Banjo Hall of Famer Alan Munde looks back on the early days
This look at the early days of banjo legend Alan Munde’s career was occasioned by his induction this year into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame.
Native Oklahoman Alan Munde, while attending Oklahoma University in the 1960s, crossed paths with the original tall fiddler, Byron Berline, an event that changed his life. This, and other aspects of his early banjo life were recently shared with me by Alan.
“I was 14 when my older brother went to the US Navy. When he came home, he brought a guitar (arch backed Key), and a record on how to play. Folk Singers Guitar Guide, it was a 78 rpm,” Munde stated. That’s when the bug of playing and entertaining bit, and the rest has just fallen into place.
Munde spent a lot of time at the local music store in Norman, OK, Mike Richey’s Guitar Center. According to Alan, “Music stores and record stores were the only contact to the outside music world. I saved up my money from my paper route, and bought myself a Pete Seeger Vega Ranger. I think it cost $100-$150, which was a lot of money. And I began lessons soon after. Dad would drive me out to the Luther Jones area, to Gary Price’s. I took two lessons from him, but that was enough for my interest in bluegrass, and got me started.” Munde started teaching lessons himself at Richey’s music store when he was around 18 years old. This was during the folk music boom. Listening to Lawrence Welk and Chet Atkins is part of how his interest peaked even further.
While at Oklahoma University, Munde joined the Old Club Athletic Club and played music. This was in 1965-1966. A year later Lou Berline introduced Munde to Sam Bush in Independence Missouri. “I backed up Lou Berline, Byron’s dad, and learned the Texas backup style of playing. We went to fiddle contests throughout Oklahoma and Texas. It was a thrill to play with Byron, as he had already done things to contribute to the music world.”
Munde was majoring in secondary education/social science, and graduated in 1969 with his bachelors degree. Later in the fall of 1969, Harlow Wilcox took Munde to Nashville for a DJ Convention to promote his then current single, Groovy Grubworm. They stayed at the Noel Hotel, and were blessed to jam on that trip with Vassar Clements. That evening Al Olsteen of Jim & Jesse introduced Alan to Jimmy Martin, the hub of a wheel beginning to turn. One week later Munde auditioned at the Noel Hotel and became Jimmy’s banjo player. He played with Sunny Mountain Boys from 1969-1971.
Munde was introduced to The Stone Mountain Boys by Byron Berline. Eddie Shelton, their banjo player, is who Alan credits for his knowledge of the banjo. “One time we had a gig in Texas, and I rode the bus to Texas. After the gig, I missed the bus, and Eddie drove as fast as possible and waved the bus down so I could get home,” Alan, while laughing, said.
In 1969, only 4 years after graduating, Munde joined and played a vital part in creating a new group Poor Richard’s Almanac. “Wayne Stewart had this idea for a group with this kid he knew in Kentucky named Sam Bush, who was probably 15. So I moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and we formed Poor Richard’s Almanac. Not long after, I got my draft notice, but before I left, Sam, Wayne, and I made this tape, later released by Ridge Runner Records, called Poor Richard’s Almanac. That was a lot of the instrumental things we were doing. I then went back to Oklahoma, was rejected by the Army, and worked in Norman that summer.”
In 1972, Berline, then a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers, was preparing to tour in Europe, when the unexpected happened. Chris Hillman left the band and Byron called Munde, and Alan joined them in Europe to play the electric guitar. “The guitar was provided by the band, and I turned the volume down, because I didn’t know any of the songs,” laughed Alan.
Soon after, Berline and Roger Bush formed The Country Gazette with Alan on banjo. It was in 1972 that their first record, A Traitor in Our Midst, was released by United Artists. From an earlier conversation with Berline, I had already known about this controversial album cover, but through further conversation with Munde, I recalled that earlier discussion with Byron. “Norman Scieff, of United Artists, was in charge of costumes and album design. He took us to the costume department, and we literally tried on outfits as we came upon them. Scieff would say, ‘try this on.’ We hadn’t decided on a cover idea, but then we located some Bandito costumes. In the neck of mine, Charlton Hesston was written. It was a sexist cover for sure. Many people thought we were smoking pot on the cover, but it was cigarillos.”
Munde has played a vital role in the 5 string banjo world, and has stacked up some awards as well. In 2021, he was the co-recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, along with Don Vappie. “Don was mailed my award letter, and I got his,” Alan said with a smile. In 2022, Alan Munde was inducted into the American Banjo Music Hall of Fame.
Alan is loaded with personality, and I learned a lot from him as he taught a workshop at The American Banjo Museum over the weekend he was inducted. Turned out in his New Balance tennis shoes, a blue sweatshirt, and shorts with a ball cap perched atop his head, Munde sat center stage, and with no ego expressed the following: “If all else fails, play the melody. You must know roll logic. That’s part of the melody.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Munde was asked, “What is a lick?” He answered with a giggle, “Who knows?” “Why is the marker on the 1st fret?” “Because we are banjo players.”
For inspiration today Munde listens to Chet Atkins, different types of music from the 1950s, and watches anything he can find with guitar.
What a walk down memory lane! It seems that Byron Berline was always in the corner of Munde’s memories, and as it happened, most of the major events in his music career were in the month of October. Coincidentally, so is the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival that Byron started.
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