Steve Lutke: One heck of a fantastic banjo-pickin' man

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    VERNON-Forget everything you ever thought about banjo music. When Highland Lakes musician Steve Lutke plays one of his banjos, the sounds he creates are like no banjo music you ever heard. Lutke's consummate virtuosity and right-on phrasing recalls guitarist Django Reinhardt or supreme banjo artists Béla Fleck or Earl Scruggs. Lutke's style defies classification: He is fresh, dynamic and fluid. Picking up his banjo, Lutke starts with a lyrical banjo arrangement of Beethoven's "Für Elise," then segues to a version of "Bonnie Scotland" beautiful enough to break your heart, finishing with a rip-roarious bluegrass tune that makes you want to stand up and cheer. For those who think they know all there is to know about banjo music, Lutke's new CD "Appalachian Uprising" will be a revelation. The songs, all original compositions, range from the exquisite ballad, "The Sky is Falling," composed when Lutke learned of the horrifying events of Sept. 11, 2001, to the true bluegrass "Spinner" and "Moon Dog." Appalachian Uprising was released on the Ampersand Label. Accompanying Lutke are master fiddle player Travis Wetzel, flat-picking guitarist Bob Harris, Randy Bailey and Ken Neill on bass, and Noah Segal on the African Djembe drums. Segal is featured on the pieces "Moondog" and "Samba in the Hills." Lutke, whoo will peform his music June 11 at the Echo Lake Baptist Church in West Milford, has music in his blood, and he credits his "fantastically talented" mother, Ginger Dinning Lutke, with never accepting anything less than musical perfection from him. Former lead singer of the famous a cappella group, The Dinning Sisters, Ginger Dinning Lutke led the group's Oscar-winning song "Buttons and Bows" in the 1948 movie, "The Paleface," starring Bob Hope and Jane Russell. The sisters also sang the feature song in Walt Disney's 1948 animated film, "Blame it on the Samba," starring Donald Duck. A collection of The Dinning Sister's songs recently has been released on the Collectors' Choice label. Other musical influences include George Winston and Lutke's brother, jazz guitarist Kevin Lutke, as well as his aunt, Dolores Dinning-Edgin, who introduced him to the best studio musicians in Nashville. For a musician who has achieved so much, Lutke took up the five-string banjo relatively late in life, at age 20. "I practiced 12 hours a day, until I thought I had mastered something I wanted to do. I'm dyslexic, so I had to learn everything differently." Lutke says he plays his banjo as if he were a painter putting gorgeous colors on canvas. The banjo has so many beautiful tunes in it, and can convey so many emotions, he says. He creates his music on a Gibson, which, he says, has a bucolic sound, and on Red Fox and Sunflower banjos handcrafted by Geoff Stellings. "The Stellings banjos have a wide-open sound that allow me to experiment with various music forms," Lutke explained. All but two of the songs on "Appalachian Uprising" feature one of the Stellings banjos. "When my band starts setting up to play, people see the banjo and think, ‘Oh no, more "Hee-Haw" music.' But when we start to play, everyone is stunned into silence," he said. "I've seen grown men sit on the floor in front of us listening with tears in their eyes." Lutke has played in venues all over the country, including the celebrated Bodles Opera House in Chester, N.Y., and has accompanied supreme jazz-bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clemens. An avid mountain bike rider and skier, Lutke lives with his German boxer Max in a cabin in Highland Lakes. When he isn't playing his banjo, he loves to cook. Lutke will be giving a special concert at 7 p.m. on June 11 at the Echo Lake Baptist Church at 1355 Macopin Road in West Milford. The opening act for the concert will be "Blue Plate Special," a local bluegrass band. Call 866-NO1 SONG (866-661-7664) for more information and to purchase advance seating. To hear songs from Appalachian Uprising, go to