Polymath Prodigy

Bluegrass enforces the most severe strictures on its adherents of any popular American music. But banjo prodigy Tony Furtado, who won the prestigious National Bluegrass Banjo Competition twice, at ages 20 and 24, knew from the start that he didn’t want to be shackled to one type of music for his entire career. So, over the course of 15 full-length albums and thousands of widely acclaimed live performances, the San Francisco Bay Area native has mixed rock, folk, jazz, blues and classical stylings in with his scrupulous traditional skills. Mid-career, Furtado even mastered the slide guitar for good measure — using his own hand-built slides, no less.

Folio Weekly: Give us the low-down on how you discovered the banjo, Tony.

Tony Furtado: I started playing it when I was 12 years old because, in sixth grade, I did a report on a musical instrument. But you also had to make the instrument out of household items. So I took a pie tin, some paper, some latex paint and some fishing string and made myself a little toy banjo. After that, I was fascinated, so I found a real banjo, got set up with a teacher and off I went.

F.W.: Were you immediately introduced to Earl Scruggs’ three-finger-style of bluegrass picking?

T.F.: That’s what my first teacher got me going on, but at the same time, he had me check out The Eagles and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who were using banjo in rock. That started me off with an open mind.

F.W.: Did you spend your early years focusing on the technical side of the instrument?

T.F.: When I first started, it was all about playing the banjo all the time — I loved it. But once I got on stage in front of people and heard applause, I got addicted to playing live. At the same time, I was learning how to sculpt and going to college as an art major. But I was also playing gigs the whole time. And what I discovered was, when you show someone a sculpture, they say, “Oh, that’s nice.” You might have spent weeks or months working on that thing! But when you play a song and people immediately clap, that’s the rush. It’s much sexier to feel that energy from the audience.

F.W.: Do you find it hard to transfer that live energy to tape?

T.F.: It’s tricky, and it took me a number of albums to figure it out. On my first few, I hear a very young man really trying to play perfectly. Sometimes, that can hurt the vibrancy of the music. On my last couple of albums, I feel I’ve captured more of that live energy. I’ve certainly been able to sing better because I’ve been relaxed and not stressed out.

F.W.: Does that easygoing demeanor apply to your stage presence as well?

T.F.: That’s a whole ’nother skill set. [Laughs.] Until the late ’90s, I was just a sideman. But once you front your own band, you’re the focal point. You can be someone who doesn’t communicate with the audience, but that’s never felt right to me — I always wanted to talk to them, even though it took a while to be comfortable with it. At times, you almost have to see the audience as one person. And after all these gigs, I’m at the point where it totally feels natural. Just hanging out up here, playing music for folks and chatting with them.

F.W.: Was it natural for you to pick up and quickly master the slide guitar mid-career?

T.F.: I was always attracted to that sound as a kid, and it took making a few banjo-focused albums for me to realize that I needed a big change — I wasn’t just a bluegrass musician. So I picked up a Ry Cooder album and realized, “This is what I love!” — that Americana thing with blues, Celtic music, jazz and rock influences. I wasn’t able to portray that with just the banjo. I needed slide guitar and my voice as well. But it didn’t take long to feel comfortable playing slide. I heard it in my head, so it was just a matter of transferring it into my hands.

F.W.: You’ve been an independent musician your entire career. Do you still derive most of your income from touring?

T.F.: Touring has always been my bread and butter, and I’m sure it always will be. It’s a good thing that I love to play live. [Laughs.] The hard thing is touring with a 5-month-old baby at home. My wife is a musician, too, so as two working musicians trying to fit it all in … well, it’s tricky.

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