Martha’s Vineyard is not exactly a hotbed for banjo music these days, but along Middle Road in Chilmark, the instrument’s twangy plink has deep roots. At one end was Bill Keith, who became a master picker as a teenager in the 1950s and went on to refine Scruggs-style picking and invent a new tuning peg that continues to be the standard.
A couple of miles to the east is the home of Donald Nitchie, editor of the 40-year-old monthly magazine, Banjo Newsletter (BNL). A publication devoted to all things banjo, Mr. Nitchie puts it together each month from his home in Chilmark.
Interest in banjos seems to be growing, according to Mr. Nitchie. The stringed instrument is being picked up by more, younger, Internet-savvy pickers and in April, Banjo Magazine revamped its website to give its readers a more complete online version. The website is designed and maintained on the Vineyard.
Mr. Nitchie attributes the increased interest in this old-timey instrument to the work of American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, the popularity of the Irish band Mumford and Sons, and to the comedian/actor Steve Martin, a longtime banjo strummer, who has released two banjo albums over the last several years and has appeared on TV numerous times recently with his banjo.
He pointed out the parallel between the current banjo up-tick and the interest in the banjo sparked by the 1972 movie “Deliverance” with the scene of the mountain child, idiot savant, banjo player, played by Billy Redden, laying into the song “Dueling Banjos.” It was this movie that sparked the initial sales of the magazine when his father, Hub Nitchie, founded it in 1973, he said. “It was a big banjo and bluegrass shot in the arm.”
Hub played banjo. Donald said he played with the Chilmark folk musicians of the time, including fiddlers Hollis Smith and Gale Huntington, who was Hub’s uncle-in-law. He liked jazz banjo as well as bluegrass.
Hub’s initial interest in the banjo in the 1960s led him to produce and circulate banjo songs in tablature or tab format, a form of notation that indicates fingering and facilitates learning a song without the need to read music. He even had an IBM Selectric typewriter modified so he could type out the tabs. He sold the tabs through the mail. They were the genesis of the newsletter. Tabs for songs are still included in every issue.
The Nitchie family often vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard and lived here full-time from 1970 until 1972. Donald attended the Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) during that time. Hub was librarian at MVRHS. His wife, Nancy, had trouble finding work and the family eventually moved back to Maryland. In 1973, soon after the move, the tablature business grew into the magazine. Nancy became the business manager for the new publication and as the magazine grew and became more popular, it turned into a full-time job for the Nitchies.
As Donald remembers it, when he was in high school the magazine grew and took over more and more of their house.
“I was aware that Hub was up to something, but I didn’t really pay attention until several years later, when I was in college and began receiving the newsletters in the mail,” Mr. Nitchie said. “I became an avid reader.”
Hub died in 1992. Donald, who lived on the Vineyard, took over as editor, and his younger brother, Spencer, a musician who lives in Maryland, assumed the circulation and business side of the operation.
In addition to the magazine, Donald inherited a number of banjos from his dad. Although he can play around on a banjo, he said he is not a banjo player like his dad was. “I played piano as a kid and I tried to play banjo for awhile,” he said. “I had banjos around. It helped that I grew up with a banjo player.”
As Banjo Newletter’s editor, proofreader, and one-man production department, Donald’s responsibilities are a full-time job. He works from his home on Middle Road. The magazine usually runs from 40 to 48 pages and is filled with a healthy looking quantity of advertising covering banjo sales and repair, workshops, music camps and festivals, and lessons. One enterprising advertiser offers banjo lessons via Skype. Circulation is currently more than 6,000 copies.
Donald said he was able to take over the editing and production work when his father died without missing an issue in part because of the skills he developed working in the production department of The Martha’s Vineyard Times from 1987 until 1989.
The stories and columns in BNL cover all popular styles of five-string banjo playing, predominantly the three-finger or Scruggs style and the claw-hammer playing style, and each issue is roughly divided in half between the two. There are also articles on classic, jazz, and minstrel banjo occasionally.
BNL covers a range of banjo topics, including features on banjo players, techniques, beginning, music theory, set-up and accessories, product and record reviews.
It was recognized for its importance in the music community in 1992 when The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awarded Hub Nitchie its Print Media Person of the Year award and more recently in 2008 when BNL won its Distinguished Achievement Award.
Donald, 57, is married to Beth Parker, and has two grown sons. He earned a degree in English from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. and a Masters in poetry from Columbia University in 1983. He is an active member of the Island poetry community.
In April, the companion website to the newsletter was upgraded to offer all published articles and classified advertising from each edition, with the goal of eventually creating a complete online archive of the publication’s history.
An online subscription option was added to the range of subscription choices, and non-subscribers are limited to five articles per month. Another new offering on the site was the inclusion of banjo tablature, previously only available in the printed magazine. The site also allows online users to listen to music while browsing.
BNL will continue to offer a print edition, mailed out just as it has been for 40 years, and now most of the content from the magazine can be found online as well.
For more information, visit the magazine’s website at banjonews.com.