If someone had told the teenage Donna Lynn Caskey that one day she would play banjo and perform original music in public, she would’ve thought they were joking. Born in the Tidewater region of the Virginia coast, the youngest of ten children in a family of music makers and music lovers, Donna Lynn came to believe early on she would have to make do in the “music lover” camp only.
Donna Lynn’s early experiences with formal music education left her feeling insecure. She felt dyslexic when it came to reading standard musical notation during piano lessons, so she doubted she could ever be a real musician. Nontheless, she continued in the role of music fan and appreciator by devouring eclectic public radio broadcasts, checking out stacks of recordings from the library, going to concerts, compulsively making mix tapes comprised of beloved songs and new musical finds and sharing them with friends. She eventually realized that some of her favorite songs and voices were often rough around more than just the edges, yet were tremendously affecting. She was also encouraged by stories of musicians who couldn’t read a note, but who could touch hearts with their gifts just the same. She began to think maybe she could make music, after all. It didn’t have to be pretty and perfect. Simple, homemade music could be powerful music.
Music also started to feel more within reach while Donna Lynn studied art at Hollins University in the Blue Ridge Mountains. College years were also the time when she discovered a deep love of the banjo. A regular attendee of the local Roanoke Fiddle & Banjo Club, she found herself weeping with joy more than once during banjo solos. On Saturday mornings, she would go listen to old-time and bluegrass jams at an acoustic music store inside Happy’s Flea Market. Before long, she had her eye on a lovely banjo hanging on the wall. As her college days waned and she was unsure what was next, she bought herself that banjo for graduation.
Donna Lynn proceeded to spend the next two years traveling, moving from job to job and place to place. The banjo gathered dust at her parents’ house, and she felt guilty letting that beautiful instrument go unplayed. She took it to a local music shop for consignment. The woman behind the counter convinced her not to, however, and Donna Lynn ended up paying to have the banjo set up and restrung instead.
Soon after, a friend was heading to Brasstown, North Carolina for an internship at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Donna Lynn looked at the course catalog, which listed a class called “Beginning Clawhammer Banjo by Ear” taught by Diane B. Jones. The catalog also indicated scholarships were available. The week before class was scheduled to start that summer of 2001, Donna Lynn was notified she was awarded a scholarship. Three days in to that week-long, intensive class, the basics of playing clicked.
The following week, Donna Lynn and her banjo moved to California by train. She was afraid she’d left the music community behind her in Virginia, but within days of arriving, she met a fiddler at the farmers’ market who invited her to a weekly old-time jam. Through the jam, she was connected to local music festivals, banjo workshops, lessons with master old-time musician Brad Leftwich while he lived in the area, and to her first paying gigs. She remains friends with members of that group to this day.
Within months of starting banjo, Donna Lynn also began writing songs and performing. Her debut album of original material, Nameless Heart, was released in 2014 to glowing reviews for innovative clawhammer-style playing and strong writing that simultaneously acknowledges life’s difficulties while offering a genuine message of hope. The Ventura, California based artist recently completed her second album, The Love Still Shows.
Recently, KC Cafe Radio Music Director Kathy Forste spoke with “Banjo Gal” Donna Lynn Caskey via Skype. They talk at length about Donna’s upbringing being surrounded by music, the significance of her challenges, and how those challenges shape the music she writes and performs today.
Listen to the interview here:
Download the interview here: Interview: Donna Lynn Caskey 9/27/2017