always played the melody when he took a break, he did it in a very improvised way. He played each take quite differently from the one before it. This presents an approach that directly confronts the generally accepted idea that a banjo player’s break must be pre-planned and executed perfectly. Considering that Rudy was one of the main architects of the “high lonesome” sound, I think learning his approach to playing will open many doors for banjo players, especially in understanding how the process can affect the energy of the music.
Did you do the transcriptions yourself? Can you give us an idea of the efforts that have been made? Had his work been transcribed before?
Much of this work has never been transcribed before. There have been a few transcriptions of his playing published over the years in magazines and newsletters, but the accuracy is questionable.
I did all the transcriptions for the book myself. At the time, I was working on the graveyard team for an online poker site. The work was usually quite slow, and I spent much of that time listening to Rudy’s breaks through headphones while slowing down, performing them very quietly on the banjo so as not to wake up my neighbors.
What was involved in securing the interviews you include here? How long did this project take to materialize?
I started the project at the start of the pandemic, so in total it took two and a half years from start to release date. Conducting the interviews was one of the most fun parts of the process. This usually involved detective work to get in touch with people, although in some cases I was helped by mutual friends who put me in touch with the interviewees. Getting to hear the stories of the masters was a special experience.
Would you like to add anything?
It’s been a labor of love for me, and it’s truly an honor to be able to share Rudy Lyle’s story through his music and through the conversations I’ve had with other masters who have been influenced by him. I think Rudy Lyle’s contribution to bluegrass music was really special, and if this book helps people appreciate that, I’m happy.