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When I was 9 my mother bought me a jawharp, but I really wanted to play the drums. She bought me drum... sticks and I played the couch, the dinner table, and dented all the lampshades. I did eventually get a snare drum but by this time my parents were ready for me to move on and suggested the banjo.

Looking back now, the banjo wasn't much of a step up. My parents liked banjo music, and I think they were scared where drumming might lead me. Amazingly, the banjo took. I taught myself how to play when I was 14, listening to Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, the Clancy Brothers, Doug Dillard, and of course, Earl Scruggs. I knew better than to share my new musical obsession with my friends.

My high School bus driver was a musician and he took me to my first contra dance in 1977. The dance was in the basement of St. Thomas' Church in Underhill, Vermont. It was a wild scene. I don't know what was more exciting, dancing with girls or watching the musicians and imagining playing in a band. When I tried to learn them, the contra dance tunes didn't fit that well on the five-string, so I dusted off my grandmother's mandolin and impulsively purchased an unplayable tenor banjo from a window display at a department store. I learned to play them both. In 1985, I went on a two month tour with the Green Mountain Volunteers, clogging and playing the banjo at festivals in eastern and western Europe. When I got home there were many opportunities to play dances all over New England, and I played as many as I could. I studied with Bob Wills' legendary mandolin player, Tiny Moore, and Peter Ostroushko (of Prairie Home Companion.) I formed a number of bands and sat in, conspicuously, with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Wild Asparagus, an increasingly popular band. My touring spread from New England to the Eastern Seaboard to nationally in a few short years.

In 1992, I met my future wife who performed with Rhythm In Shoes, a percussive dance and music company from Dayton, Ohio. This crazy, fifteen member concert ensemble quickly absorbed me, as much for reasons of nepotism as for my musical prowess. In my five year tenure with the company, we logged thousands of miles playing notable venues like the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Wolf Trap, and the National Folk Festival. In spite of this success, we never fully departed from the occasional gig on wobbly risers in the middle of a noisy mall or for kindergarteners on a ketchup-dotted “cafetorium” floor. I joined Rhythm In Shoes again in the summers of 2004 and 2005 for an historically recreated and embellished Vaudeville production in honor of Dayton's centennial of the birth of flight.

I play three traditional styles of music: Irish, old-time American, and contra dance tunes. Each has a distinct form. Because I know too much, it would be easy to fuse all of these into one eclectic mess, something I consciously avoid. I do love to attempt innovation within the styles and compose tunes adhering to time-honored, unwritten rules, and also nudging them a bit. I wrote Evil Diane along these lines, and included a musical virus in the structure that makes it difficult NOT to repeat the tune once it has ended. My all-original CD of the same title was profiled on NPR's All Thing Considered Christmas Eve 2004, and is still regularly heard on that show.

I currently make most of my living touring the country playing for contra dances. I gig with numerous musicians and bands, some of whom I have been playing with for over 20 years. But as my family expands, I love to be at home, torturing them with obscure banjo recordings, or practicing in the resonant bathroom while my son is in the tub.

Sam Bartlett music bio picture


I did not learn to read comfortably until I was in 7th Grade, and my handwriting was famously unreadable. From an early age I took refuge in drawing, making complicated scenes of people, animals, musical instruments, trees, houses, and battles. In my Hinesburg, Vermont high school I spent more time on the covers of my papers than on content, and my teachers would ask to keep them. As a teenager I was introduced to Bread & Puppet Theater, founded by German impressionist painter Peter Schumann. Schumann used cheap or free materials to make huge paper mache puppets, herds of animals, moving cardboard paintings, and fabric banners. The unselfconscious nature and scale of Schumann's art connected me to the pure pleasure of drawing that I experienced as a child and made me see that evolving as an artist could take many forms. In addition to large scale art, Schumann also created hundreds of illustrated booklets on topics ranging from rye bread to the political allegory of an ear. This format influenced me to make my first book, John the Red Nose (1988), based on a traditional English song. Music continues to be a major theme in my artwork.

I had stopped drawing for years because I wasn't getting better. I had no technique and still drew like a fourth grader, but drawing was the only time I felt at peace with myself, and I decided to draw anyway. This became my tenet, my motto, my mantra, my whatever-you-call-it: Draw Anyway.

In 1990 I visited folk artist, Howard Finster in northwestern Georgia. It was the first of several visits to his sprawling compound, filled with his rambling, fearless primitive style of art. I started my own publication, the Journal of Stuntology and Tuneology, soon after that. I created that title randomly as I made the first cover, unsure what it even meant. I was looking for a format for my drawings, but this shifted to illustrating absurd games and tricks that people did to avoid boredom. As a touring musician since 1985 I had amassed a collection of these games and tricks awhile spending countless hours traveling and waiting. This constituted the Stuntology portion of the zine. I included music transcriptions for the Tuneology section and sold the booklets at my gigs around the country. Between 1991 and 2006, I published 32 issues and about 10.000 copies. In 2002, I departed from the zine format to put out a collection of 120 of the best stunt cartoons in a book, Stuntology.The book went through four printings. I published a sequel in 2007, The Big Book of Stuntology. Shortly thereafter, Workman Publishing in New York put out The Best of Stuntology, which included material from both books, additional stunts, illustrations, indexes, and commentary. At this point, Stuntology has taken on a life of itıs own. Iım still actively collecting and drawing stunts, and giving Stuntology workshop/performances wherever I travel.

I've branched out into CD cover design, company logos, and mural commissions. I've made templates for two full stage backdrops at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Washington State and currently design images of dogs for merchandise for Great Dog Productions, a division of Animals for Adoption in upstate New York. Not surprisingly, most of the dogs are doing stunts.

My latest artistic passion has been leading ongoing sessions of "Bartlett's No-Talent Drawing Salon." The gist: to get people to commit a story with drawings onto a large piece of paper without forethought, erasing, or revision. In ink. This requires a bit of concentration, but it causes the final product to have the spontaneity and aesthetic integrity of a first take in the recording studio. So, in other words: draw anyway.

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