Oklahoma Gazette interviews Lucas Ross from American Banjo Museum 

Americana Fest is June 27.

Americana Fest

11 a.m.-5 p.m. June 27


Brittany Pickering: I'm here with Lucas Ross, who is in charge of education and promotions at American Banjo Museum, and he's here to talk about Americana Fest. How are you doing?

Lucas Ross: Hey! I'm great! Thanks for having me.

Brittany Pickering: Cool! Can you tell us a little bit about Americana Fest and, like, how long it's been around and what it is and all of that?

Lucas Ross: Yeah. Well, this would be, I think, our fifth annual Americana Fest, which is a music festival that focuses on Americana music, incorporates the banjo, but in different styles. We have old-time music, bluegrass, there's country in different styles of it, and even kind of like jazz, fun music, like that too, and then whatever it is that I do — I don't know, but I use a banjo. But this will be the, also the first year that we will be doing it virtual. So it's kind of like our fifth, but our first.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: So we’re figuring that all out, and at this time, we're kind of making sure — you know, with the pandemic and everything, so many concerts have translated over to a digital platform. At first, the bar was pretty — I don’t want to say the bar was low. It was a pretty — everybody gave everybody a lot of grace as in presentation, but now we've kind of gotten to where it's like people are figuring out how to do really good sound and presentations live, so we're trying to make sure that we have something that both looks good, sounds good and is easily accessible for everybody, whatever platform they want to use.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, easy to get to, easy to figure out where to go and see what you want to see, as well as all the technical aspects of kind of like a studio setup where you have the good lighting and all of that.

Lucas Ross: Right! Which we've been doing. It's kind of … we’ve been livestreaming whenever we do concerts and stuff here at the museum. That's where I office. This is just a typical office, by the way. I know it’s like Peewee’s Playhouse and The Muppet Show mixed together. Gonzo’s just back there, checking his phone.

Brittany Pickering: Nice!

Lucas Ross: He’s obsessed. You can't tell he has a Golden Girls phone cover. We have a, uh, it was originally a Shakey's Pizza Room in the sixties; they had the Shakey's Pizza Parlors and that’s what that, our performance room was developed. Now it’s called Your Father's Moustache which was another club there, but all the bands would perform on that. People would come in; it holds about, I don't know, probably 40 to 60 people standing and then a little bit of overflow outside into the galleries. And it's gonna be different to not do that. Now, we've been doing a few of those here and there. We’ve started a virtual at noon series that ran through the, for the, like, three months of the pandemic when we were closed and we were performing to nobody. But we had all these viewers from all around the world watching. We had people that were getting exposed to the museum for the first time that wouldn't otherwise see it and, not to make light of the dire situation that we were in, but it was kind of an interesting, it was a nice little silver lining there mixed in with kind of a scary time, getting, making friends and being exposed and connected with people that wouldn't get to participate otherwise. So that's been really a neat thing, so with that whole setup, doing our Americana Fest virtually is going to be hopefully will reach even more audiences than we did before.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, that's definitely been a big thing about this pandemic is we thought we were global before, but then all of our activities were more local than we had thought about before, and so now, now it's like,” Oh, 12, people from 12 countries are watching us.”

Lucas Ross: Right!

Brittany Pickering: “Wow! Maybe they didn't know that there is an American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City and what it's about and all of that.

Lucas Ross: A lot of times in the scariest, with anything, especially that is, um, that depends on patrons and stuff and sometimes it’s like revealing, giving away what you have.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: With the fear of them never coming to visit, but it’s kind of changed, especially now with especially new, younger adults that are, well that were, traveling and stuff, they're a lot more apt to see everything and then say, “Okay. Yeah, I want to go see that person,” and it kind of comes from, for a while, we’ve kinda held the reins kinda tight; we were like well, we don't want to, like, show everything, and what if you never come? You know, if we show it; if we give it away, they won't come. But it's been exactly counter to that because we have all these people now that are like, “Oh, I've seen it in video form, but I gotta see it in person.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: You know, I think about it. I guess that's how I feel about a lot of things and stuff like that. So that's been kind of neat to see, to see how that whole thing’s transpired, just really how everybody's upped their — video games; I mean everyone from bands to local companies and churches and charities are figuring out how to do — I'm hosting a, uh, I'm hosting a banquet virtually in a few weeks, and so we're doing it all through Zoom and we're gonna do awards and everything that way. So I'm gonna wear a tux and go all out to where I am. But it's cool to see how we do it. And you guys too! I mean, congratulations, Gazette! You guys are doing great with all your video stuff. I saw what you did during deadCenter. What a neat way that deadCenter was able to transfer their festival into a digital format, and it worked really well for them.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, I feel like it is making it way more accessible to people in general and, you know, people who maybe are stuck at home all the time or maybe you live in, you know, northeastern Oklahoma or, you now, in Texas or, you know, you've transplanted to another part of the country, or you know, and you can visit these things virtually and participate, and it’s just awesome. I think, I think it's really great. So how, how is the festival coming online?

Lucas Ross: Well, we have no idea, but we’ll figure something out. No. Um, we're trying to iron out a few of those things. Like I said, we've been doing some livestreams like to Facebook and some YouTube and platforms like that, which will probably be embedded there as well, but we have a multi-camera setup in our, in our parlor room. So the bands will come in and perform here, uh, like they normally would, but we'll just be doing it to these cameras and broadcasting it out over our social media platforms and primarily Facebook Live because you can, you can interact a lot well there, but we’ll also, we're doubling up on the streams; it will either be embedded there through Facebook or, I mean, Facebook, YouTube and then on our, just on our website, americanbanjomuseum.com. We’ll have just kind of a hub there for people that are like, “I don't do any of that stuff; I just want the website.” They go there and they can embed it, but if they like to do the commenting and that aspect, they can go there. If they really want to read some terrible comments, you can go over to YouTube and just, oh man, lose all faith in humankind.

Brittany Pickering: Uh, yes.

Lucas Ross: I have to say, I have seen a lot of people kind of going out of their way nowadays trying to be positive and —

Brittany Pickering: Yeah. To be nice?

Lucas Ross: Maybe I’m just noticing that little bit more. Yeah, you know, when we give people the opportunity to say whatever they want, it's so easy to be negative, and right now, people are hurting and you mentioned, like, bringing people together, giving them something to do, especially people that were already maybe in a position where they couldn't leave the house, now they're getting to really interact in a way that they didn't get to before. So it’s been kind of neat to bring, uh, to bring a little bit of light to people. And we’ve got a great setup. We have, it’s … the bands are performing, Byron Berline Band is kind of our big headliner, and they played in our, they didn’t play at the very first one, but they played a few in the past, and they're great. We love, we love that band. They’re incredible worldwide. I mean, Byron’s world-renowned for his fiddle playing, and we have him right here in Oklahoma. So many people don't know, like, he's a local treasure, but he’s a national treasure, like looked at from, everybody from Vince Gill. I mean, he worked with Arnold Swarzaneger and he recorded with The Rolling Stones and we just love, love Byron. That's where I got my ban—, my Gibson banjo I bought from his shop.

Brittany Pickering: Nice!

Lucas Ross: I just love that guy.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: They’re very entertaining, and I even grew up, I didn't really grow up in a country music or bluegrass household; I married into it, and I was baptized in bluegrass. I picked the banjo because I liked Kermit and Steve Martin for comedy reasons. But I mean, I’ve just fallen in love with the bluegrass and the Americana sound. I'm not really a diehard country fan, but I love the sound. I mean, I could ... live music, I appreciate it no matter what the style is because there's something about being there in the moment, and we're still gonna try to bring that virtually.

Brittany Pickering: Do you think that you guys will continue more of the virtual stuff in, in the next few years, like after?

Lucas Ross: I think so. We’ve kind of dabbled in that a little bit, giving, um, especially members of the museum, we have, really getting a membership to the museum, after three trips, it’s paid for itself. But it give you access to a lot of the events like Americana Fest and stuff, but I think what we’ll do is continue to livestream on these platforms for all the events that we can here, unless an artist has a conflict or something. But for the most part, everybody likes it and, because it helps everyone. You know, it’s an easy way to share a link or throw up their information so they can support those artists and buy their music and stuff.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, and maybe you can get interested in something that maybe you weren't sure if you were interested in before.

Lucas Ross: Right!

Brittany Pickering: Maybe you would never think, “Oh yeah, I'm going to go listen to some banjo music.”

Lucas Ross: Yeah, and there is a stigma with the banjo of the whole, like, either backwoods or the hillbilly or the dueling banjos or the Deliverance, but there's a lot of, there's a lot of really rich history in the instrument. Again, I came from it from, I heard Kermit play “Rainbow Connection” when I was a kid and I, like, I didn’t even know what the instrument was; I just loved the sound of that. When I heard it, it just clicked in my brain.

Brittany Pickering: Mhmm.

Lucas Ross: Fast forward, I never thought I'd be playing it, much less working for the instrument and, uh, and getting, I even got to work with Kermit over the past year a couple times, the actual Kermit. And let me tell you, folks; he's real! Some people say he's a puppet. The correct term is “handheld American.” He's very very, he’s very cool and actually now, our museum is open. While we're not going to be doing this concert in person, our museum is open. We have to limit to about 10 people at a time if we ever have a big rush, but you're required to wear masks and stuff. But you can come in and see our new displays. We have a Women of the Banjo display that’s really neat. It tells all the historically significant — and there's so many, we couldn't include all of them, there are so many prominent female banjo players that have been taking this instrument from its roots all the way up to now and then circling back with, with artists like Rhiannon Giddens and others that are, um, playing that early style banjo.

Because a lot of people don't know that the banjo, it’s called, like, an American instrument, and while it was developed here the way that we know it, it came to us from Africa. It was played by enslaved African people when they were here, and they developed it that, based on memories of instruments from before and slowly played that for, for a very long time. And then white audiences started hearing this, and it was, I can only imagine, a taboo thing to play that. And then for a while, it was an instrument that women were not allowed to touch because it was not a dignified instrument and then it transitioned into this classical instrument, then it transitioned into the jazz, the pulse of the jazz and ragtime music, and then it was made, they started making them for women. You know, they started putting a lot of frills and things because they thought it would be more appealing and stuff like, I don't know. And now, I mean, people want those pre-war banjos, no matter what style you play. And so it's really neat to see that history, especially with our current, with the current eyes on, on civil rights and things like that, the banjo instrument has been right there, growing up with America. It's a tough story, and there's a lot of hard story to that and a lot of beauty in it. And just like everything else, we listen and we learn and we apply; we work with some really great scholars from some other museums, The Underground Railroad Museum and some others that have helped, um, oversee, help and advise us with presentation.

And that constantly evolves with what people want to see and more because honestly, a lot of people think banjo and they walk in the doors and they're all like, “All right! Yeah! Kermit the Frog! Earl Scruggs!” and they see, like, “Whoa! I did not know this. I didn't know that it came from this.” And some people, it's a, it's a shock and it's just like when you start to think of a lot of iconic things in our world and in our country, and you start to realize where those roots come from. And it doesn't mean that an instrument itself is bad. It can be used for so much good, and it brings people together. And during the Civil War, there were times that, like, secretly, black and white banjo players would meet and exchange lyrics and songs, and they would — see, I'm sure, it was a lot of white guys learning a lot more from the black guys. I could, I would just kind of assume, but uh.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: We have a lot of those songs because of that, and I’m not trying to justify or whitewash the circumstances it was in, but there were these times that an instrument and music could just bring people together in dire situations. And I've kind of gone onto a tangent, but it’s been a real interesting thing, and it's interesting now for people that are coming in as we've reopened, just like the whole world is starting, is having this washover with so much stuff — and not just washing our hands over the past three months; we’re like, eyes are opening to a lot of things that a lot of people didn't think about before maybe or it wasn't comfortable to think about before, and it's easier to not think about those things with our country and with the instruments and other things like that. But it would be wrong to hide it. It would be wrong to ignore those things, for fear of things, the fear of repeating history, for the disrespect of those musicians. And the sad thing is we don't know so much, so much of that history was not recorded.

Brittany Pickering: Right.

Lucas Ross: So we pay tribute as much as we can. There’s a beautiful painting we have a copy of in our entry when you come in called “The Banjo Lesson” and it depicts what we can assume is an African American enslaved person sitting on a porch with his, maybe a grandson, showing him how to play the banjo. And it was painted by an African American artist in the 1800s, and I think it was, from what I understand, from what I’ve studied, and I could be wrong, but it's, it was painted still-life, so they painted them. So it's always been used as an example of how light and shadow was just painted so beautifully and in still-life form. But that's kind of a dedication from what we know, and until we learn more information, to present more, but that's one of the kind of launch pads to show that respect, though we don’t know what those names are. We really, we really respect that, and we tried it with everything that we do.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, I think it's really important, especially for museums and things like that, to start thinking about, like, okay, when you think of banjo now, you think of a bunch of white guys and, like, that's just the first thing that comes, but and a lot of our society and a lot of our culture we've taken from the people who’ve lived here.

Lucas Ross: Yeah.

Brittany Pickering: And it's important to go through it and recognize these things, and I think what's great about banjo music is that it does cross all genres of, you know, blues — I was looking at the lineup for the Americana Fest.

Lucas Ross: Yeah!

Brittany Pickering: And all of them were so different. I mean, it's all banjo music, but it's, it all has a different sound. I think wasn't one a blues, more of a bluesy kind of?

Lucas Ross: Yeah, well, we've got Byron, of course. We have Sinner Friends, featuring Aaron Jonah Lewis. They have kind of a different style like that too. Johnny Baier does a, it's like a jazz-style playing; not so much like the jazz that you think later on. It's like kind of the early jazz, the ragtime jazz. And Johnny, who's our executive director, but he is like — I’ve been working with, I was working along with the museum for years before I really realized how big of a deal he is. He won’t let on, but he's, like, one of the, he's one of the most prolific banjo players, tenor banjo players, if I'm using that word correctly. He's really good, and he's very versed and educated, and all of the imagery and artwork you see in the museum he did. But on top of all that, he is a very accomplished banjo performer that’s performed for years in different parts of the world, and he ended up, they were able to get him here in Oklahoma. So he will be performing that day too, and he does a great show and gives you a full spectrum of that sound. Even if you think, like “I don't really think I like the old, like, 1920s jazzy music and stuff,” it's so good and he's so charming. It's really interesting to listen to, and he gives a good, has a good presentation of those songs.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah?

Lucas Ross: Wayne Cantwell's another performer who's a good friend and performs here regularly, and he does an old-time music show, and he plays, like, some different instruments. But he plays some of those really early songs that have continued out, and as the banjo took off — and he gives a bit of history to that — as the banjo started to spread in America early on, there were more of these songs, but as it kind evolved and kind of split off into the ragtime jazz age and all these things this way, all the way up to where it was the most popular instrument at one time in America. And by World War II, the Great Depression, they couldn't justify making banjos when pieces need to be, everything needed to be used to help our war efforts.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Luca Ross: And then the plan be, the cost of banjos became so expensive. If you weren’t already playing one or an experienced, and accomplished banjo player, you couldn’t get one. It was easier, it was cheaper to buy a guitar, and so the Glenn Miller Bands and stuff started replacing banjo with guitar and stuff with big band sounds. Well, these guys up in, like, kind of the hills and the Appalachian guys, they were still playing that banjo early style that — I have my banjo here. Do you want me to show you a little example?

Brittany Pickering: Yes, please!

Lucas Ross: Okay. Mine's got a design. That's another thing about the banjos is, especially in the twenties, they were decorated, like, to the nines. Mine is not one of those fancy ones, but it is decorated to tell my story. This is Honeycomb because my parents are beekeepers in Minco, which, uh, you know, like most people's parents are beekeepers, right? The early style of playing was similar, was a little bit more, was finger-picking. There was, uh, let’s see. [plays banjo] I mean, “Skip to My Lou” was a hit!

Brittany Pickering: Yeah!

Lucas Ross: People were like, “Play ‘Skip to My Lou’!” I don’t know. So, you know, there’s that style and then there’s a clawhammer style, which a lot of people still play. And Wayne Cantwell does this really well. And you use the front of your fingers, instead of picking, you [plays banjo] I don’t know if you can hear that or not, if you can tell.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, it's more of a full sound.

Lucas Ross: Yeah, and it can also be melancholy and soft and stuff, so those are those early styles and Wayne does a great, um, Wayne plays a lot of instruments really, really well, so.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: It’ll be a really neat thing. And I'll do my comedy banjo music stuff and, uh, mine’s, I gear a lot more towards kids, but it just depends on who the audience is. And since I don't really know exactly who the audience is, I’ll just do a little bit of everything, and it’s a lot of fun. But I'm really here just to shine a light on the real talented musicians that are a lot more accomplished than me. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it's an honor to get to be here and be a little footnote in this building.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah! There’s a, there’s a rich history of music in, I mean, the world basically, but also in this country, where we've kind of, you know, things have evolved and—

Lucas Ross: Right.

Brittany Pickering: People moving in and then we’ve, we’ve borrowed things from everywhere, and, and it's really, I think it's important to preserve it and to, to keep it going, even though it's not, like, what’s on the radio right now.

Lucas Ross: Sure, and that's kind of part of the museum’s, uh, the mission is to preserve and promote the instrument and to, to continue to educate people about that, and just one of many facets of American culture. I mean, this is the only banjo museum in the whole world, so a lot of people in Oklahoma are like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got a banjo museum.” I mean, that’s how I was, and I loved the banjo. When I first heard about it, people were like, “Have you been to the banjo museum?” I’m like, “Hmm. Yeah, I should go down there.” I’d seen some pictures, and I was sure that it was nice.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: I had no idea the state-of-the-art facility it is and the fact that this is the only one in the whole world. Steve Martin has walked through our halls before and even donated a banjo. This is cool, and I hope it happens. We have the Women of the Banjo exhibit. We’re working on securing Dolly Parton's banjo and one of her outfits. So whenever that comes, I will let you know.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah! Very cool!

Lucas Ross: But I just need to see that support there. And really, that Oklahoma has it is kind of special that they chose Oklahoma. It’s just kind of in the center. We don’t really have a defined music; I mean, we’re associated a lot with country music and stuff like that, but there really wasn’t something that was just defining. If the museum was put in New Orleans, it would really lean towards that Dixieland, jazz style.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: If it was put in Nashville, it would be considered more country or bluegrass and other parts, and so Oklahoma was just kind of like a, a good central place. And swing music, or swing country, country swing originated in north Texas, southern Oklahoma, and they use a four-string banjo to strum. And that's actually kind of cool too. So Johnny Baier, our executive director, who plays the tenor jazz thing. He will sometimes sit in — I don’t know if he’ll do it on this show or not — but he’ll sit in with Byron Berline and they’ll do some country swing and he’ll play the banjo just like it was, in those, those original styles of some of Oklahoma original music. So it's kind of cool.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah. That's so great! Did you guys have the lineup set and were just kind of like, Hey, Now that things are changed?

Lucas Ross: Yeah and we have a couple of really — and I said everybody's gonna be on our stage. Sinner Friends aren’t gonna be traveling here; they're out of town. And we’ll bring people in from different places a lot of times. We like to have Oklahoma artists but the Sinner Friends, they will be broadcasting from wherever they are. And it won’t be just one long video feed; we’ll keep posting the, the links throughout the day. I think we'll just have a central hub page on our Face— on our website. Just go to americanbanjomuseum.com, you can watch them all.

But no, this was the lineup that was set up, and then about the time we locked everybody in for sure was whenever everything went into lockdown, and so we were kind of wondering how we were gonna do it. We have some wonderful grant money and help from the Oklahoma Arts Council, BancFirst and Bricktown and the National Endowment for the Arts and News4 had all been on to help us like they normally did, and even a little bit more than before, and so we worked with them, and they were like, “You know, this is kind of a normal thing,” and they want to see it happen too. And so they worked with us to be able to still pay our talent and, uh, have it. The difference is gonna be it’s usually a ticketed event unless you’re a museum member. We’re gonna make it available for everybody to watch; we’re not gonna have a paywall for it or anything.

Brittany Pickering: That’s so great! And maybe it will help grow the, grow the festival.

Lucas Ross: Yeah, totally! And we can’t wait for, we can’t wait for, uh, the time that we can do it again. And you know, we even thought about that fact that, you know, maybe by the time this comes around, we can do some outdoor events and stuff. Like, the last thing we want to do is subject anybody to not being safe. And however people feel about it, it’s just one of those things that’s like we have many patrons that could be very susceptible, I mean, and everybody, we’re figuring this out, the truth is. And this is a safe way for us to, uh, to still do this whole thing, and you guys can be in the comfort of your own home or wherever you want to watch; you could be sitting outside, streaming it on your phone if you want and still hear some great music.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, so the festival is—?

Lucas Ross: It’s Saturday, June 27.

Brittany Pickering: Yes.

Lucas Ross: And we will start the broadcast around 11 in the morning, and we’ll play everybody’s act — well, we won’t play it; they’ll actually be live, either here or wherever they’re located broadcasting — through about 5 o’clock that day. So it will be a whole day full of music that you can enjoy and be involved in.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, and hopefully learn some, some great history.

Lucas Ross: I know. I never thought I would be playing. My parents think it’s hilarious that I’ve played and recorded, like bluegrass albums and stuff. They’re like, “This is just so weird that, we never thought anybody in our family…” I was raised that rock ’n’ roll was from heaven and it was, like, opposite from the olden days.

Brittany Pickering: Right!

Lucas Ross: Yeah, my dad was from New Mexico. My mom just didn’t really listen to country music. And everybody in my hometown, that’s just, I mean, I was raised up around everybody listening to Garth and Reba McIntire and everything, so we all knew what it was. When we got CMT, do you remember whenever, I guess, the Country Music Television came on?

Brittany Pickering: Yeah!

Lucas Ross: I don’t know. You’re probably too young to know this.

Brittany Pickering: No! No, I remember. Yeah, and I grew up—

Lucas Ross: Are you from Oklahoma?

Brittany Pickering: Well, sort of, yeah. Sort of. I went to middle school and high school in southern Oklahoma.

Lucas Ross: Okay, okay.

Brittany Pickering: In the country, and, uh, yeah, it’s all, it was all, everyone listened to country and everyone loved all that stuff and I was like, “I like punk music.”

Lucas Ross: Yeah, it just — and I was always the same.

Brittany Pickering: And classical because I play clarinet too.

Lucas Ross: Oh! Oh, that’s great!

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: And, uh, you’re welcome here too. You could join us, you know. You could sit in. But that was always it. I remember whenever Country Music Television came on and they got it in Oklahoma, my sister and I, we like, discovered it one time. It was like this, “What is this?”

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: We were, like, watching it and, “Mom and Dad are coming! Change the channel to, like, MTV or something else! Put on The Simpsons!

Brittany Pickering: “We’ve committed a crime!”

Lucas Ross: Yeah, it’s like it was a sin because we just thought that, anyway, it was just really funny. My dad was like, “They just sound really nasally,” but he’d, like, listen to Bob Dylan and all these guys. Like, you can’t even understand them and they were even more nasally. And so, I just, sadly, I didn’t get to experience a lot of that. And I still have a, I do have a big appreciation and love for the classic country performers and everybody. You know, uh, and so it’s really neat. I love it on days like this when they come together. I don’t deserve to be on this bill, but I’m honored to do it. And this was gonna be my first big time to play. Usually, I’m playing outside in the direct sunlight for the children. And, uh, this was gonna be the year that I got to become, I got to come inside on the stage, but now nobody’s gonna be in here with me, so I think that I jinxed it probably.

Brittany Pickering: Oh no!

Lucas Ross: It’s all my fault.

Brittany Pickering: I’m sure that’s not true! How long have you been playing?

Lucas Ross: I started about 10 years ago this year, my wife surprised me and got me tickets to see Steve Martin whenever he went on tour with his bluegrass show.

Brittany Pickering: Mhmm.

Lucas Ross: And I never thought I’d get to see him live, and then at the end of it, I was like, “I’m gonna finally—” I had access to a banjo in high school and I didn’t really know how to play it, and it was before the internet and YouTube, to where you could find lessons.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: And in Minco, there wasn’t anybody that was teaching. I was lucky I found one. And I’d use it as a prop and stuff, but I didn’t really learn. But when we went and saw Steve Martin, I was like, “I’m gonna get a banjo and I’m gonna learn how to play it, and I’m gonna spend a year learning how to play, and I’m gonna meet him.” I just decided after I saw him on the front row, I was like, “I’m gonna meet him.” And so I spent a year, I got a banjo, and I started on his birthday, which is August 14, and I started playing the banjo and I used his, some of his music because I knew it really well. Steve Martin’s a really, for a lot of people that don’t know in the community, he’s an amazing and accomplished banjo player and has written Grammy Award-winning stuff and even a Broadway musical that they did here last year, Bright Star, and he’s just really good.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, he’s also an author too, kind of a Renaissance man.

Lucas Ross: And an author, yeah, he really admires paint, paintings and he does all kinds of, really a lot of different things with his role. But he just has always come back to that banjo. He’s been playing since he was doing comedy in the ’70s. He would use it as a prop and kind of joke around and then do his jokes, and so he’s doing these, he was doing these bluegrass shows and telling jokes in between, so it was completely flipped. And either way, I was like, “I’m gonna meet him!” and I started learning to play the banjo, and I spent a whole year, and I ended up learning to play the banjo. And a year came and went and I didn’t meet him, but like nine days after my goal, I did. That’s what’s so stupid. If you wait for a second, I got a picture right here.

Brittany Pickering: Okay.

Lucas Ross: So this is in Tulsa, and I’ve got to run into him a few different times. And when he came to the museum, everybody was like, “Okay, Lucas. He’s gonna come visit the museum. We’re gonna close down to everybody,” and I was like, “Okay.” They were like, “You can be here. Just don’t be weird.” I’m like, “I won’t!” I have this fear that, “Oh no. He’s gonna know who I am,” ’cause I’ve only been writing to him since I was, like, 14 and stuff. I just appreciate him, and really, I like his comedy and I always wanted to be able to thank him for sharing his talents to where I was able to, like, learn the instrument. I’ve made so many great friends. I’ve had so many good experiences. I’ve had, this job I wouldn’t have landed at if I hadn’t fell in love with this instrument.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: And had such an appreciation for everything from the American history that we talked about, and I just really, it was all because I just was like, “I think I’m gonna learn to play.” And so every time, I’ve got the, I’ve met him technically three times, and every time, all I say is, “Hey, you tweeted at me once.” It’s like I couldn't even think of, I, all I got to say is, “Thank you. Thank you for sharing your talents.” I couldn’t do it. And he donated one of his banjos to us at Christmas. It’s now on display, and you can see that here, and when he did, he sent this book back for me. He went and found, he had one more copy of his autobiography in his house and he sent me this and it has his autograph on it and he sent me a little note and said, “Put this next to the restraining order that you should be receiving.” Anyway, but it’s been a joy to get to work here with the museum. And also, on a sidebar, and I’ve been rambling a lot. I don’t know. You can cut all this out and delete it if you want.

Brittany Pickering: I think people enjoy the conversation.

Lucas Ross: I hope so!

Brittany Pickering: Especially since they’ve been locked away in their houses.

Lucas Ross: Oh, okay. Well, I’ll say that my wife started a nonprofit a little over 10-12 years ago now, working with an orphanage in Africa that rescues kids out of destitution and current slavery on fishing boats and stuff like that. And they, they give them an education and help give them, they work with an established place; it’s not America coming in, saying, “Hey, everybody! Be like this!” or anything, and no criticism on anything like that. But it’s a really neat group she gets to work with, and it was just her. She saw this thing one time on TV and everything, like some show about this orphanage. And she was like, “I want to help!” So we started raising money and sending it.

She ended up, she’s been like 10 times. I’ve been three times. And this last year, uh, the director — well, I guess the year before that, the director of the school, Fred Asare, came to Oklahoma and he came through the museum and saw everything. And I was, like, really thinking about what he thought about the presentation from his perspective because it’s different not being in America. And he was like, “This is really, really something that my kids, the kids in Africa, I want them to know this too about American history.” And so whenever I went back last year, he said, “Hey, bring your banjo and bring your kids program that you do there and teach our kids about the banjo.” And I was like, “Fred, I am the last person to come over there and do this.” And he was like, “No, no, no. It will be, it’ll be great.” And so I was really nervous about it. I was like, this is like a white guy going over and, you know.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: But it was, they, uh, a lot of the kids didn’t know that, about that history, or if they did, they wanted to see it. And they were showing me things and I, I took this travel banjo, and they were playing and stuff. And it’s a very impoverished part of Africa, and so a lot of them just, they don’t get to get their hands on instruments alone, much less a banjo. So it was really kind of a neat experience. I learned, I tried to learn as much as I could. I learned a lot, and it was something that I treasure. They’re very good, they’re friends of ours, and it’s just, if you ever have the opportunity to travel or to see that, it really reminds you how small this world is. And just, like, everybody laughs; we might laugh a little bit different, but we’re all kind of laughing at the same thing in a way, and we’re all, can enjoy things together. And those have been some treasured, treasured friends that we love right now, who, with the pandemic and stuff, they’re reaching out to us being like, “Are you guys okay?” and we’re like, “Well, are you guys okay?” and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. We’re fine where we are because it’s over there.” You know, you think Africa is a certain thing but it’s so much more spread out than the way that the maps kind of look.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah.

Lucas Ross: But anyway, it was a really interesting experience to do that, and I hope and pray that I was able to tell them about the musicians that are currently using it now and that they could, that I did it in the right light and the right way and not whitewashing anything but also telling it from my, in my correct place, based on what I was told and how to present it. And they were so, they were so in love with the whole thing, the banjo. They all made paper banjos all week and they were designing them with their stories to tell about their family and different things like that. And then their art teacher, they made art projects, and they were sending me pictures. They’re all, the art teacher has Instagram and she’s sending me all these pictures from Africa back and forth, and it was so cool.

I can’t show the video here, but I’ll tell you about it. The kids there, on one day, we were just drawing different, I was drawing pictures of banjos and different things in their art class and then she was like “We’ve got some more time. Just teach them how to draw something.” I was like, “Well, I can always draw Kermit the Frog.” So I drew Kermit the Frog. So I posted them on social media and some people that work with the Muppets and Disney saw it and we got a special greeting video from the Kermit the Frog to send to the kids to say how neat it was that he saw them drawing pictures of him. And it was really kind of a cool thing to do, and that’s not the reason why I do those trips, but it was kind of really cool and exciting that these kids got this video. And they’re like, “Well, you know you can’t post it on social media or share it, but we want them to see this.” And I thought that was really cool that they would make that time. It’s a cool thing.

I’m proud to get to be here and I hope that in this time that we’re a resource for some education and we’re also here to learn and continue to strive and do better in everything that we do.

Brittany Pickering: Yeah, and bring people together, like with this festival.

Lucas Ross: Right. And the conversations are what, you know, hopefully the conversations will happen and we listen and learn. And I’m here to listen and learn from all of this too. And I can’t wait. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.

Brittany Pickering: Yes! It’s gonna be great. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m scared that this thing’s gonna cut off.

Lucas Ross: Oh, okay! Hey, thanks so much for having me!

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