Posted in On Air

Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches on Musical Democracy

Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches sounds about like what you’d expect a group composed of a jazz vocalist, a banjo player, a Broadway dancer, and a percussionist with a doctorate would sound like. Well, maybe with a little calypso thrown in.

Their combination of sounds isn’t likely to seem familiar to even roots music aficionados despite the fact their catalog is mostly made up of standards such as “You Are My Sunshine” and 20’s and 30’s tunes like “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I asked band members Nick Russo, Betina Hershey and Dr. David Pleasant just how they arrived at some of their takes on these songs.

“From Gullah-Geechee [we get] the whole idea of community culture and the idea of accompaniment and the whole idea of democracy even,” Pleasant, the percussionist, said. “Typically it’s set up top to bottom. The lyric and then the harmony and then the rhythm and that’s something that’s kind of set in a certain framework like a house, but in Gullah-Geechee culture, all those things always mix and collapse in on each other. One time a tree sways in the wind, one time a bird flies by, another time it rains, but that’s all part of something bigger.”

Hershey, the lead vocalist and newcomer to the group as a result of her marriage to Russo, explained her first reaction to the band’s style.

“Woah! What is happening? This is really strange” Hershey said, just as animated as if it were the first time she heard a jazz standard performed on a banjo while Pleasant banged out one of his show-stopping drum solos on the other side of the stage. She now feels much more at home in what she first saw as chaos.

“At first it was I’m just gonna do my thing, and you guys go crazy around me,” Hershey said. “I kind of still do that, but now I really enjoy it.”

Russo, the banjo player and leader of this version of the band, explained that their sound was not so much an intentional one but the organic result of personal relationships. Russo plays in both Pleasant’s and jazz vocalist Miles Griffith’s bands, and he and Griffith attended college together.

“We’re just brothers from mothers,” Russo said. “My kids call them uncle. I play with those gentlemen so often we just play the way we play.”

Pleasant agreed that their sound is a unique one, but at the same time said he considered it more traditional than a so-called ‘traditional’ interpretation of the songs.

“Over time, things kind of get straightened out to either be palatable or for consumers, but in the early days, that music was coming from exactly that kind of place,” Pleasant said, referencing the often experimental nature of jazz and its related genres. “You’re dealing with a music that has that kind of pressure and volatility on in every second, so to freeze it and act like it’s something other than that is to do something strange. So we just don’t do that.”

This interview Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches was featured on the Feb. 6, 2017 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB. To read another article about the band, click here.

Posted in Album Ideas, On Air

The Committed Relationship as a Sexy Thrill: Ideas Behind The Songs

by Trevor Christian, photo courtesy Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches

On Banjo Nickaru and Western ScoochesVery Next Thing, the closest thing to a lyrical theme to emerge from the collection of standards, old-time and originals presented is the thrill of being in a committed relationship. Not the excitement that comes from a new relationship or the comfort of an established one, but the renewable passion that extends through marriage and shows up in everyday interactions and activities.

Betina Hershey, the guitar player and almost always the lead singer for the group, more than touched on the sexual aspect of her relationship with her husband, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Nick Russo in her original tune “I Don’t Believe In Love.” The ironically named song jokes about how calling a relationship ‘love’ might bring with it all the bad experiences Hershey had come to associate with the word. It also suggested that though the relationship would be committed, it wouldn’t be conventional in label or practice. The lyrics encourage a suitor to “ring my bell every night” and contain a few phrases like “eat my honeydew” and “sprinkle me, you beautiful man” that at least seem designed to come across as suggestive. When talking with me for the February 6 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, Hershey credited her parents with forming positive attitudes about relationships.

“I come from parents who were hippies and musicians and super loving and very expressive so they understood how to talk about anything,” she said. “I knew so many things about my parents that were really handy as a teenager going out into the world and figuring out how to live my own life and be bold and try things. I believe that life should be an exploration of love and joy as much as possible.”

The album’s other original, “I’m Gettin’ Married,” was a song Hershey and Russo co-wrote from the male point of view, though the same attitude about relationships still shined through. Marriage might mean less time out with friends and more time spent playing with baby toys, the song argues, but it’s still limitless: “Now my sin is perfectly legal/I do what I want every night/I stare in their eyes and wonder/how can this be so right?”

Though the majority of the covers on Very Next Thing address different topics, the two that   Even if she hadn’t used the word mischievous when introducing the song at the group’s performance Bay Shore’s Eclectic Cafe, Hershey’s facial expressions during “Ain’t Misbehavin’” conveyed that mood. She grinned and looked around the room out of the sides of her smiling eyes. For her, the tune isn’t a proud statement of fidelity despite temptation. It’s an exciting chance to celebrate how happy she is in her relationship while rejecting suitors from a place of total confidence.

“Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love” follows a similar theme. Hershey said her reason for selecting the old fashioned tune was its “gleeful” mood.

“I’m in my skin and I’m happy. It’s that kind of a song.”

Russo and Hershey do seem to be in a fantastic place. On a Saturday night, they were out playing the with friends their children call uncles while joking with each other between interview segments.

“We have so much fun playing these things together. It’s our play.” She also credited strong communication skills with keeping the couple happy.

To hear the characteristically quirky story of their courtship, listen in to part of our conversation on the topic here: