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Pickin' prodigy

Odessa teen Josh Pinkham, who is being talked up as the mandolin's next virtuoso and already is recording his first CD, has been playing for just 2 1/2 years.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 11, 2004

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[Times photos Jamie Francis]
Josh Pinkham plays with mandolin master Mike Marshall, left, as a portrait of the “father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, looks on. Josh is recording his debut CD for Marshall’s independent label. In the background is Josh’s sister, Vanessa.

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Josh Pinkham picks his mandolin at last month’s Suwannee Springfest near Live Oak.
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Josh Pinkham jams as father Jeff Pinkham and mother Terry Thomas-Pinkham look on proudly.
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For more on Josh pinkham's music, go to joshpinkham.com

LIVE OAK - In the shade of endless oaks and a gentle canopy of Spanish moss, this North Florida nook off I-10 awakens on a recent morning to a bluegrass tapestry: strains of hotshot picking and high harmonies rising from all over the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.

But there's another sound here at Springfest 2004, filled with some of the genre's biggest names.

A buzz.

Everyone is talking about the Kid.

Right now, the Kid - a short, skinny 14-year-old from Odessa with an impish grin, spiky black hair and dark, piercing eyes - is in the jammed Music Hall, trading seemingly impossible mandolin licks with five veteran pickers.

It would all make more sense if Josh Pinkham had been playing the mandolin since he could pick one up at, say, 2 1/2. But the truth is, 2 1/2 is the number of years he's been playing the instrument.

Mike Marshall, host of this showcase and one of the world's top mandolin pickers, smiles as Josh rips through a version of Old Dangerfield by "father of bluegrass" Bill Monroe - rapid-fire notes flying over a complex rhythm pattern, shifting from bluegrass to bluesy and back.

Spectators burst into cheers and applause when the song ends.

"We all got our Josh-spanking last night, jamming with him from midnight to about 4 in the morning," Marshall tells the audience.

Amid the laughter, one of the six mandolinists onstage, Josh's father, Jeff Pinkham, leans into his mike and adds: "Glad somebody knows how it feels now."

After the show, Josh stands outside, where he gets a hug from Grammy-winning fiddler Vassar Clements and compliments from new-found fans. In his white jersey, jeans and black Converse All-Stars with untied red laces, Josh looks like a typical middle-schooler who'd be hanging out at the mall with pals or working a GameCube control pad.

Instead, he hangs out at bluegrass festivals with his family and works a mandolin fret board with his musical heroes. In the past year, he placed third at MerleFest 2003, regarded as the primo bluegrass festival, in "blind" judging against much older players. He was presented with a $12,000 mandolin by Gibson in January at an international music industry show in Los Angeles. And he's recording his debut album for Marshall's independent label.

So just who is the Kid, and how did he get so darn good, so darn fast?

You can find the answer in some notable family genes. You can find it in two parents who walked away from substantial music opportunities of their own, ultimately setting the stage for their son.

And you can find it in a magical evening in 1996. It was the night mandolin legend Monroe showed up out of the blue and left behind something that would help define Josh's future.

* * *

Inside the Pinkham home in a rural stretch by the Hillsborough and Pasco County line, life moves to a never-ending mandolin soundtrack.

Josh has hardly put the instrument down since he started playing in October 2001.

"I practice about, like, seven or eight hours a day, not just hard practice, but just, like, playing," he says. "Like, if I'm not doing anything, I can't not play. I love playing. And I'm constantly learning stuff. If you're just sitting there improvising, you're going to stumble onto new stuff."

Like his two older sisters, Savannah, 19, and Vanessa, 17, Josh has been home-schooled. He talks and moves the way he plays - quickly - and is never at a loss for words or energy. He noodles out hot licks while speaking and likes to tap out rhythm patterns on anything from the nearest table to his dad's forehead.

Josh has some friends his own age, but mostly he hangs out with musicians, 20-something and up. "I've always been around people who were older," Josh says. "I like hanging out with them. A lot of kids are caught up in stuff that doesn't matter."

Sometimes, he gets some attitude from young players at festivals who aren't thrilled with his new-found acclaim.

"There are kids who aren't that friendly. But playing isn't about competition or who's gotten furthest in the shortest time. It's only about the music."

As a toddler, Josh loved to bang away on his mom's pots and pans on the kitchen floor of their Tarpon Springs home. When he was 7, his parents, Terry and Jeff, bought him a toy drum set and watched in surprise as he mimicked the percussion patterns to his mom's Mariah Carey CDs.

They bought him an electronic drum set so he could practice in his room with headphones and not drive his sisters crazy.

When he was 9, Josh handed his parents a pair of self-made concert tickets and invited them into his bedroom for a show. He put on an Aerosmith CD and played along note for note, replicating every kick, drum rhythm and crash to perfection.

Says Jeff: "I said to Terry, "I guess nobody told him he shouldn't be able to do that."'

* * *

Josh grew up immersed in the music made by his parents. When he was a baby, they fronted the Terry Thomason-Pinkham Band, regarded as one of the best unsigned country music acts in the country.

Terry belted out Top 40 covers and band originals with her soulful vocals; Jeff powered the group as a singer and standout instrumentalist on guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. From the late '70s to early '80s, he toured with Tarpon Springs native Bertie Higgins, performing on the No. 1 hit Key Largo in 1982.

The music inside Jeff - and passed down to Josh - has deeper roots. His maternal grandfather was a first cousin of A.P. Carter, patriarch of the storied Carter Family, and played guitar and fiddle with the group in the '30s.

In addition, Terry's maternal grandfather was Benny Thomason, the late Texas fiddle giant who taught, among many others, fiddle star Mark O'Connor. Her father is veteran Texas guitarist Jerry Thomason. And she grew up in a Dallas household constantly filled with late-night jams, inspiring her to pursue a singing career.

Terry and Jeff married in 1983, their introduction paved by mutual friend O'Connor. Eventually, they each faced big decisions: a music career or a family life with their young children.

Jeff had returned to touring with Higgins, but Terry was pregnant with their first child and the separation was painful for the young couple. So when the tour ended, Jeff quit, much to Higgins' dismay, and formed the band with Terry.

They played seven years at now-defunct B.T. Bones Steakhouse, home-schooling their kids because of all the late club hours. In 1991, the gig led Terry to a Mercury Polygram recording deal with Harold Shedd, who has produced Alabama, Shania Twain and Toby Keith.

For a year she commuted to Nashville for recording sessions, leaving behind Savannah and Vanessa, then 7 and 4, and baby Josh, 13 months. But she hated being away.

With her album all but complete, the studio was making plans to send her on a nationwide radio promotion tour. But the prospect of more time away from the kids - coupled with tension between Jeff and the label over song choices - forced the issue.

Terry told Shedd it was over. "It came down to this: I may have another opportunity like this and I may not, but I know for sure that I have only one go-around with my babies," she says. "We drove away, and I remember looking in the rear-view mirror, feeling really good about the decision."

So Terry and Jeff poured their energies into their band at a club they helped run, Terry T's Texas Rose Steakhouse. One afternoon in March 1996, they received an unusual call: A man was driving Bill Monroe through Florida and wanted to see if Mr. Monroe could stop by and play that night. He had neglected to bring his mandolin on the road trip, but even at 84, he was itching for a chance to play.

To their surprise, Monroe not only showed up, but performed for several hours with Pinkham's band, using Jeff's mandolin. He signed autographs, then disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived.

In less than a week, he was hospitalized in Nashville with a stroke. He died six months later.

Monroe's visit became part of family lore for the Pinkhams. Josh, only 6, heard the story constantly. By the time he was 10, he was immersed in music, sitting in with his parents' band as a drummer. He displayed a knack for playing off his mom's vocal grooves and dad's live-wire style on mandolin.

Now there's something all bluegrass players know: Mandolin is the most percussive instrument in any bluegrass ensemble, keeping the back beat, infusing the music with a syncopated bounce. It's the "drums" of the traditionally drum-less genre.

And just over two years ago, a precocious 12-year-old drummer whose blood flowed with the music of the Carter Family, a Texas fiddle great and two talented parents eyed his dad's mandolin in the corner of the living room.

The instrument had been signed by Monroe that fateful night - as if it was a gift waiting for Josh.

* * *

Josh had started thinking about mandolin when he saw how impressed his father was with a new hotshot player, Chris Thile of Nickel Creek:

"I thought, "Hmmm, if Dad's so impressed by Chris Thile, maybe I can get as good so I can impress Dad like that, too.' "

So, using the mandolin inscribed by Monroe, Josh began learning the instrument. The mandolin is tuned like a violin, with four double-strings, each pair a fifth apart. Jeff showed him a G scale. The next day, he taught him Sailor's Hornpipe (Popeye's theme song). Josh was a sponge, learning everything his dad showed him, and mastering more on his own.

"I've read books by violin teachers and they talk about neural-muscular memory: how some students can take up an instrument and it will instantly feel natural," Jeff says. "I mean, I still do exercises to make my pinkie go where it's supposed to. Josh's hands just fell right onto the fingerboard the first time, and he's never had to do any hand exercises."

In the fall of 2002, Jeff took his whiz-kid son to the Magnolia Festival in Live Oak. They hung out backstage, where the event's co-promoter, Randy Judy, heard Josh picking. Judy told him to keep it up, he might make it to the main stage someday.

Two hours later, still backstage, mandolin innovator David Grisman heard Josh's picking and invited the teen to join him onstage. "Hey kid, I said someday, not two hours," the promoter told Josh after the show.

Since then, Josh has enjoyed a string of notable appearances: Riverhawk Festival in Dade City, MerleFest 2003 in North Carolina, the International Music Products Association Show in Los Angeles. That's where he got the mandolin from Gibson, which made him an official endorser. Another mandolin company, Rigle, presented him with a $4,000 mandolin.

The next stops for Josh are Festival International de Louisiane (April 21 to 25), then MerleFest 2004 (April 29 to May 2). His goal: win the mandolin contest this time.

* * *

Terry and Jeff work hard to keep their son grounded.

He's expected to do his chores around the house: yardwork, garbage duty, room cleaning. And he has to watch the back talk.

"A lot of musical buddies he's around are adults, and Josh is very comfortable talking to and being around adults," Terry says. "He's got a mature sense of humor, and then he gets back around mom and dad and he thinks he's on that level. And I go, "Dude! Reality check here. We're your parents."'

For a while, if Josh got too mouthy or didn't do his chores, Terry took away his mandolin: "It used to be for a week, then it was two days. Now, if he does something really bad, he doesn't touch the mandolin for three hours. That just kills him."

Their other form of discipline: no computer time, which means he can't read or answer the fan e-mails he receives from all over the world.

Last month, they found a more effective technique. Nickel Creek was playing in Orlando and Thile had e-mailed Josh to tell him backstage passes would be waiting for him. They'd get to hang out, jam together. "But Josh lost his temper with his dad the day of the show - and Jeff had been talking to him about that lately," Terry says. "Jeff warned him, but Josh kept mouthing off. So Jeff goes, "You just bought it. You're not going to the show.' "

Josh raced outside to mow the lawn, did every chore he could. But his parents held firm. "We felt awful making him miss that show - I was crying," Terry says, "but making Joshua grow up and be a good person is so much more important than these opportunities. And he's been different since then."

At Springfest, Josh was in his glory, constantly darting off to perform or find informal picking sessions, rarely sleeping.

He hosted "Josh's Jam" with some of bluegrass' big names, played on the main stage as Josh Pinkham and the Pinkham Family Band, jammed informally around the clock, and hung out with his parents in a booth where Jeff sells his self-designed Elvenwood mandolins and guitars.

Though his "chops" are strong, mentor Mike Marshall, who has signed Josh to a deal on his Adventure Music label, knows he's still growing, still building his own style off the styles of others: "He's going to make a good record now - he's going to make a really good album five years from now."

Early one afternoon, Josh sat inside a tie-dyed tent, getting a quick lesson from Marshall, who has tutored him on the mandolin via e-mail and almost daily phone calls. As usual, Josh's eyes lock right into the gaze of the person sharing the jam. He rarely ever glances down at his hands when he plays.

"Josh is so open-hearted, and just looks right into your eyes, like he's opening his soul, staring right at you," Marshall says. "It's very cool. He's just so passionate about the music, and learns so quickly."

Teacher and student interweave intricate harmony lines to jazzman Charlie Parker's Scrapple from the Apple and the traditional Blackberry Blossom. And a large print of old Bill Monroe watches from the wall behind them with what definitely seems like a smile.

- Dave Scheiber can be reached at 727 893-8541 or scheiber@sptimes.com

ON THE WEB

To hear samples of Josh Pinkham's mandolin playing, go to www.sptimes.com and click on Floridian.

[Last modified April 8, 2004, 10:37:03]


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