Nitrograss could rely solely on musicianship. Its mix of dizzying bluegrass originals and newgrass classic-rock send-ups — from The Kinks to Dire Straits — is entertaining enough. But the group insists on making each performance fun, as well.
“The mandolin player [Caleb Hanks, who also sings] does stand-up comedy, and everybody likes the band because they joke around so much,” says banjo player Charles Wood.
While Nitrograss also features Caleb’s brother Micah (guitar, vocals) and Dakota “Smoky” Waddell (upright bass), the banjoist is the band’s musical lightning rod. Wood is a two-time national banjo champion who has toured Europe, taught at the Munich Banjo Camp, and played alongside legends on the David Letterman Show.
Wood has lived his entire life in Seneca, SC. He started listening to Flatt & Scruggs when he was 14. “I fell in love with Earl Scruggs’ banjo playing and started listening to it all the time,” he says. “I got a banjo for my 15th birthday, picked it up and couldn’t put it down.”
Wood took lessons from upstate SC banjoist Al Osteen. “He’s a well-known banjo player, but he was one of the first to start teaching. Years ago there were very few people who taught banjo, and not really that many people that could play very well, either. Al Osteen was one of my major influences,” Wood says. “I started learning by ear, started listening to everybody and learning a little bit of all the styles of banjo playing, all the well-known players.
“Scruggs-style is definitely the foundation for everything, but there are other styles of three-finger playing that most players incorporate into their Scruggs style,” he adds.
It wasn’t long before the inspired Wood was entering banjo contests. His rationale was simple: “It was the lure of winning a banjo. You can go play four songs at a contest and win a several-thousand-dollar banjo. That’s why anybody enters a contest, I think. I started going to contests, and won every major contest where they give away a nice instrument. I got to know a lot of players doing that.
“You know, it looks good on your résumé when you win contests,” he quips.
Wood also began recording, and released the first of his five CDs, one of which caught the attention of celebrity banjo player Steve Martin (the comedic icon tours with another local bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers).
“He found my Christmas CD, and contacted me wanting to learn a couple of the songs. In 2005, he invited me to do a gig at the New Yorker Festival with him and Earl Scruggs. That was a major event in my banjo career,” Wood recalls. “I had met Earl a couple times before, but that was the first time I’d gotten to play with him, and both he and Steve Martin were very nice, very down to earth. A lot of fun to hang around with.”
The group made its appearance on Letterman while in New York, under the name “Men With Banjos Who Know How To Use Them.”
“It was a big event, because Scruggs had not been doing any major appearances for a bit, and that may have been — well, it was one of the last TV appearances that he did, I think,” Wood says. “Steve Martin was really getting into banjo playing seriously at that time, too.”
Wood teaches banjo at Tempo Music in Hendersonville, “The key is to learn all the Scruggs stuff, because at his peak, he had the best time and the best clarity and tone of any player in his day,” Wood insists. “There are still only a handful of players that can play with that expert technique, that perfect time and clarity and tone. The good players will master the old styles of Scruggs, Don Reno, and all the first good players, and then they’ll start listening to more modern players.
“You can tell when somebody didn’t learn the old traditional stuff — they’re usually a little bit weak on their technique.”
Modern-day banjoists preferred by Wood include Jens Kruger, Alison Brown, Béla Fleck, and Scott Vestal. “I’ve always tried to take the best qualities of all banjo players, while keeping the Scruggs foundation there,” he says.
Wood met Micah and Caleb while playing at Hawg Wild Bar-B-Que in Brevard in 2010. “Their dad [Bucky Hanks] is one of the well-known old-school banjo players from the Asheville area,” Wood says. “I got to know them informally [when they] filled in on some gigs with me. Whenever we played, it clicked real good, and we just decided we wanted to try to start a band.
“Having a lot of connections since I’ve been doing it for 30 years, I didn’t have any trouble getting gigs to start with. And when we started playing out in public, everybody loved the show.”
People immediately warmed to the fusion, the band’s particular blend of newgrass. “I grew up in a real traditional bluegrass background, basically, and those fellas grew up in a hard-rock, heavy-metal background,” Wood explains. “They were all rock-musicians-turned-bluegrass-musicians. When we started our band, they were still fairly new to the world of bluegrass. That’s why we do a lot of classic-rock songs bluegrass style — they’ve been knowing those songs for years. They do old rock songs that I don’t even know. I just find the key and jump in there and follow along with ’em.
“They know tons and tons of songs. They’re like living jukeboxes.”