Classical music has sometimes appeared in bluegrass, and the instruments thought of as part of the bluegrass ensemble -- the mandolin and the guitar, especially, but even the banjo, most often in its tamer varieties -- have occasionally been deployed in semi-classical settings. It's safe to say, however, that the banjo has never ventured as far into the classical sphere as it does with John Bullard. Raised in rural Virginia in the early 1970s, Bullard gained his first exposure to the banjo like so many other players when he was riding with his father in a pickup truck and heard Dueling Banjos (originally composed by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith but popularized by the film Deliverance) on the radio. Immediately entranced, he sought out instruction in high school and tried to copy the pathbreaking recordings of bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs. Attending Virginia's Hampden-Sydney College, Bullard was discouraged from further study by a music theory teacher who, on hearing of his instruments, walked away saying, "Oh, no, that just won't do."
Bullard transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where he studied guitar with John Patykula, a student of a student of Andrés Segovia. Patykula was more sympathetic to the banjo and suggested the idea of playing classical works on the instrument. Bullard shelved the idea after finding it too difficult to locate arrangements, but then, at an Old Time Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, Virginia, he heard a parking-lot picker playing Bach on a banjo. He sought out the man, Fred Boyce, who proved elusive but finally agreed to give him lessons. VCU declined to create a plucked-instruments program that would have allowed Bullard to continue his studies, so Bullard embarked on a unique freelance career. He arranged works by Bach and other classical composers for the banjo himself, recorded a pair of classical banjo albums (Bach on the Banjo appeared on the prestigious academically oriented label Albany), taught at the Tennessee Banjo Institute and Cairn University, and published a pair of instructional books, Bach for the Banjo and Arpeggios for Classical Banjo. In 2005, Bullard finally received his degree from VCU, with honors. His 2016 release, Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art, ranged widely over the classical repertory and was produced by the progressive bluegrass musician Jayme Stone. ~ James Manheim