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Pickin' a Winner

Inside Horseshoe Bend's banjo festival

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Horseshoe Bend in early June looks about as far removed from Idaho's high desert as a polar bear. The yellows and browns of summer have not yet overtaken the swollen foothills surrounding the quiet ex-mill town, and green grass makes the erstwhile sagebrush all but invisible. The visual effect, rather than feeling "western," is quite similar to the many Appalachian hill towns that dot America's eastern inland like musical notes—which makes Horseshoe Bend a perfect location for Idaho's only festival dedicated to the ultimate Appalachian accessory, the banjo.

The weekend of June 5 marked the third incarnation of Horseshoe Bend's annual Banjo Contest and Festival—not yet at the level of maturity achieved by Weiser's Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest and Festival or the Yellow Pine Harmonica Festival perhaps, but with the level of support given to the festival by the town's Chamber of Commerce, not too far from it. Music by groups with names like The Cowbelles, Middle Ford Medley and Boise's Buckhorn Mountain Boys filled the City Park all weekend, providing everything from bluegrass standards to line dancing swing tunes to (of course) selections from the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Old-timers fanned themselves in lawn chairs, new-timers whacked each other with inflatable hammers purchased from souvenir stands, and a nice quiet sunbath was had by all—except in the nearby Community Hall, where a banjo-battle was abrewin'.

The banjo contest, which took place on the basketball court of Horseshoe Bend's Hall, followed almost perfectly the script set up by so many "underground fighting tournament" movies like Enter the Dragon or Bloodsport. An evil super genius in a remote locale—in this case played by decidedly non-evil multi-instrumentalist Bruce Alkire—organizes a take-all-comers tourney in which he also participates. The crew that shows up for the bloodbath, in this case nine other pickers almost all of whom drove from Boise or Meridian, represent a wide range of warrior archetypes, from The Old Master to The Kid to The Rival Gurus to the students of said gurus. All participants pay a $10 entry fee, pleasantly tell the reporter in attendance that they "don't really care about winning, and just want to have a good time," and proceed to pick furiously in one another's general direction until only one gladiator remains standing.

The rules for the contest are modeled after other Northwest events like the Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival and Weiser's fiddle contest: each musician is allowed to play two tunes of any genre with no time limit, two accompanists allowed, and absolutely no singing. The three celebrity judges present—Emmett-based singer Terry Rekow, Idaho Falls string bass expert Bill Parsons and Boise singer and guitarist Travis Ward—were all handpicked by Alkire because of their non-banjo musical backgrounds. This gap allowed them, in Alkire's words, to remain "pure" and "score it just like they hear it" in terms of technicality, timing and showmanship.

Such a task may sound like fun, but given the remarkable array of styles and instruments covered by the 10 contestants in the adult division, I didn't envy the judges' charge of demarcation. Fifteen-year-old Laura Malaise (yes, in Banjo-land 15 is considered "adult") started off the proceedings with a history lesson, tearing through flawless rave-up versions of two of the 20th century's most famous bluegrass tunes, "Orange Blossom Special" and "Dueling Banjos" on her five-string banjo with guitar and mandolin backers. After Boise's Warren Lemmon added on similarly amped takes on "Oh Susannah" and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," I figured that "classic speed-grass" was the order of the day. I was wrong.

Most of the eight other talented competitors strove to enlighten the small, largely local audience of the genre-bending music that can be concocted by an ambitious banjo player. Alkire, who teaches banjo at Hartz Music in Meridian, picked a quiet, lyrical self-written folk composition entitled "Wet Dogs" to wrap up his set, while Old Boise Guitar banjo maven (See? Rival gurus!) "Wild" Bill Cates ran through a spectacular dissection of the Evans and Livingston show tune "Buttons and Bows" that involved tinkering with tuning knobs during the song's chorus. Boise's Dean Cerva, one of the few experts in Idaho on the Dixieland jazz standby of tenor banjo, strummed rather than picked his way through two incredibly technical pieces: Rodgers and Hart's ballad "Isn't it Romantic" and Bela Bartok's "Hungarian Folk Song #5." Pendleton, Oregon, college professor Martha Yakovleff alternated bluegrass with a unique version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow," while local boys Neal Rueger, Willard Plush and Jim Williams all reached back into the murky depths of pre-bluegrass folk to find inspiration for their porch-worthy tunes.

Plush, a friendly Kuna cowboy with sideburns as long as a fiddle bow, was without a doubt the "Old Master" of the event—although he shook his head and laughed knowingly when I asked his age. An expert on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and saxophone who now plays with Idaho's Oldtime Fiddlers, Plush has haunted Boise pizza parlors, Eagle Halls and in his words, "just about everywhere else around here," in a career spanning most of the last century. His two simple country numbers at the contest, played on a museum-quality tenor banjo with his wife Muriel accompanying him on a homemade washtub bass, caused a few young audience members to laugh derisively at what they seemed to think was "camp." Music like Plush's is many things, including an undiluted, joyful remnant of the pre-industrial musical culture that folk historian Harry Smith dubbed "Old, weird America," but it isn't campy. Such compelling, earnest art finds its way around the musical blinders worn by most Boiseans far too infrequently, and the opportunity to witness it more than justifies our state's penchant for small town music fests.

Ultimately, though, Cerva's solo jazz won out over anything from the realms of folk or bluegrass. The winning edge, according to both judges Rekow and Ward, had to do with his ability to keep toes tapping while exhibiting unparalleled facial and physical expressiveness on stage. Cerva, a 67-year-old plumbing contractor who has regularly played in local bars and jazz bands since age 18, attributes his banjo success to "not knowing any better" as a youth. "But after just a couple of festivals," he recalls, "I just had the fire in my heart." Northwest festival veteran Yakovleff took second place and Cates third—after his fiery version of the traditional bandit ballad "John Hardy" won a teachers only playoff with Alkire.

The entire event lasted less than two hours, and winners aside, all 10 pickers played a valuable and unique role in what was an encyclopedic tour of banjo culture and history. Idaho's other musical gatherings may hold more prominence than The Banjo Contest and Festival, but music fans lucky enough to wander into the Bend on D-Day weekend came away echoing contest emcee Steve Helm's rhetorical query, "Who knew we had this kind of talent out here in the country?"

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