Feature: Max Wareham’s book: Rudy Lyle, The Unsung Hero of the Five-String Banjo
By Susan Marquez
Max Wareham is a banjo player. He is also a master researcher, interviewer, and author. His first book, Rudy Lyle, The Unsung Hero of the Five-String Banjo, was released in August to rave reviews.
In addition to the banjo, Max plays multiple instruments. A lover of many different music styles, his strong affection for bluegrass prompted his interest in early bluegrass styles. “I like how those old-time styles can offer alternative paths of expression within the bluegrass idiom.”
According to Max’s book, Rudy Lyle recorded extensively with Bill Monroe. “More, in fact, than any other banjo player during the early years of bluegrass music,” Max writes. “Yet, Rudy Lyle remains obscure and understudied.” Wanting to go further into the bluegrass tradition, Max began doing research for a book. “The more I learned about Rudy’s playing, the more I realized he had developed a style on the banjo that helped shape the course of the music.”
Rudy Lyle was born in 1930 to a musical family in Franklin County, Virginia. His grandfather, Lomax Blankenship, was a well-known fiddle player, and his mother, Elcie Lyle, was a guitar player. He learned to play the clawhammer banjo from his grandfather and how to pick from local banjo players. Snuffy Jenkins, who Rudy listened to on radio broadcasts, also influenced him.
Rudy began playing professionally in 1947 when he moved to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, to play with Uncle Joe Johnson and The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. Bill Monroe heard his playing on the radio and invited him to join his band in 1949. Rudy was on the road six days a week with Monroe, returning to Nashville once a week for the weekly performance on the Grand Ole Opry.
The book chronicles Rudy’s life and includes interviews with people who played with Rudy orwho he influenced. “The hardest part of the project was tracking people down to interview them,” says Max. “Many are giants in the tradition. But after so much time tracking them down, each one was so generous with their time, and I was amazed at how consistently people said,‘this book needs to be written.’ I felt like a detective of sorts, and the truth is that it is very unlikely that the book happened at all. But in the end, I was honored to interview so many of my heroes.”
The book project began when Max listened to classic recordings of Bill Monroe from the 1940s and 50s. “The more I listened, the more the music grabbed me. The sound had an energy that I loved.” Max began researching Rudy Lyle but found almost nothing. “There were no Rudy Lyle banjo tabs at all.”
Bluegrass music has a strong history; songs and stylings were often passed down from person to person. “I realized there was a niche that had not been filled. I wanted to learn his style and get his energy into my playing.”
Looking back on the book project, Max says that if he had thought about it, he might not have done it. “I thought, sure, I can write a book. But the fact is that I have never written a bookbefore now. I had no idea what all went into it.” Max did his research, interviews, writing, and layout. “I was in new territory every step of the way, learning as I went.” He chose to use illustrations of the people he interviewed. “I love the work of Giselle Harrington. She did a beautiful job honoring each person in the book. Her illustrations are wonderful.”
The book is also instructional. “I learned from several masters of the banjo, including Bill Keith and Tony Trischka. I also learned from many banjo instruction books. That’s why making this an instructional book was important to me. But it is more than that. There are many layers and dimensions to this book.”
Two people Max interviewed sadly passed away before the book was published. Bill Emerson and Sonny Osborne both recalled their memories of Rudy Lyle. “The interviews for the book were likely the last interview either of them did.”
The book turned out to be a labor of love for Max, who says he is kicking around a couple of ideas for another book. “I would like to continue this kind of work.” In the meantime, Max will continue playing with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass band and teaching music.