If decades of jokes about the instrument and its players are any indication, the banjo is many things, but subtle -- much less unexpected -- is definitely not one of them.
In the decades after it disappeared from Dixieland jazz orchestras, the banjo was used all but exclusively by folk, country and bluegrass musicians. (Also, The Eagles, but let's not dwell on that.)
For years, the most prominent uses of the instrument were in the "Dueling Banjos" scene from "Deliverance" and during Flatt and Scruggs' "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Being a banjo player, those associations made me embarrassed to love the instrument, but in recent years, the plunky, plucky little banjo has made a sneaky resurgence into the spotlight. So much so that on a recent trip to New York, I got more approving nods than bad-smell faces from hipsters as I carted my tenor banjo around Brooklyn.
I love that the instrument has been thrust into the spotlight by Steve Martin and neo-folk/pop (aka "banjo rock") bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. That being said, I especially appreciate when the banjo is used by bands that don't normally field the instrument, in which case it comes off like a secret toy surprise in a calzone, adding texture and flavor precisely because it is unexpected.
• Relient K's "Which To Bury, Us or the Hatchet?" At about the minute mark, the banjo pops up in a pleasantly hypnotic, mellow change of pace from the song's brash introduction.
• Sufjan Stevens' "Chicago." To those who think the banjo is weird, its use by Stevens, a nutter of a singer/songwriter if ever there was one, is probably unsurprising. That being said, it's used here in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it subtle way with brushed chording that calls to mind its Dixieland heritage.
• The Decemberists' "This Is Why We Fight." Tucked away after 10 seconds of silence, this brief field-recording-like jam session of Jenny Conlee singing along to Chris Funk's plunky banjo accompaniment is a nice surprise finale to one of the best tracks on "The King Is Dead."
I've always thought banjos were cool, a belief probably echoed by those who share my love of Pete Seeger and John Hartford, but it's nice to see it getting some much deserved attention on the charts. If you love the banjo, too, and have other examples of it making a surprise appearance, email me.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.