Music Q&A: Ben Wright of Henhouse Prowlers

Music Q&A: Ben Wright of Henhouse Prowlers

This week, Paul Wood chats with Ben Wright, a banjo player and co-founder of Henhouse Prowlers, based in Chicago. They’ve toured the world as part of State Department trips to showcase American culture. This month they’re close to home, performing at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Canopy Club, 708 S. Goodwin Ave., U. Other members are Dan Andree, Jon Goldfine and Starr Moss. 

How did you get started on the banjo? Who are your influences? How did you bring the band together?

I moved to Chicago in '99 partly to get out of my hometown but mostly to follow a woman I was dating who found work here. I took odd jobs and found myself blindly wanting to play music; though I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to play. Honestly it came down to a random day when I was walking by the Old Town School of Folk Music, having just got paid $200. There was a banjo in the window on sale for $199.99. Without much thought I walked in and told them I'd take it if they would nix the taxes. Five minutes later I walked out with a decent banjo and no idea how to play it.

Who influenced your playing?

My first influence was a teacher at the Old Town named Gus Friedlander. He brought me old tapes every week of bluegrass bands. Hot Rize, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers. As I became entrenched in learning the banjo I started to go see live shows. I saw Carl Shifflet and James King, a young band called King Wilkie and another great Colorado band called Open Road. All these things got me fired up.

What was your first band?

I played with friends casually for the first couple years, then I muscled my way into a rock band called the Outlaw Family Band. They already had fiddle and I pretty much told them they needed a banjo. I asked them where they rehearsed and showed up at their practice spot. Playing loud rock with drums was great, but it wasn't scratching my more traditional bluegrass itch. We decided to start a side project to practice bluegrass and keep our chops up. That's when Jon Goldfine on bass came into the picture. I'd played with him in another more casual bluegrass band and knew he was a great guy and player. We started playing every Tuesday at the Redline Tap in Rogers Park; thus the band came together.

Bluegrass seems to require a lot of precision along with enthusiasm. How much do you solo? Do you guys practice together when you're off from gigs?

We all solo fairly equally (except the bass). We do practice a fair amount, though probably not as much as we'd like to.

What's it like to go on a State Department tour?

The trips we've done with the State Department are most likely going to be defining points in all of our lives. We see and do things on those trips that are nearly impossible to put into words. Treks across the jungles of Liberia or the deserts of Mauritania are not the kinds of things that bluegrass bands get to do very often. The people we meet and the bonds we form with other musicians in other cultures are incredible. We want to do it as much as possible and have recently been asked to do more next year.

People remember Chicago for Al Capone. Did he like bluegrass?

When I first read that question, I thought it was ... odd. Then I looked it up and it turns out he died in 1947, which was within a year of the forming of what many people consider the first bluegrass band (Bill Monroe with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs). It seems quite possible that he would have heard it, though from what I hear he was into a lot of jazz. I imagine he was suffering from syphilis at the end of his life, so music might not have been on the forefront of his mind.

Does Chicago have a big bluegrass scene?

Oh my, yes. Greg Cahill and the Special Consensus are obviously a big deal. And more recently, Cornmeal. Many of the early bluegrass albums (by Flatt and Scruggs in particular) were recorded here. Chicago has a rich history of being bluegrass friendly, but it's often occluded by the huge blues influence, I suppose rightly so.

Alison Krauss is from our town. What do you think of her?

How can you not love Alison Krauss? She and her band are amazing.

What's Greg Cahill like to work with?

Greg is the coolest guy in the entire bluegrass scene. He spent the last 40 years running up and down the road bringing bluegrass to people all over the world. I think one of the main reasons he's endured is due to his ever-genuine and friendly attitude. Plus, he's a monster on the banjo. Watching him play blows your hair back.

Was it fun to have Josh Williams and Anders Beck on the new one?

Absolutely. Josh is a living legend and Anders is a terror on the dobro. Both of them are going down in bluegrass history, though on different pages in the book. Greensky Bluegrass is kicking the teeth in of everyone's understanding of bluegrass and I'm so happy for them.

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