The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.
The fan: Though he’s best known for his acting roles in everything from The Office to the upcoming Vacation, Ed Helms also dabbles in music, having played the banjo for years. His bluegrass band, The Lonesome Trio, formed while all three members were at Oberlin College, and the group released its self-titled debut earlier this week on Sugar Hill Records.
Given Helms’ background in bluegrass, it’s no surprise that he was drawn to the genre by one of its most successful LPs: Eric Weissberg’s Dueling Banjos. The A.V. Club talked to Helms about that record, and about how he learned to separate the sound of the banjo from having to squeal like a pig.
The A.V. Club: You told your publicist that Deliverance shaped your musical tastes in a way. Can you explain why that’s the case?
Ed Helms: How familiar are you with the movie?
AVC: I have some familiarity with it.
EH: You’re aware of its horrific lore, what it depicts in the movie…
EH: Why it’s the butt of many a joke.
Okay. Where do I start? Deliverance is a novel written by James Dickey, and it’s a really powerful novel about when you do something wrong, it never stops following you. In the story of the movie, there’s these guys and a horrible rape, and they wind up killing one of the hillbillies, and they have to kill his brother and stuff. And it’s a very dramatic, intense movie. That author, James Dickey, took guitar lessons from the person I took guitar lessons from. And I just knew that as a little kid and thought that was kind of cool. Even though I hadn’t seen the movie, I knew that it was an important movie. So there was that.
Then, I went to summer camp in the mountains in North Carolina for many years, and I was really into the white-water canoeing program there. Deliverance was filmed on the Chattooga River, which runs between Georgia and South Carolina as part of the border—beautiful river. And the canoe program at my camp was going to run a section of that river. And so the counselors showed us a section of Deliverance in order to show us the river that we were going to run, and they literally just hit the fast forward button over this horrific scene. We were all, “What in the hell was that?” We were like, 11 or 12. But that was also where I heard, in the score of the movie, this beautiful bluegrass music. And there’s a famous scene in the movie where “Dueling Banjos” gets played quasi-spontaneously by one of the main guys, and this weird, sort of inbred banjo player.
It wasn’t long after that that I just chased down whatever recordings I could find of bluegrass music, and started begging my guitar teacher to teach me all these things. He was really well steeped in folk and bluegrass traditions, so it was a great fit. It was also just sort of cool that he had this personal connection to James Dickey. And then, I guess in high school at some point, I actually bought the soundtrack to Deliverance. The soundtrack is incredible, because it’s actually a lot of music that has nothing to do with the movie.
It’s this great bluegrass outfit, Eric Weissberg on banjo, and Marshall Brickman on guitar, who, ironically, is also a comedy writer who worked with Woody Allen, among others. If you look up Marshall Brickman on IMDB, you’ll be amazed. But they just shredded all these great old fiddle tunes on guitar and banjo, and it’s a really exceptional and I think very important album in the bluegrass canon, because Deliverance had such a big impact on pop culture when it came out. It was part of what brought bluegrass into the mainstream, briefly, in the ’80s. Actually, was it ’79? I don’t remember.
AVC: The movie came out in 1972.
EH: That early? Wow, that’s before I was born.
So, John Boorman directed. It’s an incredible movie. It’s the butt of lot of jokes because of that terrible scene, but it’s actually a really powerful and beautiful movie in a lot of ways, and quite stunning.
AVC: Well, some of that gets assigned to “Dueling Banjos.” That movie contributed to the assumption that bluegrass music meant backwoods guys with no sense.
EH: Oh, yeah. I don’t know why. I mean, they would sell T-shirts up by the Chattooga River that said “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.” So, yeah, it definitely had a negative connotation. And I think that that sort of inbred, hillbilly stereotype was not helped at all by the movie.
But the music, I mean, at that point I had already spent so much time up in those mountains that I already had such a positive association with it, that—I don’t know why—that music really captured my imagination at a really young age.
I was very lucky to have a guitar teacher who actually gave a shit about that music and really knew what he was talking about and knew what to expose me to. Because there was no one around me—I mean, my parents, none of my friends—no one was interested in that music. I grew up in midtown Atlanta, where everyone was obsessed with R.E.M. and Drivin’ And Cryin’ and Widespread Panic and all these weird jam bands and whatnot.
AVC: And you liked bluegrass.
AVC: In a way, you’re helping keep traditions alive in a sense.
EH: There seems to be a folk revival or renaissance every two years or so, and I feel like we’re kind of in the middle of one. But there will always be—I mean, people look at the ’60s and say, “Oh, that’s where folk music comes from,” but that was just its own revival.
AVC: There was Woody Guthrie before that.
EH: Bob Dylan and all those guys, they were just playing earlier songs. And Peter, Paul, & Mary—they were playing Woody Guthrie songs, and Woody Guthrie was playing older songs, and it just goes back to colonial campfires. And then before that, it goes back to Scotland and Ireland and Africa. So much bluegrass music goes back to the Scotch-Irish Appalachian settlers. There’s something timeless about it, and I think that’s part of what I liked about it. It felt like firm ground to stand on. And I don’t know why that was important to me, but, as a kid, I think I had a weird sort of Catcher In The Rye preoccupation with authenticity or something.
If you’ve read The Catcher In The Rye, Holden just calls everyone a phony, and he’s really morose, and I think it’s what a lot of introspective teenagers go through, that kind of looking for something to latch onto. And that certainly was me as a kid. I needed something that felt old.
AVC: Just to clarify, you said you spent time in the mountains. Were you exposed to bluegrass before you heard it in Deliverance? Or was it something you started getting into afterward?
EH: I would say that I had definitely heard it before. My parents liked it or at least they wouldn’t turn it off the radio. My dad was a big classical music guy, but he appreciated folk music. So occasionally we’d, like, stop at a truck stop in Tennessee—my mom grew up in Nashville, so we were always back and forth to Nashville as kids—and we’d pick up a cassette tape of Appalachian classics, or something. So I was hearing it early on, but something about “Dueling Banjos,” which is one of the corniest—I mean, bluegrass traditionalists hate that song because it’s so overplayed and over-popularized, but, for me as a kid, it was something that I latched onto. And Deliverance was the source of that.
AVC: Did you ever try to branch out into any other instruments? Were you like, “I should learn to play the jug?”
EH: I picked up banjo in high school because my guitar teacher was also a banjo teacher. And my high school was doing a production of Cotton Patch Gospel, which was this obscure bluegrass musical. And they needed a banjo player, so I learned songs for that on banjo, and that was sort of the first time I got into banjo-playing. But I’d been playing guitar for a good five or six years at that point.
AVC: Did you care that Steve Martin played banjo? Did that affect you in any way?
EH: Did I care, one way or the other? You know, I loved Steve Martin’s comedy way more. I thought it was cool as shit that he played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” though, which is just one of the greatest things ever. But it’s weird. I didn’t connect him with bluegrass music that much, even though he played banjo. Of course, I do now a lot more, because he’s put out a couple of fantastic albums and I’ve had the great privilege of hanging out with him a bunch, even playing music with him on a few occasions, and he’s a tremendous songwriter. It’s funny, the only reason that we met is because of music friends that we had in common, and not through comedy.
AVC: When you were growing up, you probably didn’t think of him as a guy that played banjo, but rather as the guy from The Jerk who just happened to know how to play banjo.
EH: Yeah, and the banjo was like this great, funny prop that was part of his comedy.
It’s funny, I never really mixed my music with comedy. I didn’t ever really want to play guitar and sing funny songs or be that guy. I love those guys—I mean, Flight Of The Conchords—there are so many great musical comedy acts. But for some reason, in me, they were always very separate. I took music kind of seriously, and I didn’t want to mix it in with the comedy that much. With that said, it’s no secret that Andy Bernard sang a lot on The Office. Probably too much. And in that way, music was mixed in.
AVC: It still seems like you don’t have an interest in overlapping the two.
EH: When The Lonesome Trio performs, a lot of our songs—it’s all original music. And some of it does have kind of a sly wink to it. And we try to keep our shows lively and fun, and we joke around and stuff, but it’s not a comedic performance.
AVC: You just have stage presence.
EH: Yeah. And then, by the same token, on the acting front, and the comedy writing and performing, I’m weirdly serious about that. I feel like music is a distraction. But I’m so thrilled to add this layer to the public perception of me, because anyone who’s close to me in my life—my family, my friends—they all know that music—and this kind of music in particular—is just a huge part of my life. And The Lonesome Trio—we’ve been best friends for 22 years. To get to finally share that is a huge privilege, and I’m just beyond thrilled about it. It’s going to be a blast.