By day, he’s Keith Billik, Esq., an attorney quietly practicing his profession in suburban Detroit.
Off the clock, he’s Keith Billik, the creator, host, and producer of The Picky Fingers Banjo Podcast, which, in its five-year history, has featured extended interviews with more than 120 of the great banjoists of our time and attracted a loyal and supportive band of listeners.
Billik is an accomplished banjo player and has worked as a road musician, a sound tech, a salesperson at Lansing’s famed Elderly Instruments, and played in a Pink Floyd cover band.
But he says nothing in his background made hosting Picky Fingers inevitable.
“I had listened to sports, news, and comedy podcasts. I was frustrated--but also really surprised--that there wasn't a banjo podcast. So, it was a ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ type of situation. No one else was doing it, and I wanted it to exist. And so, why not me?”
But Billik is doing more than producing banjo podcasts---he’s creating a virtual community where people passionate about the instrument listen to the interviews and then exchange ideas in monthly online meetings that he facilitates.
“It’s well known that banjo’s cool, and there’s thousands of great players, and we’re all having a great time,” banjo maker Tom Nechville said in an early Picky Fingers episode. “And we’re jamming together and sharing instruments and sharing music and ideas, and it’s a great lifestyle.”
Billik’s unique work situation enabled him to dive into the podcast world.
“It's a work-from-home desk job. And accordingly, much, much lower pay than what most people would think attorneys make. But what it lacks in excitement and compensation, it makes up for in flexibility for me to play gigs (with Michigan band Wilson Thicket) and do my podcasting.”
The professional sound of each episode reflects Billik’s experience as a sound technician--even the occasional intros he records in his backyard when he can’t resist taking advantage of a perfect Michigan summer day. The technical side of podcasting came pretty quickly. Becoming an interviewer was new, however.
“That's the only part that I really didn't have any experience with,” he says. “I felt like I had a decent feel for the history of the music and some of the important bands and repertoire and players. I know what it's like to be in bands and to deal with musicians. So, I had a good feel for all of this stuff, but it was just the actual interviewing where I started from scratch.”
Billik prefers live interviews to Zoom calls, though he’s done a few of the latter. He takes advantage of bands playing dates in Michigan to get access to banjo players. Music camps and workshops--where he also sometimes runs sound or teaches--are another excellent source for interviews. He’s recorded interviews at the International Bluegrass Music Association Conference, DelFest, and on a road trip to the mid-Atlantic to get interviews with banjo stars including Victor Furtado, an innovative young clawhammer player; Ben Eldridge, who played with the groundbreaking Seldom Scene; and Murphy Henry, a pioneering woman banjo player who also wrote Pretty Good for a Girl, a compelling history of female bluegrass artists.
“Sometimes I'm really shocked at how accommodating people tend to be,” says Billik. “With a lot of these interviews, it’s literally me showing up at the venue and trying to catch somebody in between their sound check and the performance. And I know that that's a disruptive thing for them and their schedule.”
The Picky Fingers Banjo Podcast gets support from sponsors whose ads run in the show and Patreon members who make monthly online contributions.
“I’m completely blown away by that,” Billik confesses. “I mean, it's the only model I know, so I don't have much to compare it to. In some ways, it feels a bit tenuous. A bunch of my income would just disappear overnight if a bunch of people decided to cancel. But I've been fortunate. Some of the patrons have been with me from the beginning.”
Hour-long episodes premiere every other Monday on several platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube, and LibSyn. Listeners have been introduced to a wide variety of players who reflect the many different styles practiced today: from Riley Baugus, who preserves the traditional Round Peak style of clawhammer playing that’s native to his North Carolina home, to Pat Cloud, one of the leading jazz banjo players. Alison Brown, Kristin Scott Benson, and Gina Furtado- all accomplished players- have reflected on their careers in a very male-centric genre. Jens Kruger spoke of growing up in Switzerland, mesmerized by the sound of the banjo and his journey to the U.S. to master the instrument.
On the podcast, Billik often expresses admiration for Masters of the Five String Banjo, a book by Peter Wernick and Tony Trischka published 35 years ago that was an encyclopedic survey of the best banjo players of that time. Janet Beazley, a California banjo player, sees The Picky Fingers Banjo Podcast performing a similar service.
“You’re documenting very important information from amazing people that may not be on this planet much longer,” she told Billik when he interviewed her for the podcast. “That’s huge. And they may be saying something in a way they’ve never said it to anyone before, ever. That’s exciting.”