Bluegrass to banjo

For John Bullard, the banjo was love at first sound

Photo credit: Michael Wilson

There is a French expression, “coup de foudre,” or “bolt of lightning,” to describe that sudden, out-of-the-blue moment of being struck by love at first sight. For John Bullard, it was love at first sound.

He was a middle-schooler, riding in the truck with his father one day back in the 1970s in Goochland County. The AM radio was on, and suddenly, Bullard explained in a 2016 interview for Radford University’s Appalachian music archives, “My father screeched on the brakes, pulled off the road, cranked up the radio and said, ‘You’ve gotta listen to this.’”

Pouring out of the speaker was music that was strange and unfamiliar, and nothing quite like he’d ever heard before. But right then and there, he said, “I’ve just got to do that.”

The music was “Dueling Banjos,” a piece made famous by the movie Deliverance (though in fact it was originally composed in the 1950s), and it sparked in Bullard an immediate, profound and lifelong devotion to the banjo.

“I’ve never lost that overwhelming curiosity for the instrument,” says Bullard, 57, who began studying banjo almost immediately following that fateful first encounter.
It’s a devotion, however, that hasn’t come without challenges. Because for decades John Bullard hasn’t only explored the instrument, he has determinedly sought to expand its repertoire—to be among a mere handful of players worldwide to redefine the banjo’s possibilities. Though he is an accomplished bluegrass musician (he plays with the Heritage Bluegrass Band), the true focus of his work—the subject of unflagging study, practice and (he’ll admit) not a little obsession—is classical music. Bach, Handel, Schumann, Telemann. Sonatas, concertos, partitas, inventions. And if the idea of Bach on a five-string banjo strikes you as inherently contradictory, a musical oxymoron, then you only have to listen to Bullard’s newest CD to recognize you might need to rethink your estimation.

“It is a love story,” says John Patykula, assistant chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University department of music, where Bullard earned a magna cum laude degree in music performance in 2005, the department’s first—and only—graduate in classical banjo. “He loves the banjo and he wants to make it an instrument accepted in classical music.”

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