Plucking the Banjo by Daniel Morrison

The following is an Interview from Catholic Music Network, with Fr. Edward James Richard, on the CD Jimmy Brown – The Newsboy, which mixes bluegrass with Catholic spirituality. The interview is from 2002, and was done as a companion piece for the album's release on


Take foot tappin’ Bluegrass and mix it with old time Gospel and Catholic spirituality and you have Fr. Edward Richard. Fr. Richard's first CD "Do What Ever He Tells You” took many people by surprise just as bluegrass became a hot item on Billboard charts, thanks to the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” The LaSalette Missionary priest, who is academic dean at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury and a review editorial board member, recently released his second solo CD, "Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy." It is an awesome mix of traditional and original pieces with heartfelt vocals and instrumentals. Fr. Richard calls this mixture Holy Mountain Bluegrass. I recently talked with Fr. Richard about his new CD “Jimmy Brown – The Newsboy.”

CMN: Father, the new CD is wonderful. First, How do you explain what is Holy Mountain Bluegrass?
FR. RICHARD: The phrase refers to three things. First, I am a Missionary of LaSalette. Our congregation was started after the Blessed Mother appeared to two children in the Alps on Sept. 19, 1846. Not saying anything new, she called them back to God, asking them to pray and respect her Son's name. We have a Shrine there at the site which we always refer to as the Holy Mountain. Second, Bluegrass is often called mountain music. So the combination of the two just naturally leads to the third, it's mountain music that is intended to be holy music, to bring people closer to God as on the Holy Mountain of LaSalette. Got that?

CMN: When did you realize you had a musical talent, and how long have you be playing the banjo?
FR. RICHARD: I am still learning to play the banjo after twenty some odd years. I have decided it's a continuing and evolving thing. There's this bumper sticker that many of us have: "Have you hugged your banjo today?" Being serious about the five-string banjo is constantly challenging, even though it might seem to some to be a "humble" instrument. I began learning in Louisiana, inspired by a number of pickers, a good guy named David Odegar helped me get started. But especially my good friends, Ron Yule and Clifford and Sue Blackmun, who do some of the work on "Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy," inspired me to learn to play the music. They needed a banjo player. I have always played music, as long as I can remember. I just love it. What I lack in talent, I try to make up for in zeal. In school I played in the band, sang in the choir, and, since starting college, I've been involved in some sort of musical group or another, mostly old country music.

Both my parents influenced me, though in very different ways. My dad (deceased) was a Cajun and Cajun music was a part of our heritage. I had a great-uncle who played the accordion and sang his own style of Cajun music. That had a big impact. I even tried the accordion for a while. My mother is the one who really got me started on the guitar and on bluegrass. As soon as I could hold a guitar I was trying to play one. Eventually she sent me for some lessons. In high school, I sort of let it slide a little. Then in college, I really got turned on to the old mountain music.

A friend and, then, Bluegrass promoter, Bob Smith, helped me get into the Stanley Brothers. I was mightily impressed with Ralph and Carter's music the moment I heard it. I started a collection of their records and wanted to learn to play the guitar and banjo just like them. A fellow named Danny Davis showed me how to play like George Shuffler, a guitar player who played for the Stanley's and developed a style of guitar playing called cross-picking. I do a good bit of that on "Jimmy Brown." Early into the Stanley scene, I made Ralph's acquaintance (Carter had died in 1966 unfortunately) and we have been friends ever since. Ralph is special and I am glad that people have now been able to get to know his music even more. I have followed his career as much as time has allowed and I have tried to get into the power of his music.

Ralph has most influenced me with his gospel music, even though my banjo playing is mostly patterned on his. I enjoyed the old hymns and the way the Stanley's played them.

CMN: When you see a Catholic priest, you think Latin or Gregorian Chants; Why have you turned to Bluegrass as a way to praise God?
FR. RICHARD: I love all things Catholic. And I like older Catholic hymns. I like Latin plainsong. I love the great organ sound. As a seminarian, I was in a chant group that sang at various celebrations. But, I played Bluegrass long before I ever thought about becoming a priest. I was already practicing law (JD, LSU 1983) before I decided to answer the call. Even so, in my ignorance I had resolved that if the Lord wanted me to be a priest and give up Bluegrass, I would have done so. Instead, it's been just the opposite. He has always encouraged me, providentially, to play, and Bluegrass hymns have inspired me to love Him more. Everything just seems to happen at the right time. I am so grateful to God. I praise Him for His Majesty, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I have been given this joy. If it all ended today, I would still be grateful for what I have had these years.

CMN: Have you seen a growth in your audience since the film "O Brother Where Art Thou"? Since the Soundtrack has been a number one seller for months now - do more people take your music to heart?
FR. RICHARD: No question, we Bluegrass musicians now have a much wider audience than before "O Brother..". More people are interested. Recently, I went back to my home in Louisiana and played at a Gospel music show in a local music venue. We were the only Bluegrass group, but many of the people there were getting into our sound and into the spirit of our music. I am sure that O Brother had a lot to do with the reception we received there. My base is still the same, though. Those are the people who have been there all along and the majority of them ARE CATHOLICS WHO HAPPEN TO LIKE COUNTRY MUSIC! They are the people in the parishes and churches who have been my support and inspiration. I wanted to do something for them, to give them something that they could feel at home with. It's still new though. There isn't a large offering of Catholic bluegrass. I haven't seen many others.

CMN: Was there much differences between the making of your first CD "Do Whatever He Tells You" and "Jimmy Brown – The Newsboy?"
FR. RICHARD: There were several differences. First, I decided that since I am an unknown artist, I should package the thing better. You will never know what's inside if the outside doesn't appeal to you enough to want to know what's in there. I asked Henning Communications in St. Louis to design the cover. Pat Henning and his company did all of the graphic design for the publications for John Paul II's visit to St. Louis in 1999. They did an excellent job. The surprise there is that my sister, Dusty, did the photography and the people at the Railroad Station are locals dressed up in period dress. My nephew, Myles, is the newsboy on the track.

Secondly, musically, I have been playing with Ron Yule, Louisiana Champion Fiddler, and Clifford and Sue Blackmun for a good many years. I recorded a number of the songs with them this time because I was comfortable with their style.

Third, I took more control over the recording, mixing, and mastering. I have a lot to learn in those areas, but I know what I want. It's not the best way to do it. I actually did some of the digital recording and mixing myself. The first time through the studio, I felt rushed and I was unsure of how the process worked. After I got involved in the mixing, and took more time with it, I made the choice that this would not just go along a schedule and then, voila, finished product. I decided to take the time I wanted. I also decided, in the process, that I could add more variety to the sound and not just settle for your standard 5-piece Bluegrass arrangement. I learned a lot this time, too. Hopefully, the next one will be even better.

CMN: Is it hard to write while balancing time with priestly duties and prayers?
FR. RICHARD: I love being a priest and I wouldn't be doing what I am doing now if I weren't. Realistically, I can devote very little time these days to writing music. I am the Academic Dean of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and the Director of the Paul VI Pontifical Institute of Catechetical and Pastoral Studies in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I continue to teach Moral Theology in the Seminary and I give a number of conferences in the US and a few abroad. This year I flew to New Zealand to speak and play at the Wellington Eucharistic Convention. My goal in music writing is to try to put a few new songs on each new recording. Song writing happens fairly quickly for me and the original inspiration for each song comes usually in a flash, often in prayer or when I am being prayerful. An "Ocean of Mercy" came all at once while walking in a park. I believe the more I pray the more music I will write. Right now, I have an idea brewing for a song about Mass and the book of Revelation. I am so unworthy to think about these things, to know these great mysteries. Yet, it is wonderful to be caught up into Heaven for the celebration of the Lamb's Supper. My song on that will have a lot to do with the Saints, I hope.

CMN: The Bread of Life (John 6) is a great CATHOLIC song. What helped you to write it?
FR. RICHARD: It was time for me to write a song about the Holy Eucharist. I have often meditated upon and preached about John 6. I wanted to let people know that, following upon Jesus' basic reasoning stated there, the story of Moses and the manna has a good bit to say about what the Last Supper meant. Yet, I didn't want to force the "Catholic" teaching. I did not dwell on what my brothers in Protestant churches do with that text. In any case, Jesus is quite clear and John had a very strong point to make. He wants us to have life. Eat his body, drink his blood, and He will raise us up on the last day. Direct and to the point. Part II of that, though, is the Heavenly Liturgy. Part III is what we do all the time even outside the church, our spiritual warfare.

The Eucharist, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, is all of that. We Catholics believe that, certainly, in a symbolic and spiritual sense, we "devour" Christ and His Truth. AND, more importantly, we devour him quite literally like Moses and the Israelites ate manna in the desert. This cuts both ways for all of us, Catholic and Protestant alike. I would like for all my Protestant brothers and sisters to be able know and receive Jesus like I do at Mass. "Sir, give us this bread always." We Catholics, in this day and age, who actually partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist ought to be more on fire, though, with love for His Truth as it is expressed in the Bible which so often is the mainstay of dedicated Christians of all backgrounds. And if we study the Biblical text closely, we see clearly that Jesus was directly teaching the truth about the sacredness of the Eucharistic bread and wine. It's Him. He is the Eucharist and the Eucharist is Him. We don't just receive him into our hearts in a spiritual sense. He is the Passover lamb who has taken the form of the first priestly offering in the Bible by Melchezideck, bread and wine. We receive him into our bodies as food and drink. I can see why the Church wants us to prepare well for the great mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ.

If today's Catholics, guided by authentic teaching, loved biblical truth as much as some of our Protestant brothers and sisters, they would love Jesus more in the Holy Eucharist. We ought to, as St. Paul says, "discern the body." Read this again: "I AM the BREAD OF LIFE."

CMN: You use a lot of older traditional bluegrass/ gospel songs in your catalog. How did you come by them?
FR. RICHARD: So many of these songs were learned just by playing with others or listening to others play them. Some of them are just instrumental versions of old songs which are not of a religious nature. But they make nice music to mix into a blend like this. Most of them I have played for a long time. "Father, We Thank Thee" is a tune that was an old French melody adapted to a text based on the Didache. The banjo version of it probably doesn't register for most people as the tune that they might be familiar with, but we sing it in the Seminary all the time.

CMN: Why was "Jimmy Brown- The Newboy" made the title track of your new CD?
FR. RICHARD: I chose "Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy" as the title track for a number of reasons. It's a well-known song from the Carter family about a little boy who is able to express a fundamental hope of Heaven, in spite of all the obstacles to his happiness, in terms of something he is able to understand, peddling the news. I always liked the song and I remembered an old Columbia LP that my mother had of the song recorded by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The theme of the song seemed to me to be something that I could associate with my hometown and the old Railroad station which is an important part of the town's history. And its one of the first tunes that I watched Danny Davis play on the guitar in the style that I now play it.

CMN: How did you find some of the friends that help you on Jimmy Brown?
FR. RICHARD: I have already told you earlier about Ron Yule, who is the fiddle player on some of the cuts. Ron is long-time friend and an excellent musician who happens to be Missouri Synod Lutheran. My repertoire on the banjo is much more diverse than it would have been had I not known Ron. He plays lots of styles and tunes. Jimmy Orchard is the other fiddle player who really adds an old time feel to the songs that I wanted that on. Jimmy organized the Ozark Bluegrass Boys in 1969 and I have been playing the banjo for him when I can for about three years now. Jimmy has done a lot to promote Bluegrass in the Ozarks and I really respect his knowledge of the music and his ability. Frank Ray plays the mandolin on the CD and is one of the best mandolin players anywhere. It's been just great knowing Frank. He is a member of the Assemblies of God and our discussions have been deep when we have been out on the road. You don't talk very long to Frank about the Bible without knowing that he has really tried to penetrate its mysteries. He has a gift for it and it's always refreshing to see how much the Spirit has led him to profound truth. He is a member of the Ozark Bluegrass Boys.

CMN: There is some great vocal talent on the new CD. Who, besides you, sang on it?
FR. RICHARD: Rich Orchard, who sings lead on Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy, is Jimmy's younger brother and is the lead singer for the Ozark Bluegrass Boys. Rich is a good rhythm guitar player and has perhaps the most awesome Martin D-28 guitar in the world! Rich is a fine Christian man; he and his wife Juanita are members of the Church of Christ. It was Rich who initiated our meeting and my entry into the Ozark Bluegrass Boys. Rich had heard about me and decided to go check me out at a spot where I was playing one night. Clifford and Sue Blackmun, who sing on a number of the songs, are from Louisiana and are two of my friends from the days when I was learning to play Bluegrass. I will put Clifford and Sue up against any husband and wife team of Bluegrass singers. I enjoy them so much. Clifford brings a special gift to the music with his Primitive Baptist background. That comes through on the a cappella “I'll Wear a White Robe.”

Guy Stevenson, who leads on “Over in the Gloryland”, is the bass player for the Ozark Bluegrass Boys these days. Guy, however, played bass for a couple of years for Bill Monroe in the 70's. Guy is also a member of the Assemblies of God and is just a great person to be around.

CMN: Thank you Father!

The CD “Jimmy Brown – The Newsboy”, can be found on the Catholic Music Network. Fr. Edward Richard has said that proceeds from his CD support the LaSalette Foreign Missions. Don’t miss out on this awesome CD!

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