Steamboat Springs bluegrass musician releases album of banjo tunes

Banjo player Johnny "Musemason" Mason released this week a new album of bare, stripped-down bluegrass traditionals and originals. The songs are inspired by his first banjo teacher and feature Mason on banjo and vocals.

— Johnny Mason doesn’t remember why he picked up a banjo in the first place, but he’ll never forget his first teacher.

Hubert was his name, and he taught a 13-year-old Mason, of Fort-Worth, Texas, how to pick and croon, passing on a rich Appalachian tradition of heartfelt bluegrass tunes.

Mason recalls Hubert as “pseudo-literate” and “backwoods,” a big-hearted fellow with a deep understanding of the magic of folk music. He had a visceral connection with the art, Mason said, and a genuine desire to pass it on to the younger generation.

Mason recalls Hubert saying in his Appalachian accent, “Jahnny, Jahnny, you feel it in your gut, Jahnny.”

He never once charged Mason for a lesson.

It’s in that tradition that Steamboat's Mason releases a new album this week of raw and bare, stripped-down bluegrass songs featuring himself on banjo and singing with his soft yodel.

“To Cross the Sun” actually was recorded in 2008 with musician and recording engineer Dave Allen in Stagecoach. Mason has been holding onto the master recordings all this time.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t think the album was any good,” said Mason, who goes by the name Musemason.

“To Cross the Sun” now is available at All That Jazz in downtown Steamboat Springs, and Mason is set to play happy hour at the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant on Nov. 9.

A piano technician who said that every time of year is a busy time of year in his business, Mason moved to Steamboat in 1996 and played with local bluegrass band the Acorns.

Right now, he and several musicians are practicing with a new configuration of bluegrass musicians and hope to play live soon.

“It’s the only time I feel alive is when I’m performing or when I’m playing,” Mason said.

In the liner notes of the album, local guitar player Randy Kelley wrote that Mason is stepping into unknown territory with "high, lonesome, haunting harmonies."

"If there were ever 'blues' played on a banjo, this work embodies them," Kelley wrote. "The contrast to 'Delta blues' is offset by the folksy, Northern European melodies laid down in minimal tones.

"There's a soulful resonance to this album, which stays with the listener beyond the first sampling."

On the album are several traditional songs like “Little Birdie,” “Bowling Green” and “Rock About My Saro Jane” played in the frailing (without picks) style.

Out of the three original tunes on the album, the one that sticks out to Mason is “Yonder Holler,” which evokes the haunting, ethereal tones of a Bill Monroe classic.

“One night alone, I watched the moon as she rose above the hill, and I seen my shadow falling, and I heard the night so still,” the lyrics go.

If Mason had to put the music into a genre, it would land in its own classification of Hubert the banjo teacher.

“You can call it folk music if you want to,” Mason said. “But I don’t know if the term folk does it justice. It’d have to be called something to be an extension of Hubert’s persona. It was like he was a little boy singing these songs to me.”

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com

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