Who says banjos are just for hillbillies? Not Dan Walsh, who tells Charlotte Krol how global influences are changing the face of his music

Mention the word ‘banjo’ and an image that’s likely to spring to mind is tobacco-chewing hillbillies.

But not so for Stafford’s virtuoso banjo player, Dan Walsh, whose eclectic sound explores a whole range of styles, from Egyptian and Middle Eastern music to folk, rock and jazz.

“I’ve always been curious about music in that way,” he says. “I used to go through tons and tons of sound clips on Encarta encyclopedia when I was younger, spending hours treading through all kinds of music. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter says he was “born with an obsession with music”: the catalyst for him picking up the classical guitar at the tender age of eight. But the banjo wasn’t meant to come into the equation.

It was a chance meeting with a five-string banjo teacher in a shop in Cannock, Staffordshire, that kick-started the hobby that took over his life.

“I really didn’t intend it to be my instrument; it was a whim,” he says.

“I’d always been into Scottish and Irish music – which I later learnt uses a lot of the tenor banjo – and my parents said ‘well, we’ll support you playing one more instrument!’ “My teacher, George, turned out to be the best mentor and I was the luckiest person to have just fallen on my feet.”

Back from a four-week tour of New Zealand and now with two solo albums under his belt, Dan is embarking on a string of dates around the UK this month and next, including playing at White Horse Live at The White Horse pub in Stonesfield on April 2.

“I’m really looking forward to the gig,” he says. “Chris Leslie from Fairport Convention has played there and – as well as on a personal level – they’re important to any folk act.”

The Oxfordshire-affiliated band’s folk sound and seminal 1969 album, Liege & Lief, have been a “big influence” on Dan.

He also counts Paul Simon, Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Béla Fleck among his musical influences. So has he found himself linked with any other parts of Oxfordshire’s famous folk scene?

“My real heroes are Horslips and I was lucky enough to see them at Cropredy (Fairport’s Cropredy Convention) in 2011. I got to meet them all and it was amazing. As a festival, it’s great how such a big crowd watches just one stage.”

The clawhammer banjo maestro has also played Towersey Festival and is confirmed to play this year’s 50th event, which boasts performances by Richard Thompson, Lau and Dan’s other band, The Urban Folk Quartet. Festival slots aside, what about the contrasting intimate solo shows of his UK spring tour?

“It’s more unpredictable to play in bigger theatres,” he answers. “I was in a duo for a long time and so the bigger venues are good for that, but you have to get used to playing on your own again.

“For the most part the venues are small, such as Green Note in London, which has a 70-person capacity. It’s a tiny place but because of that it has a special atmosphere, and it’s obviously better to play to a full room.”

The duo he mentions is the acclaimed act Walsh and Pound, Dan’s now defunct musical pairing with BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominee, Will Pound.

Walsh and Pound was just one of many experiences forged out of a fruitful few years studying Folk and Traditional Music at Newcastle University, when he started making a living out of music.

One of Dan’s most “memorable” experiences was when Devon-based multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman asked him to join him on tour in 2012.

He says: “I was at a festival with him once and I got wind from someone that he quite liked my playing, so I was quite keen to be in the right place at the right time.

“I was hanging around in the green room and two minutes before (Seth) was due to play he asked me if I fancied playing a few songs with him. So he went onstage and I learnt a few off YouTube in the meantime! A week later, I joined him for part of his tour.”

Seth Lakeman, like Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, is one of many contemporary artists who’s helped bring about a resurgence in more traditional, or “nu-folk”, music in the past few years.

Was this an expected turn in the music industry?

“If I’m really being honest, I think people will never stop wanting to hear original stuff and acoustic will always last. I find the really commercial pop stuff quite pedestrian and, while they’re perfectly competent acts, there’s no imagination. “The flipside is that people will go searching for other music and that’s perhaps why folk’s come back around. Mumford & Sons have taken an instrument (the banjo) that was associated with hillbillies and novelty, and incorporated it well into their music.”

For now, Dan’s main aims are to keep “exploring different genres”, record his third solo album and “improve” his playing. Cast away any images of rudimentary ‘Deep South’ banjo plucking; this musician’s on a mission to change the way we perceive it.

Dan Walsh plays White Horse Live at the White Hose pub in The Ridings, Stonesfield, on Wednesday, April 2, at 8pm.
Call 01993 898604 for details.