Something New


I’ve been working away at my new novel all summer, and then, a couple of weeks ago, I hit a roadblock.  I can’t figure out how to move the plot forward. It’s really dug in its heels, this story,  and no matter what I do to try to jolly it along, it refuses to budge. So, this week, I did what anybody would do in my situation.

I went out and I bought me a banjo.

Yes, I’ve taken up the banjo, and to say that I’m obsessed would be putting it mildly. Why the banjo?  Well, there’s a character in my book who is into banjos and I had to read up on the instrument.  I watched a very good documentary called Give Me the Banjo. It’s narrated by Steve Martin and directed by Marc Field, who’s a teacher at Emerson College.  If you click on the link you can see a little trailer.  Then I downloaded a bunch of banjo music and have been listening to it while writing or driving around in my car. I like to listen to instrumental music when I’m working on a book because if there are lyrics I always want to caterwaul along and then I can’t think about the writing.  So I’ve been really loving  bluegrass music, which suits the tone of my novel.  It’s not set in bluegrass country, it’s another New England novel, but the music somehow really works. Anyway, the other day, my birthday, actually, I decided I would like to try to learn the instrument, and within 24 hours I had taken a lesson, bought a cheap banjo and then I spent two solid days messing around with it.

My new teacher is this banjo legend named Roger Sprung who happens to live nearby.  What a character! I had such a great time at my first lesson.  My homework involved, among other things, learning to play the scale of G.  You know, the scale: Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.  So I practiced and practiced.  I was just supposed to pluck the scale on one string, but I went on YouTube and watched all these videos about how to do the “rolls” with your right hand.  The rolls are the crazy, fast picking at the strings that Earl Scruggs made so popular.  I knew I wasn’t going to be an expert in one week, but I thought a nice goal would be to learn the banjo music from the film Bonnie and Clyde by the next lesson. You know, Foggy Moutain Breakdown. This music.

So I just kept practicing and yesterday, I went down to the kitchen to play for Denis.  He sat and listened politely as I plucked away, and when I was finished he said, “That’s a nice song, what’s it called?”

It was the scale.  It was the G-scale. It took me 10 minutes to play it once, which is a little longer than it’s supposed to take, but I still thought I did a nice job of it.  Denis plays the guitar and claims to know what the G-scale is supposed to sound like and he said there was nothing that I played that sounded anything like a musical scale. So, I think he’s losing his ear for music.  But I also think it might take me longer than a week to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown. In the meantime, I sing along, so that he can better recognize the tune. Here I am singing Happy Birthday to him:


The banjo is a fun instrument. The only other instrument I’ve tried to learn is the piano, but this is already more fun. I love it. I especially love hearing classical or nontraditional banjo music played on the banjo.  And so, I’ll leave you with this Mean Mary video. Y’all know who Mean Mary is, right? Here she and a pal play a wonderful variation on Ode to Joy.  It will make you smile.

I’ve become a HUGE Mean Mary fan. Check out her other vids.


  1. Joy Rothman says:

    Clearly, Denis must be losing his ear for music. No other explanation!

    So looking forward to your next book. Absolutely LOVED The Good House!

  2. I love the banjo, and can’t wait for you to post a video someday where you show us how you are progressing! Also, thanks for telling us about Mean Mary. I hadn’t heard of her before, which is surprising, because she has a great voice, and some mean pickin’ skills. I have just watched a bunch of her videos on YouTube.

  3. “I did what anybody would do in my situation.

    I went out and I bought me a banjo.”

    Ha ha ha ha!!

    LOVE the Mean Mary video. Thanks for sharing that, I will check her out.

    I have a soft spot for bluegrass and traditional music and have always wanted to play the fiddle. Madeleine is taking violin lessons now, and now and then I pick up her half-sized instrument and gently and tenderly coax from it a series of unsettling screeching sounds.

    • Ann Leary says:

      Arliss, take some lessons. Then all we’ll need is a guitar player, maybe a mandolin and we can take our show on the road!

  4. Love that you are venturing out into new territory, what a great instrument to to play !! When I think of Banjo music – I think of “Deliverance”! Maybe you and Denis can do Dueling Guitar and Banjo’s?

    Keep on picking 🙂

  5. I think you should do a duet with her – clearly you’ve got the body moves down, so let’s hear it!

  6. That is so funny. I am a Midwest girl but I love banjo music. One of the reasons I let hubby talk me into eating at Cracker barrel is because sometimes their ambiance is banjo picking lol.

  7. The first thing I think of when I hear banjo is….the movie, Deliverance. : )

  8. LOVE Mean Mary!!! Been playing her videos–and Bela Flek for Olivia. Fun stuff!!

    Guess they’ll need to step aside soon.

    • Lois O'Hara says:

      So funny, Ann! I can not tap dance like I want to cause I run out of breath too soon to finish a whole class now. So…this morning I was thinking of taking up the banjo because it seems so fun and now you’ve proved it. I was thinking ukelele, but 2 of my best friends play it and I didn’t want to show them up! Keep on pluckin’! xo, lois

  9. Harriet Reilly says:

    I love happy music. Good luck with your lessons.
    Hope you will have a guest spot on Better Connecticut this up coming season.

  10. Oh SuzANNa on won’t you play for me.. cuz I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.

    I must admit, you are a woman of many talents!

  11. Love this!!! I have been thinking about the bass guitar, but too chicken to look into lessons after the husband of a friend (who plays) told me i was too “old” to learn. (50)
    The hell with him, I’m going to do it!

    • Ann Leary says:

      You’re not to old to learn! My banjo instructor said he’s taught people older than me many times and he also said that I would find the learning really fun and who’s too old to have fun?

  12. Christine says:

    A belated Happy Birthday to you and Denis! Hope you both had a great day.

    I took piano lessons as a kid and it was not the cool instrument to play. Everyone was taking guitar lessons – that was the instrument to play!!! Kids would met and have jam sessions in basements and garages and even on front stoops. Trying hauling a piano over to someone’s garage!!!!

    On another note, I remember another author describing how one of the books he was writing was basically writing ‘itself’. It was an incredible, story, storyline, etc. It was effortless and then came the ending. It was going in such a negative direction. He said he tried to make a happy ending for some of the characters but logically it could not work. He spent weeks trying to write an ending, but could not. The book came to a complete stop! And then he realized the storyline could only go in one direction and he hated the fact that it spelled disaster for everyone. Once he accepted everyone’s horrible fate the writing, again, came with ease.

    I was in absolute awe as he described his writing experience and I wondered what it felt like. Now it makes me wonder what you are feeling at this point in your writing. When I was on the final chapters of The Good House, I’ll admit, I thought there were going to be such different endings for the main characters. It was a real page turner and I wondered why you chose a particular ending for one of the characters. It must be amazing, as a writer, to think of all the possible ways to map out each character’s fate. The power to create.

    • Ann Leary says:

      Hi Christine, that’s interesting about the other’s writer’s experience. I did feel during parts of writing The Good House that it was writing itself and I tried quite a few different endings. It is fun and interesting to explore what might happen to your characters. I think it’s important to really know the character well, so well, that no matter what circumstance you place them in, you know how they will react. I’m just stuck on one particular character in this book.

  13. Karen Howell says:

    That’s so interesting! The same thing happened to me, only with a ukulele. I fell in love with the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth and said “that’s for me!” During my online search, I came across a really cool hybrid called a banjolele. So cute and a whole other sound.

    Hurry and learn to play happy birthday on that thang for Denis!

  14. You have almost a year to prepare for Roxbury’s Pckin’ and Fiddlin’ contest….and it IS for a good cause….

  15. Tom Fahsbender says:

    And I’m sitting here on the other side of the lake, playing my banjo…let me know if you want to jam! The banjo underworld is closer than you think.

  16. Wow! A hilarious post. I just read your post to my boys and they were cracking up. You never cease to amaze and surprise us, Ann.

  17. Kate Nicholas says:

    Ann, Just finishe The Good House. New and solid fan. I am usually a nonfiction reader. I am a news and history junkie. Thanks for giving me a wonderful break!

  18. Marsha from Massachusetts says:

    My dad could play the banjo. My brother and I were intralled.

  19. My Dad also played banjo and steel guitar. He was a talented Dad. He actually built steel guitars and I remember a guy coming from Nashville to buy one from Dad. I still have pics of him playing and of course a cigarette From London, Ont. Canada. Happy belated birthday to you both. Your home looks so warm and welcoming. Have a great fall. Summer was odd to say the least. Lets hope fall is awesome.
    Best Regards,

  20. loved this post…. and that picture might be one of my all-time favorites – classic!

  21. Catherine says:

    Ann, I love how when you discover something new, you give it your ALL with such determination and humor! It makes me smile.

  22. Bill Lembeck says:

    2 nights ago we went to the Albert Music Hall in Waketown NJ. In the pines. Been around for 50 Years. The pineys used to go to Joe Alberts cabin every Saturday and pick. It was great. Pickers all over the place..Look it up


  23. If I’m not mistaken, the opening shot in Give Me the Banjo is of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers performing at the Warner Theater in Torrington (CT) a couple of summers ago. I had the great pleasure of attending that show, and it remains one of the best concerts I’ve seen in a lifetime of concert-going.

    Ann, as a budding banjo player and bluegrass aficionado, be sure to check out the Dillards, who many folks of a certain age remember as the bluegrass pickin’ Darling family on the old Andy Griffith Show, and the late, quirkily great John Hartford, a master of both the banjo and the fiddle.

    • Not that one pa, it makes me cry. I loved the episodes when the Darling family came to town. That Charlene was sure sweet on Andy.

  24. Wow – new book, new movie and a new CD – what a talent! And funny above all, I am still laughing….

  25. Ann, I just started learning french while driving around in my car and I love it. Best to you and your banjo. The kid next door is lerning to pay the banjo and he loves it too. Happy b-day to the pride of Leos’ on the blog!

  26. Omg…drinking coffee and channel surfing and found your interview on Bookmark on RLTV. You look stunning as always.

  27. You will never know how your book the good house touched me.

  28. beth banach says:

    my Dad was given a Banjo by the older Scottish relatives back when I was a kid….nobody touched it ….but I carried it with me through life….I thought about offering it to Steve Martin but no way to reach him…..then my oldest son who is a self taught musician picked it up and is now in a band playing my Banjo ( he told me it was an Irish tenor banjo)..check out ” Brother Valiant “…they have a FB page…

  29. I’ve been meaning to check back here for a while and have to say I’ve missed a lot! So sorry about Mark, congrats on the movie, and this one I love. I’m in the middle of a screenplay that is giving me attitude, so I can relate. A banjo, huh? I don’t see that as my solution but I’ve enjoyed reading that it’s yours.

  30. OMG, I am just reading this! Mark plays the Banjo and is obsessed by Bluegrass! he actually sang happy birthday to me playing the banjo… but was in a wig and make up to look like Marilyn Monroe…. Yes I did vomit. slightly. Enjoy learning Ann!!!

  31. Unless you can keep up with this babe, you best keep practicing.

  32. You should post a vid of you plucking along in the key of G. I have a hunch that Dennis is tone deaf. I remember when I first learned House of the Rising Sun. Played it for hours upon hours on my $ store guitar. When I knew I’d perfected it, I called my big sista, Ramona to take a listen. I was so proud of meself. I still remember her combing her hair, unreadable expression, flatly commenting on my grand finale: “It sounds the shits Kim.” Geez I hated her in that moment.
    Anyhoo, Mean Mary is one Special Lady!! Thanx for sharing!

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