News Column

Rex McGee and friends like to tweak the traditionalists

November 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 06--Far from the lights of the main stage at the Galax Old Fiddler's Convention, in a corner of a sprawling campground sprinkled with jam sessions that greeted the morning light, Rex McGee formed a musical band of brothers who turned traditional songs on their head, working them through a filter of rock, jazz, classical and any other musical genre that caught their collective fancy.

"We mischievous players gravitated toward each other," McGee said about those jam sessions, which date to the late 1980s when he was a teenager. "We were always looking for a way to tweak the traditionalists."

McGee's new CD, "Kripplekrunk," is a product of those annual pilgrimages to Galax, the mother of all fiddler conventions. The CD, McGee's first since 2000's wonderfully inventive "24 Creations for Solo Banjo," features veterans from those Galax campground days and a cast of virtuosos from North Carolina and Virginia who possess a seemingly other-worldly command of their instruments.

McGee, a multi-instrumentalist from a long line of Stokes County musicians, sticks with banjo on the CD, an instrument that he has stretched and pulled every which way, creating genre-bending, left-of-center music in the mold of Bela Fleck and The Punch Brothers.

On "24 Solos," McGee composed a solo banjo piece in every key, simply naming each song after the key signature.

"Kripplekrunk" is a more traditional recording, featuring John Garris on guitar, Danny Knicely on mandolin, Nate Leath on fiddle, Dennis Lee on bass and Bobby Martin on percussion. The songs were laid down during a two-day recording marathon at Fidelitorium Studios in Kernersville, with no overdubs, just live playing with few takes.

The songs explore all kinds of musical terrain, reflecting McGee's interest in a wide-range of music. Some seemed to have rolled down from the mountains; others evoke images of smoky jazz clubs.

McGee didn't expect to take 13 years off between projects.

But shortly after getting married, kids started arriving -- he and wife, Jessie, have five now -- and bills needed to be paid.

So McGee, who is a pharmacist, made the responsible choice, setting aside musical ambitions for a steady income filling prescriptions at area drug stores.

"The bottom line is that living the lifestyle of a traveling musician while being a family person is pretty difficult," said McGee, 43. "And life fell into that pattern. At the same time, I was not as stressed as a lot of my (musician) friends. And by not making music as my main priority, I really look forward to times when I get a chance to play. It's always fun."

McGee did not make a clean break from music. Several years ago, he toured with John Cowan, a stint that let him travel all over the country and play with some of his musical heroes, including Vassar Clements, Tony Rice and Stuart Duncan.

He also shared the stage at Merlefest with John Paul Jones, former bass player for a little band called Led Zeppelin.

Cowan had met him at a hotel at Merlefest and invited him to join the band for a song.

"Our road manager woke us up and said, 'You're playing with John Paul Jones today.' And I said, 'Who's that?'" recalled McGee.

"It was a little bit of immediate fame."

McGee has also played with Brynmor, a local Celtic rock band, and Footloose, a contra band, through the years, and he has created his own YouTube channel filled with clips of him playing jigs, waltzes and other traditional songs on banjo and fiddle.

But all of these remained side projects.

A couple of his friends and fans of his music encouraged him to make a deeper musical commitment.

"They were telling me that this stuff is too good and that I owed it to everyone to put it out," McGee said. "I was guilt-tripped into this."

The songs are old originals; some go back to his teenage-years at South Stokes High School.

McGee is, by his account, a fifth-generation musician, on his father's side, with an impressive musical legacy on his mother's side as well.

His grandfather, Ralph McGee -- PapaGee to young Rex -- was a prize-winning fiddler of some renown who looms large in his musical education.

But it was a banjo, given to him by his maternal grandfather when he was 12, that set McGee on a new musical path.

"Once I started playing banjo when I was 12, there was hardly any music that crossed my path that I didn't want to soak up like a sponge," McGee said.

His father bought him a four-track recorder in 1984, and McGee began composing. Exposure to classical and avant-garde composers, while attending Governors School, fueled his interest in pushing boundaries on an instrument that most associate with "Dueling Banjos" or "The Beverly Hillbillies."

It's a direction that he thinks PapaGee, known as the "Old Timer," would have approved.

Years ago at Galax, McGee played "Flight of the Bumblebee" on banjo, not exactly a bluegrass favorite.

McGee recently learned from a friend that PapaGee was among those cheering enthusiastically, calling out, "That's my boy!"

McGee is curious where the new CD will take him. If it gains traction and is heard by the right people, he stands ready to devote more time to music and playing on the road, knowing how quickly time slips away.

"I love family life, but if I don't do something it'll be harder to pick myself back up and keep me in people's minds," he said.

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(c)2013 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)

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