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Music on the Porch celebrates Southern sounds with two famous banjoists

Music on the Porch
Bajoists Rex McGee and Ryan Cavanaugh are coming to UNC on Thursday for Music on the Porch.

Grab your picnic blanket and settle in for two world-renowned banjoists on the porch of Love House and Hutchins Forum this Thursday at 5:30 p.m., rain or shine. 

The free concert is open to the public and is the first of this year’s Music on the Porch series – a celebration of Southern music and culture. The concert, sponsored by UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, features Rex McGee and Ryan Cavanaugh, musicians and friends with North Carolina ties.

“Rex and Ryan are two of the most talented banjo players alive,” said CSAS Associate Director Pat Horn. “We were impressed by their music, that they play this quintessentially Southern instrument and, in addition to being world experts, that they’re also formerly teacher and student.”

Before meeting, family inspired McGee and Cavanaugh to pick up the banjo and a few other instruments along the way. 

McGee grew up in a musical household on his family farm near Sauratown Mountain. He was already playing fiddle at 4 years old. When he turned 12, his grandfather handed him a banjo with one stipulation: he could only keep it if he learned how to play it. 

“I’ve still got that banjo,” McGee said.

Cavanaugh’s Great Uncle Pat, a musician originally from Wexford, Ireland, acquired an American banjo before ever visiting the United States. 

“When the Irish got their hands on the banjo, they put four strings on it and tuned it like a violin,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a mystery in our family how an American five-string banjo got in his hands.” 

The mystery turned to destiny. 

Cavanaugh was a banjo-playing natural; he became one of the best banjoists in Mount Airy before his 13th birthday. But he wanted to be even better. 

“My mother asked me one day, ‘Would you like me to pursue instructors for you?’" Cavanaugh said. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ So, she tracked down Rex McGee.”

McGee has served as Cavanaugh’s musical mentor since they started lessons together. After working on their own projects, they both landed in Chapel Hill in the early 2000s and played their first Music on the Porch session together in 2011.  

“We had a good time building up the music scene,” McGee said. “There are some really good banjo players in town.” 

Since then, McGee has played in his band, Kripplekrunk, and Cavanaugh has been touring worldwide with a jazz ensemble. 

“I don’t get to see Ryan as much anymore,” McGee said. “The last 10 years he’s just constantly been on the road. Getting to have a reunion is a good thing.” 

Nearly seven years after their last performance in Chapel Hill, the two are happy to be back, playing a mix of genres, styles and fan-favorite tunes.  

“I’ve been Nashville-based for the last year and lived in New York City for five years before that, so this is the beginning of my return to bluegrass,” Cavanaugh said. “This show commemorates my homecoming.”


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