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When COVID-19 Canceled Music Festivals, These Banjo Lovers Planned A Virtual One

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Time now for an espresso shot of musical endorphins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: When the pandemic forced summer music festivals to cancel, banjo players felt particularly unstrung.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's because social distancing is the polar opposite of what banjo festivals are all about.

CATHY FINK: Typically, we would be sitting in circles either around a campfire or under a tent, you know, with the mountains in the background. And we would be playing hour after hour after hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That's banjo player Cathy Fink. With instruments in hand and no place to pluck, she and fellow musician Adam Hurt teamed up and created an online banjo festival.

GREENE: They reached out to banjo lovers on social media. And the response was finger-picking good.

FINK: A hundred and 19 banjo players submitted from all over the U.S. We had quite a few from all over the U.K. And we even had one from Norway.

UMA PETERS: My name is Uma Peters (ph). I'm from Nashville, Tenn. I'm going to be playing "Camptown Hornpipe" for the Online Old Time banjo contest.

(SOUNDBITE OF UMA PETERS' "CAMPTOWN HORNPIPE")

GREENE: Adam Hurt says they were looking specifically for old-time banjo players. And that's a very distinct style of playing.

ADAM HURT: Old-time banjo means pre-Bluegrass styles of playing the five-string banjo. Many of us think of the clawhammer or frailing style as representing old-time banjo that came over from West Africa. There's some beautiful two-finger and three-finger banjo styles that rhythmically resemble clawhammer but, texturally, are quite different. So there's really a lot of diversity under that old-time banjo umbrella.

CAMERON DEWHITT: I'm Cameron DeWhitt (ph). This is Jonathan Craig Roberts (ph). And this is my submission for the Online Old Time Banjo contest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Contestants are judged in five areas.

HURT: One is rhythm and timing. One is tone. One is expression and soul. One is difficulty or execution. And the last is traditional, old-time style.

ERIC WHITE: This is Eric White (ph). This is Kimberly (ph), my lovely wife. This is my submission for the Online Old Time Banjo competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC AND KIMBERLY WHITE'S "BANJO TRAMP")

FINK: When I watch these videos of the banjo players, we're watching people in their backyards, in their gardens, in their sheds, in their bedrooms, in their living rooms. And the fact that so many of them have watched so many of these videos, liked each other, made new friends out of it, that's a big deal.

GREENE: That was Kathy Fink along with Adam Hurt. They organized the Mike Seeger Online Old Time Banjo Festival. And the finalists are going to be streamed live. The winner will be announced Saturday on Facebook and on YouTube. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.