Ryan Cavanaugh Interview: Incognito Hippie Banjo Player

Jan 23, 2020

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Ryan Cavanaugh: Incognito Hippie Banjo Player

By Lara Keithley.  Images by Scott Seifert Photography

Festy GoNuts contributor/ blossoming banjo queen Lara Keithley caught up with Ryan Cavanaugh to discuss his musical history, his time with the Jeff Austin Band, improv, funk, and much more.

Ryan Cavanaugh has been described by many as one of the most driven musicians touring today. 

He has an impressive and eclectic pedigree, having shared the stage from a young age (he has been playing publicly since he was 11!) with legends such as Doc Watson, Doug Dillard, Sam Bush, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Austin, to name a few.  For many years Cavanaugh toured with Jazz Saxophonist Bill Evans all over Europe in the jazz project “Soulgrass”.  Although he states that he really enjoyed seeing Europe, Cavanaugh had a desire to return to the US and play in his own country.  Since returning to the states Ryan Cavanaugh has played with a notable array of artists in the Jamband scene.  

As a novice banjo player I was delighted to get the opportunity to ask Ryan Cavanaugh a few questions.  I found him to be very informative and generous with his answers and his time.  




This would probably be a shorter list.  It is surprising how much of an underground banjo enigma Cavanaugh continues to be considering the stellar list of musicians he has collaborated with. My first curiosity was related to the myriad of musical greats with which Cavanaugh has shared a stage.

Festy GoNuts: Would you give the Readers a little insight on your career history?

Ryan Cavanaugh:  I grew up in North Carolina playing bluegrass banjo since I was 10. I went to college in eastern Pennsylvania and I started a funk band with my electric banjo called, Spacestation Integration. That band toured for three years or so and opened up for Keller Williams, John Molo, and Garaj Mahal. After that, I went to the Big Fat Gap bluegrass band, where I did switch hitting with Andy Thorn on banjo, and where Jon Stickley was occasionally the guitar player. Andy went to Leftover Salmon after that, and I went to New York City to play with Bill Evans, (Miles Davis) the tenor saxophonist’s, Soulgrass Band. There were many all-star lineups in that band. We did tours of Japan with Victor Wooten on bass, did some shows with Sam Bush on mandolin. We played some US dates in that time, where Oteil Burbridge sat in with us, John Medeski and the Umphrey’s guys would also join. We actually did records with Medeski, Sam, Warren Haynes and Jake from Umphrey’s  on all the different records. After that gig ended, I went freelance for six months or so in New York City, and then got the gig with Jeff Austin. I played for a year with Jeff Austin, and then went to Jenni Lynn Gardner’s band. I spent eight months in Jenni Lynn’s band and then was asked to join Songs From the Road Band.  Spent a year playing with those guys and recorded on their latest record, Waiting on a Ride.

FGN:  You mentioned touring for a year with Jeff Austin.  How was that experience?

RC~ It was a great experience! After nine years of traveling abroad with Bill Evans, all I wanted to do was play in my own country again. They love American music all over the world, and I was most certainly privileged to see those other countries, however I’m an American musician and the music I play (bluegrass, jazz, blues, funk) is American too! I just wanted to get back to my own country and play. Playing with Jeff gave me the opportunity and the ability to connect with those fans I wasn’t able to access before. Jeff encouraged me to be my musical self and deliver the music as I see fit. No restraints! He was a genius at reading a crowd and taking the music to “that special place.” 

FGN:  Why aren’t we more familiar with you and your work?

RC~ I’ve always followed my intuition and I’ve only ever been into music for my own personal satisfaction (laughs). I’ve had an interest in the arts since I was a kid, and went to university for fine art, so artistic philosophy naturally became part of my musical endeavors.

FGN: How so? 

RC~ Chords and scales are like colors to me. I paint with them, only I use the banjo, which is a unique artistic device in itself because of the cultural history and complexity it carries. I like using the banjo for my musical paintbrush of sorts, mainly because I love the sound of it, and because of its history. It’s an ancient instrument. My main artistic endeavor is to break stereotypes. I use the banjo’s history in jazz to break rustic stereotypes.

FGN: Can you elaborate? 

RC~ Well, the banjo has its origins in Africa, and even further east than that I would guess. I really like that about it. It has inbuilt soul to its construction because it’s a drum with strings stretched over it. It’s a very ancient idea, but I really like to use it in very modern contexts for the sake of the controversy that it creates artistically. It most likely predated the guitar, but who knows? It’s only been considered a country music instrument for a short time compared to the rest of its history: for 20 yrs before that it was a founding instrument in American Jazz music.   

Ryan Cavanaugh banjo player | Scott Seifert Photography


Upon meeting Ryan Cavanaugh, he appears very understated.  He opts for a very non-descript and conservative presentation.  I wondered if his life philosophy was as traditional as his appearance.

My question seemed to bemuse him but then he laughed with twinkle in his eye.  Apparently, I was not the first person to think him conventional based on his appearance.

FGN:  Are you as conservative as you look?

RC~ Well, despite my appearance, I’m an old hippie! I love to jam! My philosophy is Buddhism, and Mahavishnu. John McLaughlin is my guru. (laughs) Literally! He is the reason I play the way I do!  For some people, their introduction to the jam band scene is Jerry and the Dead, but mine was John McLaughlin and the Allmans. I suspect John McLaughlin and Jerry would have got along very well. 

I’ve received many inquiries from jamband fans as to my monotone garb. To address that, I let my music represent me!  I just simply don’t feel the need to represent myself through loud fashion (laughs). Some fans have called me arrogant because of my appearance, and I’ve been accused of being a conservative haha but that’s simply not the case! I’m just an incognito hippie banjo player who wants people to focus on my sounds rather than my looks. 



As was announced on Festy GoNuts a couple of months ago, Ryan Cavanaugh has a new project.  This is a departure from anything the banjo world has seen before. Upon giving it a listen, I was immediately intrigued with the mind that could come up with such a unique understanding of what a banjo could sound like.  Equally compelling to me was the sheer bravery it takes to release a completely unexampled recording such as this. Cavanaugh was happy to explain what led him to this extraordinary release. 

FGN: What is the premise behind your new recording, The Realist?

RC~ I got really tired of labels. My artistic mission on the banjo is to break stereotypes. I decided to do something that was completely me, as an answer to society’s desire to unfairly compartmentalize many things. This record of live, spontaneous improvisations is my answer to that. I’m using the electric banjo with a synthesizer, and I’m just going for it. It’s the most unique thing that I can contribute. It’s my musical fingerprint. I play the banjo because I love the technical format of how it is played, and on this record I have explored many musical shades of color, from soul sounds, to East Indian sounds, Jazz, Funk, blues, electronic, and freely creative harmonic impressionism. Its a meditative album based on my life in music. I wanted to make a record free of the Banjo’s stereotypes and I’m happy with how it turned out! 

FGN: Where can we next see you and what kind of musical projects are you doing?

RC~ I will be in Steamboat Springs Colorado for Winter WonderGrass performing with Jeremy Garrett (Infamous Stringdusters) in his funk project.  I will be playing electric funk banjo. I was able to play with Jeremy Garrett, along with Adam Aijala, Drew Emmitt and Adrienne Young this summer in Vail.  The experience was great and I really hope to be part of projects with Jeremy in the future. One of the things I have been enjoying about being back on the festival circuit is the ability to collaborate with all of these amazing musicians.  

Another tremendous positive is the ability to really connect with the people in the audience.

The Jamband and especially Jamgrass scene is so symbiotic.  It’s a terrific feeling to feel that connection with the people listening to my music and one that is particular to audiences of this scene.  I really look forward to playing for these audiences more and more.

Ryan Cavanaugh banjo player | Scott Seifert Photography


As polite and accommodating as Ryan Cavanaugh was during our interview, it was apparent that I was running out of time.  I had so many banjo questions I wanted to ask! But I remembered not everyone is as obsessed with banjo as I am.  

What the non-banjo playing audience may not understand is that Ryan Cavanaugh is the gold standard of banjo players.  He is in the upper echelons with Tony Trishka, Jens Kruger, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Bill Keith and others.

What is intriguing about Mr. Cavanaugh is he is also completely different in his style, technique and approach than anyone else in his field. The fact that he is very intelligent and knowledgeable came as no surprise.  His willingness to share his knowledge is inspiring. The real surprise in this interview is how accessible, affable and unaffected Ryan Cavanaugh is.

~Lara Keithley


The Realist:  Out now!

On Amazon

On iTunes

Contact Ryan Cavanaugh:



Upcoming Ryan Cavanaugh Tour Dates:

Visit ryancavanaughbanjo.com/live for updates.

2/21/2020: Winter Wonder Grass w/ Jeremy Garrett’s Funk Band  – Steamboat Springs, Colorado

2/21/2020: Grand Ballroom Night Grass w/ Jeremy Garrett’s Funk Band – Steamboat Springs, Colorado 

2/25/2020: Red Truck Beer Company – Fort Collins Colorado

2/26/2020: Longtucky Spirits – Longmont, Colorado

2/27/2020: Empourium Brewery – Denver, Colorado

2/28/2020: Backyard Tap – Loveland, Colorado

2/29/2020: Camp Darwillie – Longmont, Colorado 

3/1/2020: The Very Nice Brewing Co – Nederland, Colorado

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