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Banjo-playing teen is an old soul

Garrett Newton, banjo player

VIDEO: Garrett Newton, 16, playing the banjo at Lorraine's Coffee House in Garner. Newton has been playing the banjo since he was 10.
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VIDEO: Garrett Newton, 16, playing the banjo at Lorraine's Coffee House in Garner. Newton has been playing the banjo since he was 10.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road plays bluegrass music frequently at Lorraine’s Coffee House and Music, the Garner business that Jordan owns, but it’s her banjo player who often steals the show.

Garrett Newton, 16, is a musical prodigy with a healthy understanding of bluegrass history.

“He’s a young man with an old soul,” Jordan said. “He doesn’t mind talking to anybody about music. I’ve seen him talking backstage with (country and bluegrass superstar) Ricky Skaggs. They carried on a great conversation.”

Garrett, who has been playing the banjo for only six years, can already pick with the best in bluegrass. He now travels with Jordan and her band on the road. Jordan has also helped Garrett assemble his own band, The Garrett Newton Band.

“Ever since we did that (traveling and fronting his own band), I have seen him turn into probably just as good a banjo player as anybody out there,” Jordan said.

The road to Garrett’s passion for the banjo began when he spent time with elderly neighbors, Robert and Melba McGee, who owned their own music house, Beaver Creek Music Hall in Benson. The McGees were killed in 2014 in a head-on auto collision.

“They lived a very country lifestyle,” Garrett said. “He had an old banjo around the house. He let me pick it up a few times. It sounded a little different.”

Picking up that banjo changed Garrett’s life.

“When he came home that night, he said ‘Momma, I want to play the banjo.’ ” said Donna Newton, Garrett’s mother.

Garrett soon showed an aptitude for playing music by ear and watching others play.

The Newtons decided to buy Garrett his own banjo. At the music store, the owner played a few chords. Garrett then sat down and duplicated what the owner had played.

“I paid attention to his fingers,” Garrett said.

He soon learned where to get more tips and instruction.

“The first solid year, I taught myself but not very good,” Garrett said. “I had the licks down, but they were backward. I got in touch with (former Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out banjo player) Steve Dilling. He worked with me on them and told me which ones were right, and eventually I got the hang of it.”

Garrett, a freshman at Southside Christian School in Clayton, started playing at local events and at Beaver Creek Music Hall. He first met Dilling there.

Dilling and his band were playing one night when Garrett approached him and offered to play during intermissions.

“I didn’t want to get in the way,” Garrett said.

After hearing Garrett play, before the next break, Dilling asked Garrett, “Do you mind if we play with you?” Afterward, Dilling asked, “Who are you?”

Since going on the road, Garrett has benefited from playing with band members from Marty Raybon, Ricky Skaggs, and even Jordan’s band.

It has him thinking about the future and perhaps playing with a professional band.

“I’ve seen him go from a jamming banjo player to where he could be a professional sideman banjo player where he can fit in to a national band someday,” Jordan said. “He’s really close.”

Garrett would like that, but he’s also looking at the big picture and wants to do it the right way.

“I think I want to join a band once I get out of high school,” Garrett said.

Until then, Garrett, who practices three to four hours a day and works a weekend shift at the coffee house, will continue to get better and make more bluegrass friends. Jordan has secured him a recording contract with Pinecastle Records, and he will soon be recording a CD.

“I keep working every day,” Garrett said. “I’m afraid if I put it down, it won’t be the same as if I pick it up one more day, because I’ve never put it down for a day and not picked it up.”

Sam Newkirk: 919-836-2844

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