Music

'Dueling Banjos' Picker Eric Weissberg Dies at Age 80

Screengrab via YouTube

Eric Weissberg, one of the pickers behind the iconic version of "Dueling Banjos" heard in the 1972 Burt Reynolds film Deliverance, passed away on Sunday (March 22) following a battle with Alzheimer's. He was 80 years old.

After Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs shared bluegrass with the masses with the Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie & Clyde theme songs and long before O' Brother, Where Art Thou? boosted the public profile of Ralph Stanley and others, Weissberg and flatpicking guitarist Steve Mandell's famous instrumental introduced the mainstream to mountain music.

"Dueling Banjos" was a revision of "Feudin' Banjos," a 1955 recording by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and Don Reno. Weissberg and Mandell's version reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Weissberg was a New York City native, positioning him to learn banjo at a young age from Toshi Aline Ohta--She's often credited as Pete Seeger's future wife, but she deserves billing separate from the Seeger's for helping discover Mississippi John Hurt and staking her own path as a filmmaker. Weissberg went on to take part in the Greenwich Village scene as a member of influential folk groups The Tarriers and Greenbriar Boys.

After the success of "Dueling Banjos," Warner Bros. Records signed Weissberg's band Deliverance and released the 1973 album Rural Free Delivery.

Earlier in his career, Weissberg played on multiple influential folk and bluegrass albums, including the Elektra releases Folk Banjo Styles (1961) and New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass (1963). Songs from the latter also appeared on the Deliverance soundtrack, including the version of "Shuckin' the Corn" that's sampled by the Beastie Boys on Paul's Boutique track "5-Piece Chicken Dinner."

Weissberg went on to become a prolific session musician as a banjo player and multi-instrumentalist. For instance, he can be heard on John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." He also worked with fellow folkies at heart Art Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Doc Watson, Loudon Wainwright III and Tom Paxton; rock legends Billy Joel and The Talking Heads; and jazz musicians Bob James and Herbie Mann.

Weissberg is survived by his wife of 34 years, Juliet, a son named Will and two grandchildren.

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'Dueling Banjos' Picker Eric Weissberg Dies at Age 80