by Kara Martinez Bachman
Brandon Bankes once said goodbye to toe-tapping and acoustic finger picking, but it didn’t take long before he returned home.
It had been a phase. He had grown up listening to the country music his grandfather played, but when high school hit, just as most teenage kids do, he set off on a new course.
“You go through these stages in high school,” he said. “I got really into punk music.”
As he got a little older, though, his roots came calling and the young man eventually circled back around to a music that moved him. He formed The Wayfarers, for which he plays mandolin.
“I walked away from it and ended up finding it again,” he said. “I started seeing the similarities between punk music and bluegrass.”
Just as with punk, bluegrass isn’t about being slick or about attracting the masses. It’s a music about being yourself and just doing your thing, and in that, there’s a certain raw attitude.
“The way the music is promoted...it’s more on a grassroots level,” he said, explaining another similarity shared by the two genres.
Bankes said he thinks many young people might have been attracted back into the bluegrass fold because of the popular Coen Brothers film starring George Clooney, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In the film, three escaped convicts traverse the country sides of the Great Depression, accompanied by a soundtrack celebrating 1930s folk music.
“It became cool again to embrace your culture and heritage, and those stereotypical ideas of Appalachia,” Bankes said.
Hailing from rural southeast Ohio, the band consists of Nathan Zangmeister, on upright washtub bass; Justin Rayner, on banjo; Jake Loew, on fiddle; Josh Hartman, on guitar; and Bankes, on mandolin.
The band describes its own music as high-energy “American roots music” that is “centered largely by the fiddle.” The repertoire includes Appalachian dance tunes, traditional fiddle music, and numbers that date to the 1920s.
For the Wayfarers, it’s all about nostalgic Americana, about celebrating the days when music came out of handmade instruments instead of amps and relayed the daily concerns, joys, and celebratory sounds of rural America.
The Wayfarers have had several lineup changes, and Bankes said it took about five or six years for the current incarnation to come together.
“We started playing back in 2009 in a basement,” said Bankes. It just started out as he and a few friends fooling around. He didn’t think anything would come of it.
“We never expected to do anything with it but play on a porch or in a basement,” he said.
Bankes said he decided early on that he wanted to be friends with the guys he played with. Since most bandmates spend much time together rehearsing and traveling, he wanted the other Wayfarers to be his peers.
“I specifically wanted younger players because of the appeal that young people are playing music that’s a hundred years older than they are,” he said, of another reason for the decision.
One thing’s for sure, though: the fooling around in the basement was starting to sound good.
After a while, they offered to play for free at farmers’ markets and festivals.
“By the next year, we started getting calls,” Bankes said.
Today, the band performs regularly, gigging locally in Ohio and touring in other midwestern states and in southern Appalachia. They even performed on a program filmed in Virginia and broadcast across the country on public TV stations, “Song of the Mountains.” To date, The Wayfarers have released four studio albums.
“We all have full-time jobs, so it’s not to the point where we can quit our jobs and go on the road full-time,” Bankes said. “But we’re definitely getting to that point.”
Regardless the future direction, Bankes said what The Wayfarers do is about more than pleasing an audience; it’s about pleasing themselves. Even if they were still in that basement, they’d still be plucking and strumming and harmonizing their hearts out.
“If nobody listened to it, I think we’d still probably do it,” he said. “Because we love it.”