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Kurt Vile’s Unconventional Start with a Banjo

by Madonna

In the realm of indie rock and country music fusion, Kurt Vile stands as a unique figure who effortlessly bridges the gap between these two distinct genres. His signature blend of slacker/stoner indie rock with the poignant, yearning tones of country music has earned him a dedicated following. But what many might not know is that Vile’s journey with music took an unexpected turn in his childhood, steering him towards a banjo instead of the conventional guitar.

Vile’s musical path draws inspiration from legendary artists like John Prine, Neil Young, and J Mascis, with a distinct touch that’s entirely his own. His affinity for fusing fuzzy offset Fender riffs with gentle country and folk influences has marked his musical journey for over two decades. It seems he was destined to embrace a touch of twang in his sound, as his father’s deep appreciation for country and bluegrass music played a pivotal role in shaping his early musical inclinations. When a young Kurt Vile expressed his desire for a guitar, his father presented him with a banjo instead, setting the stage for a unique musical odyssey.

“I think I wanted to play guitar first because it’s cool to do, and I was definitely into music at a young age. But my dad actually got me a banjo first, which I sort of played like a guitar,” Vile shared in a D’Addario video series called ‘Guitar Power.’ “So that was my in. I would play it all the time, and then a neighbor across the street gave me a guitar like a year later. I wanted to play the guitar to be cool, like whatever bands I was listening to. It’s definitely like the coolest thing you could possibly do in the world.”

Vile’s father, a devoted bluegrass enthusiast, surrounded the household with the sounds of country music. As Vile explained to About Entertainment in 2009, “When I was 14, he bought me a banjo, which I kind of wished was a guitar. So I’d kind of just play it like a guitar anyway. I was really into writing pretty primitive tunes, and really into recording. I pretty much knew I was going to do music [with my life] then.”

Though the banjo-to-guitar transition spanned just about a year, it marked the inception of Vile’s prolific songwriting career. As a young musician, he drew inspiration from the world around him, primarily fueled by cartoons and comic books. “The first song I wrote was, like, a joke song. It was a good instrumental; I knew all these chords, but then I was quoting a cartoon as the lyrics on top of it,” Vile revealed to The Village Voice in 2011. “I had seen this cartoon about Superman and Lex Luthor; it was like the back history of why Lex Luthor hated Superman. They used to be friends, and then some giant stone of kryptonite fell and it made Lex Luthor’s hair fall out, and he was like, ‘You made all my hair fall out!’ It was a really stupid cartoon, but that was my song, ‘You Made All My Hair Fall Out’.”

“The things I wrote after that — I don’t even want to tell you the names of the songs, because then somebody might try to — I have close friends, with my stuff, and it’s a good memory, but I don’t really want anybody to dig out my old songs, you know?” Vile admitted. “I am proud of a lot of them. But they’re all written on banjo.”

While Vile’s focus shifted predominantly to the guitar as he continued his musical journey, traces of his banjo origins can be found throughout his discography. Notably, Vile incorporated the banjo into some of his early albums, with “Heart Attack” on “Childish Prodigy” being a prime example. The banjo made a return on select tracks for “B’lieve I’m Goin Down…” and resurfaced once more for “Come Again” on “Bottle It In.” Although it was absent from his most recent album, “Watch My Moves,” there’s a strong possibility that Vile will revisit his first instrument, bringing a touch of twang to his music in the future.

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