Max Allard: Defying Banjo Stereotypes




By Kara Martinez Bachman

It appears that versatile multi-instrumentalist Max Allard is open to almost anything. Inspired by a fusion of styles and fresh sonic energy informed by genres as disparate as can be imagined, Allard finds his unique place in this broad collation of influences as he aims to capture “moods of melancholy, nostalgia, longing, and hopefulness.”

On his debut record, Odes / Codes, he brought it forth, representing “a new way of thinking for the banjo and how it fits in non-bluegrass music.” Jayme Stone produced the record recorded in Colorado in 2021.

Allard’s contemporary, broad spin on banjo music coalesced after a lifetime of being influenced by a deep and wide-ranging catalog of music. His interests and listening pleasures seem to have held no prejudices. He was as open as open can be.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an affinity for the piano, and my earliest influence that I can think of was Scott Joplin and his rags,” Allard said. “I always wanted to learn those on the piano but never got to that level in my piano playing. I was also inspired by music from my parents’ music collection, which had stuff like Sigúr Ros, Detektivbyrån, Sufjan Stevens, and Andrew Bird.”

The Banjo ...and the Possibilities

Allard said he also dug in with his father’s old vinyl records, “which had a lot of 80s stuff, like Kraftwerk, Klaus Nomi, Depeche Mode, and David Bowie. And I have always loved video game music or music from film and TV, from John Williams to Joe Hisaishi.”

While most banjo players would never claim New Wave synth forefathers Kraftwerk as an influence, there are no rules here;  it’s quite fine that Allard’s affinity for the unexpected manifests in a contemporary banjo sound. It might be exactly why his music is unique.

“I didn’t really come to the banjo because of bluegrass,” he explained. “I came to it because I liked the timbre of the banjo. I didn’t know what three-finger or clawhammer was or that most people make a choice between bluegrass or old-time. I feel lucky that I was exposed to a little bit of all of it from my teachers and was naive enough to go to an old-time jam playing three-finger style and just gradually got accepted there.”

Allard said his first banjo teacher, David Masnato, was his downstairs neighbor. He introduced Allard to “the banjo classics,” including Earl Scruggs, Eric Weissberg, and Béla Fleck. 

Teachers & Mentors
A New World of Sound

Later, he would find teachers and mentors through the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, including Chris Walz, Ryan Fisher, and Greg Cahill. 

“I remember when Ryan [Fisher] introduced me to jazz and some of the Flecktones records and the overall Keith-style of banjo playing,” Allard said. “It opened up a world of sounds and possibilities on the banjo, and it felt like it was a whole new instrument to me. Soon after that, Noam Pikelny’s single, “Waveland,” dropped; it blew my mind, and I knew I had to learn how to do that. I did learn it, and it forever changed my playing.”

He added one more name to the list of those who helped him grow as a musician: Matt Brown.

“He was leading those old-time jams I attended, and he introduced a lot of old-time fiddle tunes to me,” Allard said. “He quickly became a mentor and even my collaborator. It was Matt who hired me for some of my first paid gigs and laid out a plan for me if I wanted to pursue this career professionally.”

Since setting out to grab attention, he’s had some early success. Legendary performer and one of Allard’s inspirations – Béla Fleck – had glowing praise for “Odes / Codes.” Among the compliments, he said the young musician has a “mature and poetic voice.” Allard said he was honored by this.

“Béla has been an immense influence since I started playing the banjo,” he explained. “In more recent years, I got the opportunity to get to know Béla through his camp, the Blue Ridge Banjo Camp in North Carolina. Since the pandemic,” he added, “we have had some Zoom calls to nerd out on all things banjo. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to connect with him on a personal level.”

“Even in my first year, I’ve written for a variety of small ensembles, including a Pierrot Ensemble and a Sinfonietta,” he said. “I’ve been bringing banjo into as many composition projects as possible for school. I am working to expand the idea of incorporating the banjo into ensembles. Obviously, the banjo has not been a traditional instrument in a symphonic setting.”

He also hopes to release a few more albums in the coming years, write for films, and even compose music for video games.

With a fresh approach to a traditional instrument, he plans to continue shaping his identity as a multi-faceted musician who isn’t afraid to push back against stereotypical expectations.

“Because I don’t come from a bluegrass background, I think I’ve always incorporated my outside influences into my banjo playing and writing,” he said. “I think that since bluegrass wasn’t my first love, or even how I found the banjo, I have a tendency to incorporate a lot of those other styles into my banjo playing.”

“My favorite music is the kind that crosses boundaries,” he added, “and that’s the kind of music I hope to make myself.”