Grueling banjos

Jan 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

The Salt Miners thrive on a stage where distortion has no home and a bola tie is standard garb. And even though they all come from goodly rock ’n’ roll beginnings, they have developed their very own version of the modest sound of bluegrass.

Long before Joey Ramone hummed adenoidal “oh-oh’s” and Johnny Thunders threw his head back in sexy abandon, bluegrass was the music that evoked primal surges. Bluegrass was the mother tongue of the rural working class.

“We were looking for a more direct line,” says Tim Pak (formerly of Angry Red Planet), who wields the banjo and dobro for the Miners. “This was a natural progression.”

“We all see the similarities of this music, to what we were doing before,” explains Pak. “It is raw emotional music, straight from the gut.”

So when he bought his first banjo a couple years back, it was no surprise that it fast became an indulgence.

“It is a life-enhancing device.” he says. “It is probably more important to me than my car. It is certainly more important than my TV.”

Pak’s passion for twang ignited after a session at his venerable recording studio, Woodshed, with one of his future bandmates, Dan Tennant.

“I thought he was one of the most distinctive talents I had ever heard,” Pak says.

Tennant, front man from the Detroit hillbilly/punk band the Doornails, shares Pak’s love of the five-string.

“I was completely bored with playing guitar. I always liked the sound of the banjo and the types of music associated with it. So I went out and bought a cheap one and fell in love with it instantly,” Tennant says.

He complements his talents with the occasional addition of an accordion or zookie (as in bouzouki).

“It all seems to mesh well, and this band is just plain fun because of that.”

The honest connection of songwriting and musicianship has made the Salt Miners repertoire one of old standards and masterful originals. Be it newbie “Lonely Times” or the classic favorite “Long Black Veil,” the contrast is pure.

Guitarist Andy Henry thinks so too. Once the principal songwriter of the country-rock band 20 Mule Team, he now collaborates in what he describes as “a musical co-op.”

“From the perspective of a sort of geeky songwriter, this [process of songwriting] is important to me,” says Henry.

“We would like to be like a band that you could have seen 50 or 60 years ago,” says bassist Mitch Matthews. “We don’t expect anything, we have a lot of material and we like to entertain people for a while.”

They are no strangers to the power of stage performance.

Best known for his prowess in the Detroit glam-punk band the Trash Brats, Brian McCarty rounds out the group. Trading in his leopard-print spandex and platform boots for a Montana slide-shaped Stetson and a black overcoat, his lanky frame and strong face bear a distant resemblance to a 29-year-old Hank Williams. He writes songs of heartbreak and toil; his words are something that Merle Haggard himself could have penned.

As intimate as a living room jam session, but clear-cut in its execution, the Salt Miners have created a sound that both embraces and defies modernity.

As the living ghost of Porter Wagoner dances old-timey with Billy Bragg in the shadow of the stage, the Salt Miners homage to the music of old, set against a wall of undeniable customization, has put them into a category that breathes a certain freshness into an old scene.

It’s a freshness that sharpens the senses and adds a certain sly bonus that Tennant matter-of-factly points out: “We look very sharp in our suits.”


The Salt Miners will bring their flavor to Alvin’s (5756 Cass Ave., Detroit) Saturday, Jan. 11, with the Beat Angels and American Mars. Call 313-831-4577 for details.

Eve Doster is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail [email protected]