Newport Folk Festival: Sleepy Man Banjo Boys

Sunday’s music began with Sleepy Man Banjo Boys on the Fort stage. The weather might have been a little chilly, but kits were flying high in the air as the talented trio took the stage. They delivered that country twang and it started to feel like the ’50s with old time tracks that sounded like Flatt & Scruggs. The crowd let out loud cheers even though it was only 11 AM because of how talented Sleep Man Banjo Boys were and are. The impressive part? They’re all under 15 years old.

Banjo picker Jonny Mizzone, the youngest of the three and arguably most talented, is only ten years old. His brother Robbie (13) plays fiddle and Tommy (15) plays guitar, and their uncle joined them on mandolin and another on upright bass. The trio had their breakout moment a few years ago when people began seeing their YouTube videos and realized the brothers were playing the music themselves and genuinely having a rollicking good time, too. The videos – which have a combined nine million views – shot the bluegrass band into fame and landed them spots on The Late Show with David Letterman and NBC’s Today Show in the summer of 2011.

“It’s just really amazing to be able to play at this festival,” said Tommy. The smiles on his brothers’ faces made it clear he was speaking for all of them. It seemed the crowd was just as happy that they were there. People applauded in the middle of the song after each solo, cheering and whistling away. If the ground at Newport was wood instead of grass, you would no doubt be able to hear everyone stomping their feet along like we were all in the basement of a country, late-night dance off.

“Bugle Call Rag” featured some of Jonny’s finest finger-picking. As a banjo player myself, it was remarkable to see someone so young be as quick and on the spot as Jonny. His playing was actually so accurate that it almost became easy to forget how difficult it is to do what he did.

While their set was only twenty minutes long, they were able to jam in an impressive number of tracks to their setlist. Maybe it’s best the set was only that long; I wouldn’t be surprised if the three boys’ fingers fell off after playing music that quickly.


By Nina Corcoran

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