On the evening of Sept. 30, The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) will come alive with banjo-string symphonies from singer-songwriter, banjo champion and slide guitar master Tony Furtado.
The Pleasanton, California native said a sixth-grade homework assignment was the spark for his musical career. He recalled, “I wrote a report on a musical instrument, and had to make that instrument out of household items. I made a banjo out of a pie tin and some paper that I stretched over the pie tin. I put a stick on it, then rubber bands for frets and fishing line for strings.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, where, Furtado admitted, “there weren’t too many banjo players around me,” he saw them on TV shows like “Hee Haw” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” at his grandparents’ house.
For his 12th birthday, Furtado’s parents gave him his “first real banjo” — sort of. They leased a banjo, making small monthly payments, “because they were afraid I wouldn’t be that into it after a month. But you couldn’t take it out of my hands. That got me going on my musical path. Public school did that!” As Furtado was perfecting his banjo-playing skills, he won the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship in 1987 and 1991.
Known across the Roaring Fork Valley as a frequent performer at Steve’s Guitars and many other area venues, Furtado moved from Boulder to Portland, Oregon, about 20 years ago.
He plays a regular and cello banjo, slide guitar on acoustic and electric guitars, baritone ukulele and “really bad mandolin,” he said. That’s the cue for long-time musical collaborator and accomplished mandolinist Matt Flinner to join him on stage.
At the TACAW performance, Flinner will play mandolin and bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument). Furtado shared, “I might even hand him my banjo to play because he’s also an amazing banjo player and a great guitarist.”
As a teenager, Furtado found inspiration whenever and wherever it showed itself, including Charlie Parker’s bebop jazz compositions or “a new guy on the scene named Béla Fleck.” Always listening for those golden musical nuggets for his musical mentors, “I was into good solid players back then, like Alan Munde, J.D. Crowe and Earl Scruggs,” he said.
When Furtado took up slide guitar, he began to understand the intrinsic connectedness between musicians, saying, “Ry Cooder was my gateway into slide guitar and from Ry Cooder, I got into David Lindley and Blind Willie Johnson. And you know what, all these players influenced Ry Cooder too.”
At 20, Furtado quit college to tour with Laurie Lewis & Grant Street. “We were on tour somewhere back east, and there was this new young singer with this band called Union Station named Alison Krauss, and I thought she was just killer.”
He and Krauss chatted backstage and struck up a friendship. Thereafter, she stopped by “to jam and pick” whenever she was in California, he said. Furtado was working on a banjo arrangement of The Beatles song, “I Will,” when he ran into Krauss, who offered to sing vocals on the track on Furtado’s second solo album, “Within Reach,” released in 1992.
In a June 2023 uDiscoverMusic.com magazine article, the Furtado-Krauss rendition of “I Will” joined the list “Best Beatles Covers: 20 Essential Versions of Fab Four Classics.”
The therapeutic effect of songwriting would be in full force on his 2015 album, “The Bell,” which he described as “a snapshot of that time period” when his father died, his son was born, and he parted ways with his recording label.
The deep dive into the personal proved to be cathartic for Furtado. He said, “The whole album is me processing. I felt empowered. Of course, I missed my father, and that sucked, but I had my family and my new son and my friends that were supporting my new moves.”
But music is not Furtado’s only creative endeavor; he is also a sculptor. For about 16 years, he has worked out of a studio space in the Falcon Art Community Building in Portland. His sculpture work, found on his website (www.tonyfurtado.com/sculpture-gallery) includes orca whales, hares and otters.
With music and sculpture, he explained, “One helps the other in that it relaxes any kind of stress on each of them. When I first got back into sculpting, there was a lot of pressure on me in the music business, and then I would disappear into my studio, and it’d be my Zen space.”
The TACAW performance will feature Furtado, Flinner and Portland-based fiddle player Luke Price, the current and five-time Grand National Fiddle Champion.
Doors open at 7pm and show at 8pm. For tickets and more information, go to www.tacaw.org