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Ellen Stanley, known as Mother Banjo, will play Sunday Aug. 18 in Stockholm.

'A gal with a banjo'

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By day, New England-raised Ellen Stanley promotes music. By night, she creates it.

Performing as Mother Banjo, the former publicist of Twin Cities-based Red House Records is now doing for herself what she has for years helped so many up-and-coming bands do.

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"I've been a musician my whole life, which is why my passion for promoting music runs deep," Stanley said. "I found I had a lot of those skills and the great thing about it was I was working at Red House before I was really serious about my Mother Banjo stuff."

Red House Records is a Grammy-winning independent folk, roots and Americana record label featuring a whopping number of singers, songwriters and musicians.

Born a singer, Stanley took an interest in music around the age of 4.

At 8 years old she started on piano; today she is a classically trained pianist.

However, Stanley said she was drawn to the banjo during her late high school and early college years when she started getting more into folk and bluegrass music.

"I really wanted a stringed instrument to accompany myself for singing," she explained. "I was singing the whole time but didn't have a good folk instrument to accompany myself.

"I was so classically trained on the piano I couldn't really play other styles. So I really wanted a brand new instrument and start fresh."

Instead a going for the natural, most common song-writing instrument — the guitar — she went for what felt and sounded right.

"I always loved the sound and tune of the banjo, especially the percussive element."

Hearing one of Stanley's songs confirms this. She's a rhythmic player, using the instrument for more than just a chord.

"The head of the banjo is basically like a snare drum. I like that element to it that you don't really have on a guitar," she said.

You can play a guitar rhythmically, but inherently the instrument has more of a rhythm focus because there is no sustained note, she said. Eeverything is staccato. You play a note and it's gone really quickly, which is why bluegrass style moves so fast: you are either playing or you're not. There are no notes to carry out.

"I kind of like that unique quality to the banjo," she said.

She recently released the album "The Devil Hasn't Won," following up on the success of her CDs "Stray Songs" and "The Sad and Found."

The Americana gospel collection produced by Steve Kaul showcases her blended band including guitarist Dan Gaarder and bassist Eric Paulson of the Roe Family Singers; mandolin player Jim Parker of Ukrainian Village Band; and pianist/drummer Ben Cook-Feltz of the Federales.

On stage, she weaves humorous stories with fun covers and her own original material.

Just a few months ago, in May, Stanley took a new job as executive director for Minnesota Music Coalition, saying it's great because she implements programs for artists statewide. She is also a KFAI-FM personality.

Stanley said she considers her life as a banjo-playing bluegrass musician as a completely different job than her day job working with artists.

"Even when I'm talking to a friend I say, "Oh, I'm doing Mother Banjo work right now," she saidwith laughter. "Booking myself or promoting my music is a different kind of job."

Stanley's drawn upon her knowledge and know-how of the music industry to launch herself into the Minnesota bluegrass music scene. She says even her stage name was cleverly crafted.

Everything started with the banjo, she says. "I never really wrote a song I was happy with on the piano. I'd written some songs and they weren't the kind of songs I wanted to be writing."

Switching things up to the banjo, where she had to learn a new instrument and was less accomplished than the piano actually helped her, she said, because it brought her back to the basics.

Stanley said to create a good melody and good words, you don't need to be playing something fancy -- you can add that later. But to make a good song, you just need the basic elements.

"I really think that would be why I started calling myself Mother Banjo."

She went on to say, "So I work for the music industry and I wanted that separation there, especially if I got my feet wet. Mother Banjo seemed to just say it all. The name could also be grown into -- I figure it will be good for generations to come. A gal with banjo." She laughed. "That'd be me."

Mother Banjo can be heard 7 p.m. Sunday Aug. 18 where she and her trio are featured in "Goin' Coastal: A Radio Variety Show from the Shores of Lake Pepin" at Widespot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm. Tickets for her show are $10 adults, $5 for ages 12 and under. Visit www. www.widespotperformingarts.org for more information.

If you go ...

Who: Mother Banjo performs.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday Aug. 18

Where: Widespot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm

Cost: $10 adults, $5 ages 12 and under

More info: www.widespotperformingarts.org

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Stacy Bengs-Silverberg
Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.
(651) 301-7880
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