Bluegrass to Bach

Classical banjoist John Bullard redefines the instrument’s possibilities.

There is a French expression, “coup de foudre,” or “bolt of lightning,” to describe that sudden, out-of-the-blue moment of being struck by love at first sight. For John Bullard, it was love at first sound. 

He was a middle-schooler, riding in the truck with his father one day back in the 1970s in Goochland County. The AM radio was on, and suddenly, Bullard explained in a 2016 interview for Radford University’s Appalachian music archives, “My father screeched on the brakes, pulled off the road, cranked up the radio and said, ‘You’ve gotta listen to this.’”

Pouring out of the speaker was music that was strange and unfamiliar, and nothing quite like he’d ever heard before. But right then and there, he said, “I’ve just got to do that.” 

The music was “Dueling Banjos,” a piece made famous by the movie Deliverance (though in fact it was originally composed in the 1950s), and it sparked in Bullard an immediate, profound and lifelong devotion to the banjo.

“I’ve never lost that overwhelming curiosity for the instrument,” says Bullard, 57, who began studying banjo almost immediately following that fateful first encounter.

It’s a devotion, however, that hasn’t come without challenges. Because for decades John Bullard hasn’t only explored the instrument, he has determinedly sought to expand its repertoire—to be among a mere handful of players worldwide to redefine the banjo’s possibilities. Though he is an accomplished bluegrass musician (he plays with the Heritage Bluegrass Band), the true focus of his work—the subject of unflagging study, practice and (he’ll admit) not a little obsession—is classical music. Bach, Handel, Schumann, Telemann. Sonatas, concertos, partitas, inventions. And if the idea of Bach on a five-string banjo strikes you as inherently contradictory, a musical oxymoron, then you only have to listen to Bullard’s newest CD to recognize you might need to rethink your estimation. 

“It is a love story,” says John Patykula, assistant chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University department of music, where Bullard earned a magna cum laude degree in music performance in 2005, the department’s first—and only—graduate in classical banjo. “He loves the banjo and he wants to make it an instrument accepted in classical music.”

To understand why that’s a challenge, consider a phrase Bullard offers with equal parts vexation, amusement and historical expertise: “Banjo shame.” Bullard’s first, abrupt introduction to it came when he was an undergraduate at Hampden-Sydney College in the late ’70s and tried to sign up for a music theory class. When he said he played the banjo, the professor, indignant, dismissed him summarily. “No, that simply won’t do!” he announced, refusing to admit Bullard to the class.

There is a cultural elitism when it comes to the banjo, Bullard explains. People haven’t taken the banjo seriously because it hasn’t been seen as a “serious” instrument, the kind symphonies and sonatas were written for. It’s a “folk” instrument. It’s a back-porch instrument. It’s—informal.  

That simply won’t do. 

Even with multiple recordings, even with an established reputation, even when he has published two instructional books on classical banjo and several of his pieces have been featured in films, including the Dreamworks movie Rise of the Guardians and the award-winning foreign film The Edge of Heaven, still, when Bullard pitches concert and chamber music series, he’ll get emails back that state flatly, “We don’t do banjo.”

Patykula points out that the banjo isn’t the first instrument that has had to fight its way into acceptance as a classical instrument. Segovia, he says, had to overcome a similar prejudice against the guitar, which was also once considered a folk instrument not worthy of the concert stage and the conservatory. 

“For Segovia it was a slow, steady ascent,” says Patykula. “I think little by little acceptance will grow. I think John’s new recording will help.”

That new recording is Bullard’s recently released CD, Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art. It was recorded in a distinctly un-Southern locale—Toronto—at the studios of Canterbury Music, with professional Canadian musicians and vocalists providing accompaniment on pieces, including Handel’s “Trio Sonata in G Minor” and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” 

In these pieces, the banjo evokes qualities of harpsichord, classical guitar and lute; the sound is nothing like the rolling style of bluegrass or the foot-tapping rhythms of old-time music. Bullard says he is drawn to classical music because there is such depth and range of emotion to be interpreted in a piece, and Patykula says that what Bullard brings to that interpretation is the marriage of expertise and expression: “He combines craftmanship with a great sensitivity to music.”   

Bullard transcribed and arranged all but one of the selections on the recording. As he talks in his home studio in Goochland one afternoon about the process he goes through with each piece of music, he regularly picks up and sets down his banjo, as though he’s never quite comfortable, never quite fully himself, without the instrument in his hands. The “pot,” or main body, of his banjo, made in 1938, is a pre-World War II Gibson flathead, which is “the holy grail of banjos,” says Bullard. “It has things in it that I can’t really get out of it yet, but I know they are in there.”

The work in progress, a score for a sonata for oboe and harpsichord, is splayed across a music stand, cryptic marks penciled above the staff. “I have to go through phrase by phrase and figure out how I am going to play this on the banjo, logistically mapping out the movement of the finger on the frets, mapping out what it sounds like,” he says.

He’ll spend hours, days, weeks, painstakingly working through the score. “I will hear a piece and eventually I get completely obsessed with it,” he explains, “and if I don’t transcribe and play it, I can’t sleep.”

He reaches for his banjo again and idly picks out a few notes. 

“I’m fascinated by the music, but I remain fascinated by the banjo,” he says, almost dreamily. “Once you are a banjo player, you are just a player.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.

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