Bringing out the ‘banjo people’

  • Michael Nix plays a banjo in his office studio at the Lava Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Michael Nix with banjos in his space at the Lava Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Michael Nix in his office/studio at the Lava Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Michael Nix is silhouetted with banjos in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Michael Nix Courtesy photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2020 12:05:43 PM
Modified: 3/5/2020 12:05:33 PM

When people hear the word “banjo” or its distinctive metallic sound, many think about music associated with country, folk and bluegrass music — about Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, Roy Clark, Pete Seeger and even actor and comedian Steve Martin.

Add to that list musician Michael Nix, who has made a name for himself in the local music scene, especially when people think “banjo.” On Saturday, March 7, he will perform a premier concert at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Doors open at 7 p.m. for a 7:30 show start. Among other selections, he will play new work for the New Classic Banjo Project, commissioned works by composers Jim Dalton, a professor of music theory at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and Thomas Schuttenhelm, a composer and guitarist, and original pieces written for five- and seven-string banjos.

Nix, who was born in Manchester, N.H., moved often during his younger years, as his father served in the military. In those earlier years, Nix wrote plays before finding music.

“Moving around gave me a wide world view,” Nix said. “I was comfortable with the whole world as my home, comfortable with so many different cultures. So when I started to become interested in the arts, I incorporated what I learned.”

Nix learned to play musical instruments at an early age, including violin, classical piano and guitar. In sixth grade, he heard the Beatles and knew he wanted to play music for life. He took lessons and got “very good, very quickly.”

“By age 10, I was writing music, but I didn’t think about becoming a professional musician at that point,” he said. “I did talent shows and played in bands as I got older. I’d put poetry to music, but still never thought beyond what I was doing at the time.”

It wasn’t until he was going to college in the midwest that he started playing music for money. He also sold insurance to support himself.

During the upcoming concert, Nix will perform works for solo banjo and ensemble pieces with Tony Vacca on percussion, Bekka Eowind on violin, Gloria Matlock on percussion and Charlie Moser on electric mandola and electric bass.

The New Classic Banjo Project, which he leads, was instituted to develop and record a modern classical banjo repertoire, Nix said. Compositions have been commissioned for the Banjar, a seven-string classical banjo designed by Nix, who composes for it, as well as the traditional nylon-strung five-string classical banjo. Nix initiated the New Classic Banjo Project to commission, record and perform the new works.

Professionally, he performs classical guitar, banjo and mandolin throughout the United States and Asia and has, among other accomplishments, recorded for the PBS series, “American Experience.” He has also been involved with independent documentaries and numerous CD projects, and his compositions are performed internationally by others.

The local musician says his music has been on NPR programs including Weekend Edition, and he recently performed his compositions at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He also participated in Seegerfest 2014, commemorating the life of American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger.

After college, he came back from the midwest with his sights set on one of the bigger music schools in the northeast, but ended up at Keene State College because it offered him a scholarship. By that time, he was a “nontraditional” student.

“While I was there, I played in a blue-grass band and made a good living doing so,” he said. “I also taught guitar at Northfield Mount Hermon around 1978.”

While in college in New Hampshire, Nix also took lessons in New York City and landed a job teaching at Keene State College after he graduated.

“I was giving lessons and conducting,” he said. “A colleague and I took a 24-piece guitar orchestra on a three-week tour of Asia.”

While teaching in Keene, he started a master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He found a place to live in Greenfield because it was halfway between Keene and Amherst, where he became a teaching assistant while studying for his advanced degree. When he graduated with that, he started thinking about how to balance art and business.

Working with with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Nix got help writing a business plan at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation.

“I was teaching, performing, recording, publishing,” he said. “It was quite challenging to write a business plan like that, but with the CDC’s help, I did.”

“Greenfield is a great place,” he said. “At the intersection of Route 2 and Interstate 91, it’s a great place to launch a music career.”

These days, most of his clients can be found in the northeast. He has found success by marketing himself throughout New England. For a time, he ran a teaching business out of his home and now has a studio at the LAVA Center on Main Street in Greenfield. Meanwhile, he has maintained touring and has built a “nice regional career.”

A passion for music

Nix wrote music throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was chosen as Composer of the Year in 1991 by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association.

At first, he played bluegrass and other types of music, but after his partner died in a car crash, it “tore the fabric of his life” and his “classical side took over.”

“I tried to figure out how to integrate my artistic and musical sides,” he said. “I had to do something. You need something when something like that happens.”

Nix says his entire family has been quite successful in music, and he learned how to develop a “voice” on an instrument.

“I have a particular sound,” he said. “My quandary was always how I would distinguish myself from hundreds of other classical guitarists. That’s when I started thinking about integrating the banjo.”

In the early 2000s, Nix came up with the Banjar, and banjo-maker Mike Ramsey agree to make it for him. By 2004, he was performing concerts on it.

Banjo festival

Next month, Nix plans to start the first Banjo Festival in Franklin County. He said he’d love to see it grow every year, just like the Green River Festival has done.

“Why not?” he said. “We have the resources and connections. We have people who are interested. We can make the region a destination for banjo. I’ve already got support for this. I want to incorporate music and education.”

Nix says he intends to bring in “banjo people” who are on the cutting edge of artistic creation, like Ken Perlman, one of today’s best-known claw-hammer banjo players. This year, he’ll have a “soft opening” to see what kind of interest there is and who he can attract to perform and teach at the festival.

“I’d love to bring in scholars to talk to people about the banjo and its relationship to New England,” he said. “I’d love to get the history of the banjo in there. I want there to be something for everyone, including workshops that will teach people how to make sounds on the banjo.”

The festival will happen April 24 through 26, but there are still a lot of details to be worked out, Nix said. He hopes to put together teams of volunteers who will help.

“I think it’s also a good way to promote Greenfield and Turners Falls — I’m thinking the festival could go back and forth every other year, or maybe have something in both towns each year,” he said. “I’d love to see banjo tourism here in Franklin County. It’s interesting and different.”

Nix said he’s looking forward to seeing where and how far the banjo goes in this area.

“Who knows, we may find them in rock bands before too long,” he said. “We just have to do a lot of exploring.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 5269, or afritz@recorder.com.

How to connect

The concert on Saturday begins at 7:30 p.m. at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, 289 Main St. in Greenfield. Advance tickets are available at: hawksandreed.ticketfly.com. For more information, visit: michaelnixmusic.com or nixworks.com. You can reach Nix at 413-772-0328.




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