The world's best banjo player of the past year lives in a log cabin about 40 miles from Baltimore.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 55-year-old Mike Munford sat on a couch in his living room in Glen Rock, Pa. He held his favorite banjo, a Gibson five-string, as his Labrador-mix Miki rested her head by his side. Then Munford began to play, first goofing around a bit to fill the silence, and then playing a combination of more complicated riffs he'd written. He even mixed in "Carol of the Bells."
With a fluid, near-hypnotic rhythm generated mostly from his thumb, index and middle fingers, Munford, a Roland Park native who still calls Baltimore "home base," played it all impeccably. That's because for 40 years, Munford has dedicated his life to bluegrass music and mastering the banjo. A modest guy, Munford says he hasn't conquered the instrument, and his only aim is to improve.
"There's no limit to the amount of inspiration that's out there," Munford later said in his basement, surrounded by records, hand-labeled VHS recordings and framed vintage bluegrass photos. "There's no end to working on technique or repertoire, or trying to maintain what you've learned over the years."
Munford's decades of devotion reached a new height in the fall when the respected trade association International Bluegrass Music Association named him "Banjo Player of the Year" in Raleigh, N.C. It was the first time Munford had ever been nominated for any bluegrass prize, and he says the nomination "was the honor as far as I was concerned." But then, his name was called.
"I'm still shocked and honored for eternity," Munford said, still somewhat in disbelief. "I respect these other players so much, and just to be recognized along with them — at least for this brief period because who knows what's going to happen next year — is absolutely thrilling and I don't take it lightly at all."
Others in the industry were surprised by Munford's win, but not because he didn't deserve it. For years, those who closely followed and played bluegrass were familiar with Munford's engaging, contemporary-meets-traditional style. But for the most part, he flew under the radar nationally, especially in comparison to the other nominees.
John Lawless, editor of "Bluegrass Today," covered the awards, an event with "gigantic" significance in the genre, according to Lawless. He said he "jumped up and shouted" when he heard Munford had won.
"Mike's been a musician's musician all of his life. Not the guy who gets the headlines, but the guy who's doing it, day in and day out, and teaching the next generation of pickers," Lawless said from Roanoke, Va., on Thursday. "It's almost like the super underdog wins the World Series kind of thing. I was delighted."
How does the underdog finally hoist the championship? For Munford, his journey to the peak of bluegrass excellence began at age 15, when he was a student at Boys' Latin School of Maryland. One day, a friend up the street invited Munford over to check out his new toy, a banjo. Unfamiliar with the instrument but intrigued, Munford followed, and to this day, he still vividly remembers the moment he fell in love with the banjo.
"He played 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,'" Munford said, recalling the album was "Live at Kansas State" by banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs. "I said, 'I don't care what I do — you have to show me how to do that because that's the most amazing thing I've ever heard."
Thus began Munford's love affair with the banjo. He says his parents, who still live in the same Roland Park house where Munford was raised, listened to classical music and his older brother liked the Beatles. But neither produced sounds that struck him like the quick notes of the banjo.
The day after he graduated from high school in 1976, Munford began working full-time at Baltimore Bluegrass, the acoustic music store located on Belair Road until it closed in 2000. He quickly realized he wasn't interested in college or "a real job," so he immersed himself in all things banjo at the store: giving lessons to students and repairing instruments, all while continuously honing his own craft. Friends and family warned him that music was an uncertain route, but Munford wasn't willing to give up on his dream.
"I wasn't making a ton, and you never really do, but you make enough to get the essentials taken care of," said Munford, who financially supports himself fully through music. "What I started to learn early on was you don't really need that much to survive if the thing that you're doing for a living is something you really enjoy."
That lesson has guided him ever since. Known for years as a regional artist, Munford estimates that he has played 1,500 shows in the Baltimore-Washington area, with previous bands (Windy Ridge was the name of his first group) and sitting in with random players. He says he still loves coming to Baltimore because of the memories that rush to him.
"I identify with [Baltimore] so much," he said. "Driving around the city at any time — if I go down there to visit my folks or any other reason — just about anywhere I go, I'm within a mile of some place I played."
The banjo has led Munford to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, too. In 2008, he shared a stage with comedian and bluegrass enthusiast Steve Martin, through their mutual friend and banjoist Tony Trischka. A year later, Munford found himself in Martin's New York City apartment, adjusting the "Saturday Night Live" alum's instruments on his coffee table.
"That was an incredible thrill," Munford, a "huge fan going back to the '70s," said. "It was no joking around. It was down to business, but he was very affable and gracious."
Big moments like that aside, Munford enjoyed the less glamorous side of music: giving lessons and repairing instruments, along with jamming live. But in early 2009, Munford took a leap that surprised many: He became the banjo player for a serious, tour-the-world bluegrass band, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen.
"Mike worked at Baltimore Bluegrass for so long before that folded up. It was the steady job that you don't want to give up to go on the road," Lawless said. "Then it just worked out Frank was looking for somebody. A lot of people were like, 'Wow, Mike is actually on the road. How cool is that?'"
Solivan, a 36-year-old multi-instrumentalist who lives in Alexandria, Va., says Munford plays with a combination of power and authority but also maintains a "tasteful touch."
"He combines it all in a way," Solivan said. "And you're moved by his playing."
Respect and recognition, Solivan says, are given to Munford by all of the genre's best-known artists.
"If you were to name a handful of upper-echelon players like Bela Fleck or Jens Kruger or Noam Pikelny or any of those players, they all would say, 'Oh, Mike Munford, he's pretty much a badass,'" Solivan said.
You won't hear the humble Munford, who moved to Glen Rock six years ago, speak about himself that way, and that is how he likes it. Besides, he's busy writing parts for the third Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen album, which the band will begin recording in February at Nashville's Compass Records Studio. Forty years after first hearing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Munford says, the banjo continues to reveal itself in new ways. For that reason, he cannot put it down.
"I don't practice like I used to, but it really does still thrill me to play," Munford said. "I will dig back and listen to a recording that made me want to play in the first place, or I'll listen to some early things that, still to this day, when I hear them I can't get to my instrument fast enough. It sparks something."
Born: March 20, 1958, in St. Louis. Moved to Roland Park in August 1958.
Education: Graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland in 1976.
Family: Married to B.G. Munford for 25 years. Has one dog, Miki, and two cats, Tweedle and Wobble.
Recordings: To hear his most recent work, check out the first two Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen albums, 2010's self-titled LP and April's "On the Edge."