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In her living room in North Andover, Michelle Canning eagerly opens a case to reveal one of the four instruments she owns.
"I really love this banjo," she says, then starts picking.
Michelle smiles, through braces, as her fingers bounce across the banjo's neck, body and strings. The 15-year-old looks especially young behind such an old-timey instrument, but Michelle explains that she first fell for the banjo seven years ago.
"Well, when I was eight years old, I went to my grandfather's house to sleep over. And I said 'Pepe, let's make a band.' So he said, 'Well, I'll play the guitar, and you play the banjo.' "
Michelle had no idea what a banjo was. Her grandfather pulled one out of his closet, she says. "I just fell in love with it after that."
Michelle has been picking and grinning nearly half her life. And this weekend she'll go head to head with a slew of seasoned musicians at the Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Contest, now in its 30th year. The competition is always fierce, but Michelle is primed after winning the New England Banjo Championship in July. She's the first female, and the youngest musician, ever to earn the title.
But Michelle's success comes after years of hard work and support. Back when she was 8, Michelle's parents found a teacher willing to take on such a young picker. Her dad, Ken, played guitar with her but admits, "at some point a couple years ago, I had trouble keeping up."
The rest of Michelle's family is musical. Her two brothers also play instruments, but not in her style. Her parents have taken Michelle to bluegrass festivals and contests in New England, New York and Missouri. Family photos chronicle her evolution.
"The first question always is, How old is she?" says Michelle's mom, Donna. Her daughter's age and ability won fans this summer at the championship in Maine. Michelle recalls how the crowd rooted for her.
"A lot of people there want to keep bluegrass living," Michelle believes, "and that's not going to happen if kids don't start playing, so, they get excited about things like that."
Michelle gets excited about honing her chops at weekly jam sessions in coffee houses and restaurants. Her family often takes her to the sprawling Stagecoach Inn and Tavern in Groton. The many rooms here fill with fiddlers, guitarists, banjo pickers. As usual, Michelle is junior, by far. She's jamming with three other musicians, including David Atwood on guitar.
"I've accepted the fact that a 15-year-old is going to play circles around a 60-year-old," Atwood says, laughing. He remembers when he first saw Michelle on the banjo a few years ago. "She could play, she could really play."
But Andy Katz, the Dobro player here, felt differently when he met Michelle. "She didn't wow me, as a banjo player, she was just a great person, came over and joined a jam that we had, she was nervous." But now Katz says with a wink, "she rocks."
And rocks and rocks and rocks, Michelle's mom says. Donna chaperones the teen at festivals and jam sessions like this one, driving her all over the place. "Sometimes at night when she's jamming real late, it gets cold, and I'll look at her sometimes and say, 'Michelle, I'm tired, it's time, you know?' And she'll usually play one or two more songs and off we go."
Michelle has a life outside the banjo. At high school she's in the drama club and the jazz band. She says her friends think the banjo is pretty cool because it's different. Michelle says she'd keep picking all night long, if she could.
"The latest I've stayed up is 3:30," she says wistfully.
There's no telling how late the jam on this night will go, but chances are, even when Michelle Canning gets home, she'll keep picking, as quietly as she can, in bed.
This program aired on September 11, 2009.
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