Banjo Free Range Pickin' Songwriting Video

Style is Based on Limitations

On writing my first banjo tune

Free Range Pickin' - Free Range Pickin' (2004)
FRP – 2004

It recently occurred to me that it has been 10 years(!) since I recorded my very first banjo instrumental, Dirty Old Rag. I thought I would take a moment to reflect upon how I was finally able to overcome my insecurities as an aspiring songwriter and “non-traditional” banjo picker and finally put this tune out into world.

Originally released in 2004 on Free Range Pickin’s self-titled album, Dirty Old Rag was inspired by my discovery of the amazing songwriting and unique banjo playing of the late, great John Hartford. I’m pretty sure I listened to his classic Aereo-Plain album on repeat for an entire year straight before writing this tune. While I was certainly influenced by his writing, it turns out it was his attitude about music that made the biggest impact on me.

John Hartford Aereo Plain Album Cover
Aereo-Plain Album Cover


When I wrote this song, I was still fairly new to the banjo and didn’t have a very strong traditional bluegrass background. In many ways, I felt I was completely unqualified to write my own banjo tune, heck, I hadn’t even made it past the first few pages of Earl Scruggs’ banjo book.  How was a recovering rock and roll drummer going to write a convincing, original bluegrass banjo instrumental? Turns out, I didn’t have to.

John Hartford gave me permission.

If you’re familiar with John Hartford’s work, you’ll know that much of his music (and banjo playing) didn’t care much for genre. Although he could play the traditional stuff, his songwriting didn’t follow a prescribed recipe. Sometimes it was bluegrassy, sometimes old-timey, sometimes folksy and at times outright bizarre (e.g. Boogie), but it was always 100% him!

There is a really great musical quote attributed to John:

“Style is based on limitations”

Recording Dirty Old Rag, March 2004 at Pachyderm Studios
Recording Dirty Old Rag, March 2004 at Pachyderm Studios

I love this quote and remind myself of it every time I’m feeling insecure about my musical abilities. To me it says “focus on what you’re good at and don’t use your perceived limitations as an excuse for not creating something.” It reminds me that everyone has a unique perspective on music based on personal experiences, musical influences, technical abilities and shortcomings. Sometimes it is our constraints that truly bring out the most creativity.

Now, I wouldn’t say that Dirty Old Rag is my best writing. I also wouldn’t dare to compare it to any Hartford composition. However, what I am proud of is that it got written, recorded and performed at all. Despite the fact that I didn’t feel “good enough,” or “qualified” at the time. I have John Hartford to thank for that!

Download Dirty Old Rag TabFor any banjo players out there that are interested, I have tabbed out the first break of the song, CLICK HERE to download a PDF.

Are you a songwriter? Please leave me a comment and tell me about who inspired you to put your music out into the world!

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