Coming off the high of recording her latest album, “Blue Sky Banjo,” musician and recording artist Mary Z. Cox is buzzing with anticipation for her “Evening of Banjo, Fiddle, and Beyond,” alongside award-winning fiddler and banjo builder, Tim Gardner. The duo recorded her 10th studio album back in October and is ready to share more of it with the audience at Blue Tavern on Friday, April 21.
Cox says their collaboration came together quickly while she and Gardner were in a studio in Cashiers, North Carolina.
“I would get up early in the morning and drive on Highway 64 through a tunnel of fall leaves, pick up our breakfast, and record,” says Cox. “We recorded ‘Snowdrop’ live with two mics and communicated all with eye contact. It was so exciting and organic.”
Alongside her CDs, she also publishes tablature books, which include the music for her songs as well as photos and stories.
As a solo artist, she often shares short stories in performances that will lead into the songs she plays. Ultimately, the genre of music is supported by this style of storytelling, as its rich history is in conversation with hundreds of years of traditional music. The last song on “Blue Sky Banjo” called “Cool Frosty Morning,” is typically an upbeat old-time string dance tune that has a long history in the canon of old music, however, Cox heard something different in the arrangement and decided to make it her own. Slowing it down to a haunting pace, she placed Celtic chords behind the melody and had a mandolin player dance around her banjo tracks. “That song has heart to it,” describes Cox. “I enjoy taking old traditional music from hundreds of years ago and running it through a modern filter. Music is a flow. I want to add something new to it, so there’s a lot of mixed genres in my CDs.”
16 banjoes and counting
Cox believes in the will of her banjo just as strongly as her own song crafting intuition. The proud owner and player of 16 banjos, three guitars, two ukuleles, eight mountain dulcimers, Cox knows many of her custom instruments catch the eye of her audience, from mermaid inlays to golden tones that match her own tresses.
They also aid Cox in songwriting like with “John Bowlin’s Groundhog Strut,” which she composed on a fretless 1865 reproduction banjo made by John Bowlin out of Vancouver. Bowlin asked for a tracing of her left hand and made the instrument to fit her exactly.
“I took it out of the box and it immediately made me tune it up and start playing this song,” remarks Cox. “I believe if an instrument calls to you and it’s meant to be yours then you should go ahead and buy it. I have a house full of fabulous instruments, some the only ones like it in the world, and most of them almost play themselves.”
The third generation Floridian originally hankered for piano lessons. She would visit her neighbor down the street and learn chords and progressions on a cardboard keyboard, but by the age of 12 was ready for something that could play sound. Inspired by her maternal grandfather, a professional banjo player, she asked for her first banjo, which her parents excitedly purchased from the Sears catalog.
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