Over eight hundred miles from the Grand Ole Opry and the birthplace of Bluegrass, the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, brothers Tommy, Robbie, and Jonny, have quickly made a name for themselves as one of the quickest rising acts in Bluegrass or Roots music.
That is no small accomplishment when you take into consideration the trio hails from Lebanon Township, New Jersey – not exactly a hotbed for instruments like banjos and fiddles. “New Jersey is not what you would call a Bluegrass state. That’s one of the interesting parts about our story,” said Tommy. “There are definitely Bluegrass fans here, but maybe we’re making a few new ones, which is kind of cool.”
When asked why the brothers became so enamored with the style of the music, Tommy says “Probably because it’s so unique. There’s really not any other kind of music that is similar to it. We also like the pureness of the acoustic sound – there’s no way to hide behind effects or distortion pedals so you have to be proficient on your instrument to play this music well.”
The Mizzone brothers were influenced by the masters, such as J.D. Crowe, Ralph Stanley, and Tony Rice. They also – just like countless others before them – became influenced by the revolutionary five-string banjo playing of Earl Scruggs. However, they weren’t listening to Grandpa’s 78 RPM collection. They picked up the music of Scruggs the way that many others their age are discovering the classics. “We discovered Earl Scruggs through YouTube and fell in love with the music,” said Tommy.
YouTube has been instrumental in getting the name of the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys out to the public. Their videos have been viewed over 20 million times on their YouTube channel (YouTube.com/sleepymanbanjoboys). “That’s one of the coolest parts about everything,” said Robbie. “We have had several of our bedroom practice jam videos go viral and that’s what really kind of took off and helped get us out there.”
Younger brother Jonny is rapidly making a name for himself as a proficient 5-string banjo player. When Jonny was just nine, banjo legend J.D. Crowe was so impressed with his talent that he called him “An old midget,” saying there was no way a kid could play the instrument with such prowess. His skill on the banjo also has helped the band land a couple appearances on the stage of the world famous Grand Ole Opry, and the boys recently returned to the Opry for a second appearance and received two standing ovations and an encore performance.
The band has recorded a pair of albums – America’s Music & The Farthest Horizon – which charted at No. 8 and No. 3 on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart respectively and the trio is already hard at work on their third album – “We’re excited to expand our style of music on the next album, and maybe our audience, too.” said Robbie. “Building off our last album, we’re going to continue with original songs. We usually try to hear a melody in our heads, or try to come up with something on an instrument, and once we have that, we’ll work out an arrangement and start adding all the other parts like bass, mandolin, guitar, and banjo solos. It’s kind of how we get our basic song ideas started.”
Where do their inspirations for their material come from? Robbie says “A lot of it comes from our influences, experiences, and what we like listening to. I think that’s a big part of it. We also love putting our heads together and trying to come up with some new ideas as a group.”
The tie that the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys enjoy as brothers has also allowed them to develop their sound even tighter. “I think that one thing that helps us is living together,” reflected Tommy. “We can call a practice and do it in two minutes if we need to. I think we can get a lot more tight with our music like that.”
And, the music world has taken note of just how strong their sound is. They have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, Huckabee, and The Today Show, played Carnegie Hall, performed at the prominent Newport Folk Festival, and have shared the stage with one of entertainment’s top celebrities. “We were able to play with Steve Martin at the Ryman for an Earl Scruggs tribute,” recalls Tommy. “That was one our favorite things we have ever done – to be backstage with him and jam with him.”
Collectively, the band has picked up endorsement deals from Martin, Huber Banjos, Presonus, DPA, D’Addario and Janet Davis Acoustic Music. Additionally, they have had the blessing of partnering with several charities raising money for orphans and widows through merchandise and touring sales. Robbie said “Our faith in Jesus Christ is very important to us and we wanted to have a ministry, or something we could support as a band.”
Signing with William Morris Endeavor and Jim Mazza at Dreamcatcher Entertainment, the band is looking forward to their future. Where would the band like the future to take them? “We continue to grow as a band and are settling in to our own sound,” said Tommy. As we add vocals, we want to continue to grow our fan base and hopefully attract more young people to this type of music.”
It’s a safe assumption that they are on their way to do just that!