Tony Trischka Channels Civil War Era in ‘Shall We Hope’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Calling from his home in New Jersey, legendary banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka reveals how his latest album, Shall We Hope (out on January 29 on Shefa Records), evolved into something quite different than anything he’s done before in his decades-long career.

“Historically, I write mostly banjo instrumentals. With every album, I would usually write lyrics to one song,” Trischka says—and so it was when he started working on what would become Shall We Hope, “I decided to write a song about a river boat gambler, which became ‘On the Mississippi (Gambler’s Song)’ on the album. I had fun doing that, so I said, ‘I’m going to write some more lyrics.’”

As Trischka continued writing, an overarching theme started to emerge. “[‘On the Mississippi’] was sort of placed in the mid-1800s. Then I wrote a song about the hijacking of a train during the Civil War, which is called ‘The General’ on the album. After those two songs, it started percolating in my mind, ‘Okay, I could turn this into something,” Trischka says. “I continued to write songs [set] in that period.” Finally, he realized that he could tell many different stories of that era by using the Civil War as a through-line.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the Civil War—it really captures my imagination,” Trischka says. “So this whole thing came together as basically a Civil War-based story.” To that end, he did in-depth online research, seeking out stories that went well beyond the often-told ones about famous battles. He says he was careful to make his lyrics as historically accurate as possible. 

Writing lyrics for so many songs was, Trischka says, “a hugely enjoyable experience,” though taking a different approach from his usual writing style led him to initially seek out some advice—which he ended up rejecting. “I started reading a couple of books by [composer Stephen] Sondheim, and he was saying, ‘You have to have exact rhymes.’ I don’t agree with that. I didn’t do that. I’m sorry, Mr. Sondheim.” he says with a laugh. “Anyway, it was a challenge and it was a wonderful experience.”

The resulting songs examine the Civil War era from a wide range of viewpoints. “Dearest Friend and Only Lover,” for example, has lyrics that were inspired by real letters that were exchanged between a husband and wife who were separated by the war. Another track, “Leaving This Lonesome Land,” tells the story of an enslaved gravedigger who spends his days burying other slaves (which Trischka wrote after visiting a cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, where 1,900 slaves are buried).

“As I went along, more things presented themselves to me, more stories came to me,” Trischka says. Writing within the framework of a Civil War theme, he says, “is so rich—you have this broad, sweeping story that is replete with untold stories.”

When he was ready to record, Trischka brought in several collaborators to help with the vocals and instrumentation. Guest performers on Shall We Hope include Maura O’Connell, Van Dyke Parks, Catherine Russell, Phoebe Hunt, Guy Davis, Brian O’Donovan, and the Violent Femmes. Trischka says he brought in people he’d worked with before, or who he knew as friends. In some cases, they helped flesh out his lyrical or musical ideas.

Trischka is clearly excited about making an album with these artists, and creating something that is unlike anything he’s ever released before. That’s no small feat, considering that he’s created dozens of albums since his 1974 debut, Bluegrass Light. He’s gone on to become one of the most renowned players in the genre, with The New York Times deeming him “the father of modern bluegrass” in a 2006 article.

It’s a career that was, Trischka says, wholly unexpected. “I wasn’t planning on playing the banjo,” he says. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, “I started on flute and piano as a kid, and then I got into folk guitar in the early ‘60s.” Everything changed, though, when he heard the 1959 Kingston Trio album At Large. “There’s a song on there called ‘M.T.A.’” and there’s a banjo solo by Dave Guard, and it just blew me away. I said, ‘I’ve got to get a banjo!’ This one solo on this one album made me play the banjo, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

Trischka started playing professionally when he was fourteen years old—but it wasn’t always easy in those early days, mostly because he was taking a very different approach to the instrument than his traditionalist forerunners. “I just started experimenting with things. I don’t even know why I did. I heard different things,” he says. “I entered this banjo contest in 1965 in Virginia and one of the judges was Ralph Stanley – you don’t get more traditional than that. I played a traditional song called “Nine Pound Hammer,” and in the middle, I threw in these fake Middle Eastern modes. I lost badly in that contest, of course!” he says with a laugh.

Trischka thinks that this experimental streak might have come from the fact that he came up during a groundbreaking time in music. “Being a child of the ‘60s, where everyone was pushing the boundaries—The Beatles, Van Dyke Parks, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa —I was in the midst of all that tumult in music,” he says. “Every new Beatles song would be like, ‘Oh my God!’ Hearing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ for the first time, I just fell over, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And so everything was pushing the boundaries. I was in the spirit of that moment, I guess, and it carried through.”

With Shall We Hope, Trischka continues pushing the boundaries of what banjo-based songwriting and storytelling can be. This experience went so well that he’s thinking of repeating this process: “I feel like [for] my next album, I need another overarching theme. I’m not sure what that’s going to be at this point. But I feel like I want to do something again that’s a little more theme-based,” he says.

Whatever comes next, Trischka is grateful to have had such a successful career. “I’m blessed to have been this fortunate to do what I love and to have people support me,” he says. “Hopefully I can make it to the end of the road as a professional musician.”

Given his track record, that seems like a wish that will likely be granted.

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