Youth Spotlight: "Banjo Joe" Bevins
Ambassador for Traditional Music
By Angela Wampler / A! Magazine for the Arts | April 24, 2012He may be young, but he's already making a name for himself — a nickname, anyway.
"Banjo Joe" Bevins is the 12-year-old son of Phil and Teressa Bevins of Tazewell, Va. According to reports, Joe plays a "wicked" clawhammer banjo, an Appalachian tradition where the hand flails over the strings in a strumming fashion instead of fingerpicking.
Joe has performed widely and won numerous regional competitions, including the 2011 Best All Around Performer in the Blue Ridge Banjo Shootout at the historic Rex Theatre in Galax, Va. He also sings traditional tunes and plays all traditional stringed instruments.
"Joe is a captivating entertainer and a natural performer," says Jonathan Romeo, program manager for The Crooked Road's Traditional Music Education Plan initiative. "Joe and youth like him are tremendous ambassadors for the traditional music of their home communities."
In January, "Banjo Joe" and the Tazewell County Back Porch Pickers were featured in the Crooked Road Youth Music Series Concert at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway in Abingdon.
The Tazewell County Back Porch Pickers have a long history of performing Appalachian cultural music, along with many gospel songs popular along the Crooked Road venues. Many of their songs are inspired by events that occurred in this region, and they keep this heritage alive with the music of their ancestors. The band has played at the Pickin' Porch at the Bristol Mall and other venues along Virginia's Crooked Road. Eric Whitesell leads the band on guitar; his wife, Charlotte, plays the doghouse bass; "Banjo Joe" sings and plays the clawhammer banjo; and Joe's father plays the fiddle.
Joe's musical kinfolk also include his paternal grandparents (Phil Bevins, Sr. plays guitar, and Kaye Bevins plays autoharp). The Bevins family plays together as The Generations. You can usually find them at the Pickin' Parlor in Tazewell at least once a week. They've also played at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
At age four, Joe wanted to play musical instruments after he watched a video featuring world renowned storyteller/musician David Holt demonstrating how to play music with household items. He was four years old. Joe's father recalls, "Joe came home from [a Headstart program for preschoolers] and said he wanted to play the spoons and the washboard. I said, 'That's good,' but I didn't think much more about it."
Joe started playing old time music at the age of five. "We figured he was old enough to learn a stringed instrument," says his dad. "When we went to get a video on how to play the banjo, Joe looked at the rack of videos and said, 'That's him. That's the guy I learned how to play the spoons from!' Sure enough, it was David Holt wearing his trademark fedora hat, so I knew I had to get his video."
After watching Holt's video, "Beginner Clawhammer," Joe took bluegrass lessons for three months from a local instructor. However, there was no one in the area who taught clawhammer, so Joe started listening to CDs, imitating what he heard, and jamming with musicians at various places. His father notes, "I told him to try to learn one thing from everyone he jams with, even if it's a little thing — and also what not to do."
Phil never played an instrument until his son Joe started. Phil explains, "I coached him in sports, so I thought if I was going to help him in music, I'd have to learn it, too. We both started on the banjo about the same time, but Joe picked up on it so much better than me. I eventually moved to the fiddle so we could have a full band. My wife Teressa started playing the doghouse bass after she saw Joe and me taking off in the local music scene."
When Joe was six years old, he got to show his idol, David Holt, what he'd learned when his parents took him to a Song of the Mountains concert featuring Holt at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Va.
Joe says, "Before the show we got to meet David Holt and had photos taken with him. He even signed my banjo and gave me a lesson on how to play a new thing on the banjo and even fancier ways to play spoons."
During the show, the Bevins family sat in front, and Holt dedicated a popular banjo tune to Joe. The family sent Holt a letter thanking him for his time with Joe, and Holt sent Joe a CD and some autographed pictures.
In addition to Holt, Joe's inspirations include Grandpa Jones ("Hee Haw"), Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley. Joe's favorite tunes are "Rocky Top" and "Mountain Dew."
Joe's goals? He says, "When I grow up, I want to go to college and get a good education, probably at Appalachian State University, then become an officer in the Marine Corps."
To see videos of this young musician performing, visit www.YouTube.com (search "Banjo Joe" or "Back Porch Pickers").
Joe Bevins is the 12-year-old son of Phil and Teressa Bevins of Tazewell, Va. (Photo courtesy the Bevins Family)