A jewish man walks into a bar carrying a banjo and orders a non-alcoholic drink. People around him look a bit confused by the guy’s request. “It’s kind of my thing,” he explains as he waits for his gig to begin. This is not a bad joke of sorts; it’s just what happens whenever that particular bluegrass musician goes to work.
After the ebullient 29-year old Julian Root takes to his banjo and a microphone, one can’t help but smile. His particular east coast inflection mixed with his haimish brand of humour and mild punk-fuelled irreverences translate into a performance that’s about as comfortable as a freshly made bed. Even if you’ve never actually spoken with him, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve already befriended him just by watching him play. He’s just one of those people that you know even if you don’t.
Julian was introduced to music at a very early age. Both of his parents had extensive music collections, and his father built and played guitars. “They listened to a lot of blues, folk and rock music,” he begins. “So, that’s what I heard growing up.” Later on, just as every other angsty teen in the western world did, Julian developed a special taste for punk-rock which remains with him to this very day.
He first came across bluegrass by frequenting a certain bar in his hometown of Philadelphia when he was just nineteen. Every Thursday night, he’d listen to a band that played mostly country music but would include a banjo and a mandolin every once in a while. His relationship with the genre didn’t begin until later, though. “I didn’t make the connection that I liked bluegrass. That didn’t really happen. I just thought I liked getting drunk and hitting on the various girls that would show up to that particular soundtrack,” he explains.
A couple of years later, he began playing a lot of music. “I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar. Mostly a lot of punk-rock songs that had been translated onto acoustic guitar. Somehow, something remained in the translation,” he continues. He eventually got tired of his six-string, however, and saved enough pocket change to buy himself a mandolin. “The guy threw in his bluegrass songbook. It was just lyrics and chords. No melodies or anything. I didn’t know any of these songs.” So, Julian began messing with bluegrass.
The banjo came shortly after. He was invited to play music over at a friend’s house, and she just happened-y’know, as you normally do-to have a banjo lying around her house. “I sorta picked it up and started noodlin’ around. It was rather infectious,” Julian recalls. “So, I was picking around, and it was much more satisfying than anything I had been doing with a mandolin so far. So, I got me a banjo from a store in Tennessee.”
From there on, he fell in love with it. At first, he didn’t really care about the style or heritage of the banjo. “I was just interested in playing music in Rittenhouse Square, which was the Parque Central of Philadelphia. Just playing for all the pretty girls. We would learn all of these old folk songs. None of them were really bluegrass,” Julian says. Eventually, he formed a band called Sour Mash, and began immersing himself more in bluegrass. “A year after that, I got a few books. Before I knew it, I had to start making time for the other things in my life,” he explains.
Look at any professional musician, and you’ll notice that, no matter how naturally talented they might be, they’re only really very good because they resort to this miracle thing called “practicing”. Julian’s case is no different; he’s practiced intensely. It’s something that becomes obvious once you watch him play. His grip on the banjo loosens as he plucks crisp bluegrass music punctuated by his bouncing and nodding along to the the song he’s playing. And even though he puckers his brows and lips as if he were trying hard to understand what his hands are doing with his instrument, it all comes off very naturally.
“One funny thing that happens a lot is that people have a tendency to do something like say, Oh, you’re so lucky you play the banjo!,” Julian concludes. “It’s like, Luck, shit! You’re lucky you had a social life in your early twenties. Luck had nothing to do with this.” And it is precisely that level professionalism, humour, and genuine affability that make him a class act. If you happen to be in La Antigua Guatemala, you should most definitely check him out.