Some years ago my wife bought me a banjo for my birthday. This was a supremely selfless act – she was giving me something she really didn’t want me to have – and I had to continue to seem grateful long after I’d quietly decided that the banjo wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get my head round the technique and the little metal picks hurt my fingers. I was also a middle-aged man; too old to start learning an instrument from scratch.
I kept the banjo on a stand near my desk, to show that I cared. But once it provided an alternative to work, playing the banjo started being fun. The world, it transpires, is full of people whose main hobby is posting free banjo lessons on YouTube. It didn’t matter if I was actually getting better, just as long as I was avoiding more pressing business. It was an entirely private passion, unless you were one of my neighbours.
Then I joined a band. An old friend of mine had started playing with a few other guys and I decided I wanted in, so I got myself invited to a rehearsal. I was still terrible, but no one else in the band knew anything about the banjo. They probably thought it was supposed to sound like that. The first banjo solo I played was actually just a series of mistakes. In fact it was all the mistakes I knew at the time.
At that point the band had no gigs and no name – without one you didn’t really need the other. When we did pick the name Police Dog Hogan, we never really thought about having to say it out loud. To whom? Back then I found the prospect of playing in front of people terrifying and a little undignified. Luckily not that many people were interested in witnessing it. When we did play there were more people on stage than in the audience.
That was six years ago. It would be fair to say that in the intervening period, being in a band has taken over my life. We’ve played hundreds of gigs along the way. We’ve played all over England, Wales and Scotland, in Nashville, and live on Radio 2. I once even played the banjo on stage at Glastonbury with Billy Bragg, something I’ll never forget, even though I also can’t remember it very well because I was so nervous.
I still get frightened before we take the stage, but I’ve long since stopped worrying about my dignity – I realised I can get by fine without any. I never had that much dignity to reckon with, and life is a lot easier since I set it aside. And being old and in a band isn’t as odd as it once was. I’m 52, which happens to be the average age of this year’s Glastonbury headliners. In 1997, the average age was 24.
Even so, six years ago I couldn’t imagine who would come to see a bunch of old men play. The answer is: other old people. Like us, our audiences are predominantly middle-aged, or even older. In fact one sees an increasing number of middle-aged people at gigs of all kinds, and even in crowds at Glastonbury (I didn’t go until I was 49). In some ways the over-50s make the best fans – they’re loyal, they have plenty of disposable income and they don’t know how to steal music. If you put out enough chairs, they will come.
I’m not quite saying that you’re never too old to go on tour with a band. You probably can be too old, and I’m sure my wife will be the first to tell me when I am. As for picking up a new instrument, there really is no upper age limit. Go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? You could be absolutely dreadful, I suppose. But it won’t be because you’re old.
Tim Dowling talks to Mary Anne Hobbs about his dual career as a journalist and a banjo player this Saturday (27th June) at 7am on BBC 6 Music