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Bob Carlin was one of the best old-time banjo pickers in country music, unique in that he played in the old clawhammer style with a few personalized twists. But Carlin was also a noted folk-music expert who coordinated numerous field recordings. He also wrote and produced respected documentary albums and radio programs on numerous subjects related to American roots music, and started his own label, CarTunes Records.
Carlin was born in New York City; growing up during the folk revival, he was inspired by the banjo at age five when he saw Pete Seeger in concert. Later he began studying blues guitar with other aspiring folk musicians, including Roy Book Binder. He took up the banjo at age 16 and eventually became the protégé of Hank Sapoznick, who in 1977 appeared with Carlin on his debut album, Melodic Clawhammer Banjo. Later he began studying music under two Appalachian masters, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. He and Sapoznick then joined the Delaware Water Gap String Band and recorded a broad range of music that included reggae and swing.
In 1980, Carlin left the group to launch a solo career. He signed to Rounder in 1981 and released Fiddle Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo. He made two more albums for Rounder before moving to the Merrimac label, where he recorded Take Me as I Am (1990) and Mr. Spaceman (1992). An active participant in trying to save the oldest traditional songs, between 1983-1985 Carlin produced a 12-part documentary, Our Musical Heritage, for PBS radio. In 1988, Carlin recorded the Library of Congress Banjo Collection and later The Banjo on Folkways, Vols. 1 & 2 (1992). He also lectured and offered workshops, spending much of the early '90s researching a comprehensive history of the banjo's place in American music. He continued to record, both as a solo artist and accomplished sideman, appearing with John Hartford and Dolly Parton, among others. In 2003 he compiled and produced Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners for the Library of Congress.