Q&A With Clawhammer Banjo Player, Chelsea McBee

Jul 29, 2014

Clawhammer Banjo Player, Chelsea McBee
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

For many West Virginians, the banjo represents a sense of home. That’s certainly the case for Shepherdstown-based musician, Chelsea McBee. The 29-year-old banjo player is a regular on the West Virginia music scene now, but that wasn’t always her plan.

McBee grew up in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She graduated from Shepherd University with a degree in Photography, and she was sure she wanted to be a photographer. But during her last year at Shepherd, she discovered a love for the banjo. She even learned a unique playing style called clawhammer.

Q&A

How did your upbringing inspire your musicianship?

“I didn’t actually start playing the banjo until my senior year of college, here at Shepherd, but as soon as I started learning those old time tunes, it really, it’s all so connected, that even having grown up in West Virginia, and not necessarily played the instrument growing up, it just ties everything together, all the geography, and the history, and then the music.”

Did you ever meet people who were surprised to see a female banjo player?

“The most common reaction that I get is people are excited that I’m a woman playing this instrument, and…they can get…where once they see that, they get past, like, oh it’s not just a singer, and isn’t it so cute that she plays banjo, like, oh, I can really sit down and play a tune, and that’s…it’s good. I have a lot of young girls that come up and say they want to play, they want to perform, and I’m just like, yeah, do that, get started, play whatever you want!”

What is the clawhammer style?

“I’d say that the most recognizable style of banjo playing is the three finger picking style that is used in Bluegrass music traditionally, and the clawhammer style is more of a rhythm keeping kind of strum, and the way that you hold your hand, it kind of looks like a claw on a hammer, which is where the name comes from. So your fingers are curled up in a claw, and they hit the four main strings, and then your thumb is used to hit the top string as a drone.”

Why did you pursue the banjo?

“When I first learned a West Virginia old time tune, from a friend, he grew up in Romney, West Virginia, and played old time banjo, and he showed me my first couple tunes, and it is really cool, and I hadn’t heard stuff like that before necessarily, and it just really, really spoke to me. The music that I was listening to at the time, there was a little bit of banjo in there, but I wanted to see what else I could do with it, so really once I got started, then the process of getting to know the instrument is really what kept me intrigued and really what made me pursue playing and what else I could do with it, and that led into songwriting, and here we are today.”

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Colin McQuire of the Fredrick News Post described your voice as if “Nora Jones and Dolly Parton could have a daughter and that daughter just happened to grow up in West Virginia,” does this quote effectively represent your style, and are these women musical influences for you?

“I was thrilled when I read that quote, because it’s…their two voices are, and their presence in the music scene are ones that I look up too, certainly, and are inspirational. I mean, they’re both women that have done a lot of stuff for themselves, and…so I was honored that he would use that comparison, and I think it does fit. I’ve had a couple different people…I’ve used that quote on the website and on a couple posters when I’m travelling out of the area to give people some sort of idea, and I’ve had a couple people come in because of that quote, and say, that was really intriguing. We wanted to know what that, and he’s absolutely right! So that was great. I thank him very much for that.”

How do you see yourself evolving in the future, and has your path changed since you started your musical career?

“I think the fact that I see it at all as a musical career now, has changed, and the more and more that I play, and the more that I’m exposed too, industry-wise, the more I want to do. So that feels really good to feel inspired to continue in one direction instead of wanting to experience all the things that I was experiencing before, you know, trying to take photographs, and play music, and you know, everything else that I get excited about. So the fact that I can see that as a pretty clear path of music career, is certainly something that’s changed. And as far as evolution, I hope that it continues to grow and to evolve, and you know, I can tell a big difference in my playing and singing and writing now, you know, has changed so much since I started, for the better. I hope it keeps growing and keeps getting better.”

Chelsea McBee performs around the region - solo, and with her group, the Random Assortment, and she often plays with West Virginia's Christian Lopez Band. On the first Thursday of every month, Chelsea hosts a First Thursday Artist Series at the Opera House in Shepherdstown.