Morro Bay set to go mad for banjos

Put reminders in your smartphones and calendars for Banjo Madness at the Inn at Morro Bay on May 24 from 7:30 to about 10 p.m. Jam with several banjo “all stars” for free.

Banjoist Jack Convery has been leading a group of players and fans to Harrah’s Casino in Reno for seven or eight years.

“They call it the Banjo Snow Train,” Morro Bay’s Gary Ryan said. “They have so much fun, someone suggested going south. Jack drove down to check us out. He asked me to lead the banjo madness, which I’ve made a career of.”

Ryan used to play 25 to 30 festivals a year but has cut back to about six. Like Convery, he’s typically booked as an “all star,” which means he’s been recognized by his peers as one of the great musicians with a following and someone who can fit into any jam session with other “all stars.”

Ryan helped start the inaugural Dixieland Monterey jazz festival about thirty years ago, which headlined Louie Armstrong.

In 2006, Ryan was named Dixieland Monterey Musician of the Year. Some of his favorite gigs were playing with Bing Crosby for 13 years and playing with jazz violinist Joe Venuti.

He hasn’t been inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame at the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City yet, but he was invited to play for his friend John Becker of St. Louis when Becker was inducted.

While at UC Berkeley studying architecture, Ryan experienced a banjo renaissance. At the time, he played ragtime piano playing the Red Garter and Monterey’s hottest club, The Warehouse.

After “all the silliness” on the road touring for 20 years, he and his group were tired and broke up in 1980. Serendipitously, George Leage, now a Morro Bay city councilman, invited him to play the original Tiger’s Folly for the summer.

Ryan discovered his roots and opened Goofy Graphics in 1985. Design is his other talent. He won awards for pin-striping cars and boats. Getting into signs and graphic arts jobs seemed a natural.

He doesn’t plan to retire. “Why?” he said. “In a small town, they understand when I lock the door, posting I’ve gone skiing, I’ll take good care of them when I’m back.”

Ryan is enjoying picking the festivals he wants to play in and performing for seniors.

“I’ve been discovered by the retirement community. I go in and do requests. They can’t believe I know all the songs from 50 to 60 years ago.”

If you haven’t met Morro Bay’s free spirit and Banjo Madhatter, bring your banjo appropriate requests May 24.

Ryan guarantees the program will be musically expert and more than lots of fun. You might bring some change for your adult beverage, but remember, the concert is free.

Reach Judy Salamacha at judysalamacha@gmail.com or 801-1422.