200 STORIES, FEATURING VAN COLBERT
Ahead of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, the National Endowment for the Arts seeded folklife programs across the country, leading to our own folk and traditional arts program anchored at the University of Missouri. In Missouri’s own bicentennial year, our staff has been sharing stories over the course of 2021 about folk and traditional arts in the Show Me State. Some of these Stories have landed here on the Show Me Folk blog first, as we share portraits composed by some of our favorite community scholars.
For the post below, we thank Marideth Sisco, who put on her journalistic-ethnographic hat to conduct a series of interviews in south central Missouri in 2019. Today’s post features master banjo player Van Colbert, particularly sharing his family history; his participation in the Blackberry Winter Band’s North American tour in support of the independent film Winter’s Bone; and his 2018 apprenticeship with Cindy Parry. Our thanks to Marideth for the interviews and stories she shared, adding another layer to the 200 Stories project.
based on a 2019 interview with Marideth Sisco
Van Colbert, Missouri master of the drop-thumb, two finger, clawhammer banjo, may have earned his entire hillbilly credibility the night he arrived. At the very least, it was very near the beginning of a great fable. The third child of Joseph Truiett and Veneica May (Easley) Colbert, Van was born Feb. 7, 1955, in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, in a snowstorm – in the cab of his parents’ pickup truck. They had actually made it to the hospital in West Plains, Mo. ahead of the doctor, who was delayed by the bad roads. But they didn’t make it inside. Van’s name was taken from a tribal elder in Virginia, where Van’s mother once taught at an Indian school because she thought he was a good man. It was a classic story of Ozarks hill life. Do what needs doing, and call it good.
Shortly, though, the growing family’s fortunes needed a step up, and they left the Ozarks in search of a better job with a paycheck that would support them all. Van was still an infant when the family moved to St. Louis. His father soon found work delivering packages for the Railway Express Co., a forerunner of United Parcel Service. He and the growing family settled in and stayed more than a decade in the city. At the time, they loved the city and its opportunities, Van said. By the time they moved back to the Ozarks, when Van was twelve, the family had grown to seven boys and one girl, and the siblings were not in favor of the move.
“All of us kids hated it when we had to move back. We loved living in the city because there was so much to do. Of course, it was what we knew. But as time went by, we changed our minds. I still enjoy going to the city to do things. But I wouldn’t want to live there. I don’t miss it at all.”
Even in the city, he said, his favorite hours were spent sitting at home listening to his father play guitar or banjo and singing the old Ozarks ballads. And they never lost track of their country roots. At every holiday and long weekend, they were off to visit relatives and renew their spirits. And the whole time they were away, all but two were playing music with their dad, or without him. Old-time Ozarks music, but about every other kind of music as well. Southern blues, rock and roll, pop, even a little jazz.
But when they returned to the Ozarks for good, some of the kids’ city ways didn’t set well with some of the locals, Van said. “Some of us had adopted enough of the urban counter culture to be dubbed ‘long-hairs’ by local people. We had to fight our way through a lot of that. A couple of us still wear our hair long. That’s how we like it,” he said and grinned. “Not that we’re stubborn or anything.”
One thing that held the clan together through the changes, he said, was the music. With their dad at the helm, they were now a family band. On his 13th birthday, shortly after the family returned to Willow Springs, Van’s father brought home a stout little Silvertone banjo from a local pawnshop and told Van to get busy. If they were going to have a family band, he explained, somebody had to play banjo. Van has been playing ever since.
“The banjo ain’t for everybody,” he said. “My dad was my first teacher. My dad’s the one that taught me the thumb and finger roll, all the basics. Then, I started watching other players: Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, Tommy Thompson from the Red Clay Ramblers. And Frank Profitt. He played fretless banjo. And Reed Martin. I guess, from all of them, the one I learned the most from, and learned to play like, was Tommy Thompson. Of course, I could never play as well as him.”
There are those who would dispute that. But Van said he knows he can play. But even after all these years, he has some trouble playing for the public. That’s surprising, as the Colbert Brothers Band has been asked to be the opening act at the Old-Time Music, Ozarks Heritage Festival in West Plains, MO. for literally decades. Asked if the Colberts had opened for the festival from the very start, he said no, he was too shy to play at first.
“We sat out the first four or five years because I was too shy to get up on stage,” he said. But, he observed, it was a good thing he got over it, because in 2009, when he was asked to play banjo in a movie, he wasn’t too shy to accept.
Colbert’s talent landed him a small musical role in the low budget independent film Winter’s Bone, a story of poverty, drugs and family loyalty in a darker side of Ozarks. The film became a “sleeper” hit, earning it four Oscar nominations and national notoriety. Van didn’t appear on screen but was featured in the soundtrack and ended up touring the U.S with the band that promoted the movie and its score, Blackberry Winter. He counts it as one of the truly watershed experiences of his lifetime.
“It was really cool. It was too hard on me because I have a heart condition, and I didn’t know if I could make it. But it was worth it. It was the neatest thing I’ll ever do, getting to tour the whole United States playing the banjo. I saw things I never would have never seen otherwise, and met some really wonderful people.”