Adam Hurt’s High Fidelity Old-Time Banjo

By Amelia Mason - January 15, 2014


As a master of clawhammer-style banjo, Adam Hurt has accomplished an elusive goal of so many neo-traditionalists: he brings an innovative approach to folk music and gained the admiration of an authenticity-obsessed establishment in the process.

Clawhammer is a banjo picking technique employed by students of American old-time music, a tradition rooted in Appalachia and the Southern states. Hurt, a Minnesota native, is thoroughly schooled in the history of the style—he has won most of the nation’s major old-time banjo competitions—but he brings an elegant modernity to it. It’s a subtle ingenuity, however, and no one without a deep familiarity with clawhammer banjo is likely to detect any unorthodoxy to his playing. Hurt’s albums sound like high fidelity field recordings. They may have been made in the studio, but it’s hard to imagine him anywhere but on his front porch.

Hurt released his second solo effort, “Insight,” on the Ubiquitone label in 2006. It featured a collection of traditional Appalachian tunes and a few bluegrass covers, rendered with little or no accompaniment. He followed this up with “Perspective” in 2009, a slightly more concise and refined take on the same idea. On both albums, Hurt occupies an enchanted sonic space, notes burbling from beneath his fingers with the alacrity and closeness of a whispered conversation. Clawhammer banjo, played without finger picks or a resonator to amplify the sound, has a warm, forgiving tone, which Hurt employs with both precision and expressiveness.

2010’s “Earth Tones” was recorded entirely on the gourd banjo, marking new territory for Hurt. The instrument, unfretted and handcrafted out of the aforementioned vegetable, has a darker, more resonant, and altogether stranger sound than its contemporary equivalent. True to form, Hurt displays impeccable technique along with a gentle appreciation of the instrument’s eccentricities. This, in a sense, is the secret to his success: despite his modern sensibilities, he recognizes that clawhammer banjo is most at home on the fringes, a dusty relic best saved for a sunny day on the front porch with friends.

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