There are some people who exude so much passion for what they do that no matter you prior interest in the topic, you can become fascinated by the subject just from being around the person. It is the sort of passion that your best school teachers had; an ability to make a subject interesting to you. Today’s guest is one of the most passionate banjo players on the planet; an accomplished multi-instrumentalist that has swept the banjo contest scene for the last decade earning numerous titles including the National Bluegrass Banjo contest in Winfield Kansas . . . twice. Steven if you would please, tell us who you are, what you do, and where you’re located?
My name is Steven Moore. I’m a banjo player, currently touring with the David Mayfield Parade, and live in Saint Clairsville, Ohio.
JED: Oh cool man I didn’t realize you were touring with DMP. You’re an Ohio native, correct?
Yessir – well, I was born in Wheeling, WV, but have lived just across the river in Ohio my whole life.
JED: Gotcha. Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?
My mom is a huge fan of the Statler Brothers, and I first heard a banjo on their Christmas album with the Jimmy Fortune song “Christmas Country Style.” I asked my mom what that sound was, and she told me that it was a banjo. I told her then that I wanted to play one from the sound alone, having never seen one or ever listened to bluegrass before. I guess the banjo sort of chose me. I started taking banjo lessons, got pretty decent at it, shared some videos online back in the early days of YouTube, won a few contests like Winfield (National Championships), RockyGrass, RenoFest, MerleFest, FreshGrass, etc., and earned some notoriety amongst other banjo players.
JED: When did you post your first videos on YouTube? I feel like my first few were back in the late 2000s. We met for the first time at a contest didn’t we?
I believe it was early 2007 – shortly after Google acquired YouTube – that some of my first banjo videos were posted to YouTube. My dad would run the camera and take clips of Butch Osborne (my banjo teacher) and me jamming on tunes after we’d finished a banjo lesson, usually with some harmonies or arranged sections thrown in. It was fun and a lot of people recognize me from those early double banjo videos. You and I first met at Winfield, maybe in 2006 or 2007, I believe at the Deering banjo booth. We picked a little bit then, but then re-met at Merlefest in 2012. We jammed most of the night there with your friend Clint Alphin (guitar) and a guy I knew David Watson (mandolin) from somewhere in WV.
JED: Dude those are great memories. I was at Winfield in 2007 – gosh that feels like a lifetime ago. What are some of your favorite albums, and how do they influence your work?
From an early age, my playing was largely influenced by other banjo players and their albums. I’ve proudly stolen licks, learned new techniques, and studied elements of composition from many great players… Here are a few banjo players and specific albums which made lasting impacts on my playing (listed alphabetically by last name):
Ron Block: So Long So Wrong (AKUS), Faraway Land, New Favorite (AKUS), Lonely Runs Both Ways (AKUS)
Alison Brown: Simple Pleasures, Twilight Motel, Stolen Moments
Ryan Cavanaugh: Songs for the New Frontier
Bela Fleck: Drive, Natural Bridge, Places, Double Time, various New Grass Revival albums, The Telluride Sessions (Strength in Numbers), Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. II
Tony Furtado: Within Reach
Jens Kruger: Between the Notes
Matt Menefee (Cadillac Sky): Talent Show, Blind Man Walking, Gravity’s Our Enemy
Noam Pikelny: In the Maze
Earl Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Banjo (my first real banjo album)
Scott Vestal: Bluegrass ‘95 – 2002, In Pursuit of Happiness, Millennia
A couple of guitar players who have also influenced my banjo playing a lot include Tommy Emmanuel and Pete Huttlinger.
JED: Man I’ve had so many interviews where people mention the So Long So Wrong album as a big influence in their musical journey. You also mentioned Bela’s Drive, and Tales From The Acoustic Planet 2 which are two of my all-time favorite albums as well. I originally pursued fingerstyle guitar in the early days of my guitar lessons so I’m familiar with Pete Huttlinger’s work. We actually interviewed a protege of his Ms. Emma Moseley who I’d definitely recommend you check out.
Will do! Pete was a great player and an even better guy. He is surely missed.
JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?
I most enjoy being able to entertain an audience and especially to be able to touch the hearts of listeners. I feel like that impact is most readily attainable through live performance.
JED: Who are three musicians that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?
Sticking to only banjo players, I’d have to choose three deceased and three living examples. Deceased: Bobby Thompson, Jimmy Arnold, and Dennis Caplinger. Living: Pat Cloud, Matt Flinner, and Butch Osborne.
Bobby Thompson was especially ahead of his time as far as banjo playing techniques and innovation. He developed a melodic style on the banjo in the 50s that really laid the groundwork for the likes of Bill Keith in the 60s and for players onward. He was most famously featured on Hee Haw, but some of the other pickers on there really got the spotlight and notoriety, like Roy Clark… but Bobby was one of the first doing it, and never really got much attention for whatever reason… Even among some of the most informed banjo aficionados, he is mostly unknown.
Jimmy Arnold came around later. I believe his early records like Strictly Arnold with tunes like “Charmaine” have got to be some of the earliest examples of a complete meld of banjo styles – Scruggs, single-string, melodic, and jazzy elements all blended together with seamless transitions between them. He was a true banjo master. I think he may have played some with Keith Whitley but he never really earned the notoriety like some players. I believe he was pretty hard on his physical wellbeing with respect to substance abuse (especially alcoholism) and that may have been a contributing factor to his lack of renown.
Dennis Caplinger was an absurdly good banjo player (he played fiddle and mandolin quite well, too, I believe) from California who sadly passed away within the past couple of years. He was in the group Bluegrass, Etc., but recorded with Eric Clapton and some other really famous artists, Vince Gill maybe? But yet his name doesn’t often come up when talking about banjo greats. I first heard his banjo playing on the Van Halen bluegrass / southern fried cover album “Strummin with the Devil” – Dennis played Van Halen’s Eruption – crazy to fit all of that onto the banjo, but he did it! I think his playing was very advanced and he was as good as some of the more famous players, but somehow his notoriety never really caught up to that level.
Pat Cloud – What can I say except that Pat is an extremely musically educated player that has written the books for Mel Bay, Hal Leonard, etc. on jazz banjo and banjo improvisation. You can tell from his playing and educational materials that he’s studied jazz guitar greats and applies everything he’s learned to the banjo. I find it sad that a lot more folks don’t know of Pat and his playing. I’ve not actually met Pat, actually, but would love to sit down with him for a few hours and pick his brain and try to learn as much as I can from him.
Matt Flinner – Matt is definitely more well-known as a mandolin player (his albums Latitude and The View From Here are awesome, as well as his mandolin work on Noam’s In The Maze album) but his banjo playing is really wild! He’s rarely ever brought up in discussions about awesome banjo players, but he’s won Winfield on banjo as well as on mandolin, so he’s a beast! Listen to his banjo work with Darrell Scott’s band. You won’t be disappointed!
Butch Osborne – Butch might be one of the most under-recognized banjo players of our time. Butch is a part-time musician and drives a concrete truck throughout the work week, and does very little for self-promotion. I am fortunate, though, to have lived about an hour and a half drive from him and taken banjo lessons from him from age 13 through age 17. He taught me so much of what I know and I wouldn’t at all be the musician I am today without him! Butch plays banjo regularly with Johnny Staats and the Delivery Boys – a band with other seriously under-recognized monster players like Johnny Staats (mandolin), formerly Robert Schafer (guitar), and others. Butch is one of my favorite banjo players ever – he can create killer arrangements with recurring motifs and his execution is top-level!
JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?
You will usually find me playing my Ome Gold Odyssey that I won at Winfield in 2008; gold-plated hardware, a curly maple neck/resonator with the 20-hole Ome Megatone 200 ring. I’ve also got a nice Prucha – Spirit Alison Brown Model that I won at FreshGrass that I like to do some recording with. I am a big endorser of Landis sterling silver finger picks – the tone and grips are remarkable! I also use Elliott capos and stainless steel strings (GHS and D’Addario).
For my stage rig, I’ve got a Myers feather pick-up (really not a pickup but rather a very small gooseneck mic with a built-in watch battery preamp), ¼” out of the preamp module wirelessly via a Boss WL-50 then into an LR Baggs Venue DI.
JED: Man it’s cool to me that you still play the banjo you won almost 15 years ago. Like so many contest winners end up selling the instrument they won or trading it for something else. I think it’s awesome that an instrument you won has become a part of your sound. That is a rarity!
Yeah – when you find one that fits you like a glove, I think you’d better keep it! Even though I mostly play my Ome, I actually have kept the majority of the instruments I’ve won! I have won several Deerings, two Omes, a Yates, a Prucha, maybe some others… I can’t thank those builders enough for their generosity in donating instruments to contests as prizes.
JED: Man you’ve got a serious arsenal. If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?
I am very fortunate to have just released my dream album in September… I work a M-F day job and that income as well as other savings funded the project and its marketing. The album, called Just a Little Talk with Myself, is my debut solo album and was produced by one of my banjo heroes Scott Vestal at his Digital Underground recording studio in Greenbrier, TN. I play banjo on every track, pennywhistle on one track, and electric banjo on one track, and am accompanied by an all-star dream team: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Byron House on bass, Cody Kilby on guitar, and James Seliga on mandolin (the core band), as well as Gaven Largent on dobro for three tracks, Chris Sexton on two tracks with string quartet and quintet, and some special guest appearances including Chris Brown on drums, Scott Vestal on a 2nd banjo, and vocalists including John Cowan, David Mayfield, Elliott Park, Rosa Vestal, and Scott Vestal.
JED: What a lineup man! What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m working on writing material for the next album! As well as playing and working with the David Mayfield Parade. I’d say we’ll be making an album in the next year as well! I also am working on building out my home recording studio… It is bare bones right now, with some decent mics to choose from and outboard preamps, but I basically want to be Scott Vestal when I grow up, so I have to build out and fill up a studio, get better at banjo, and try to just be awesome!
JED: Sounds like a plan man. I’ll be eagerly awaiting your next album Steven. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about your music. Can’t wait to hear the new tunes!
Follow Steven on his website, Instagram, and TikTok. Featured image by Christopher Bell and Sarah Bizanovich at TSG Studios.