“Bear and a Banjo,” a new podcast from iHeartRadio, is a throwback to the time when families huddled around the living room radio to hear Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, or “The Shadow,” with its famed come-on, “Who knows what evil lurks inside the hearts of men?” It’s a way of creating new folk tales for the Podcast Age, a theater of the mind that proves perfect for Jared Gutstadt’s own background in production music as a founder of Jingle Punks.
But first and foremost, it’s a uniquely modern solution to a recent dilemma: how to distribute, and draw attention to, eight original songs Gutstadt created with hit songwriter Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, which have been produced by T Bone Burnett.
Burnett, “Jingle Jared” and Poo Bear all serve as executive producers for this ambitious audio adventure, as does the podcast’s host, Dennis Quaid (pictured above, along with an additional voice-cast member, Rosanna Arquette).
“Radio was the original way people communicated in this country,” points out Jared, who plays Banjo — not the instrument, but the character — opposite sidekick Poo Bear. He realized there were a lot of similarities between today’s podcasts and the commercial-sponsored country radio shows which sprouted up across the country in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
The eight episodes of “Bear and a Banjo” (the first of which premiered Oct. 3) take the shape of found aural documents from the ‘30s to the ‘70s, as alleged first-hand accounts of the titular apocryphal musical duo. These two find themselves, like Zelig or Forrest Gump, alongside real-life historical events and figures, from the wrongful conviction of Leadbelly and an ill-fated card game with Sonny Liston in the opening half-hour to the wedding of Sister Rosetta Tharp and the start of the CIA later on.
Quaid is the podcast’s narrator and guide, playing Dr. Q, who helps uncover these long-lost tales. (The actor also contributes a memorable cameo as Robert F. Kennedy, who questions Banjo before a House Committee investigation into the role of the Mafia in the music business.) Other guest stars in future episodes include Arquette and Zac Brown.
Meanwhile, Burnett even convinced his old pal Bob Dylan to contribute some previously unrecorded lyrics for a song which turned into “Gone but Not Forgotten.” All of the rest were written and performed by Boyd and Gutstadt — on banjo guitar to be precise — and, thanks to Burnett, sit squarely in the Americana genre, with a nod towards critic Greil Marcus’ “old weird America” from which Dylan plumbs so much material.
The members of the podcast all gathered for a press event in Boyd’s multilevel recording studio and office complex in Studio City. Turns out the genesis of the project came about three years ago, when an inebriated Jared walked up to Justin Bieber outside an L.A. hotel, who said he had to meet Poo Bear, calling him “the best songwriter in the world.” (His slew of credits later came to include the Bieber remix for “Despacito.”)
“Poo is a remarkable pop producer, but he also has this blues, soul and folk side to him, too,” said Gutstadt, shortly before the two leaned into the Dylan lyrics, with Boyd evincing a soaring falsetto Dylan couldn’t reach on helium. “I’m very weird and academic, but Poo’s a natural. It was all ‘less chords, less notes’…”
Gutstadt, who was in character for the press-meeting occasion in a Nudie-style spangled jacket and hat, adopted a playful Dylanesque sing-song drawl in playing Banjo, who is constantly getting the more circumspect Poo into various scrapes along the way. “Dylan has had around nine different voices in his career,” he says. “This was his late ‘90s/early 2000s version, where he’s playing a midwestern carny. If you’re going to do something goofy, might as well go all the way. Dylan is the true center of this; he’s the beacon of American ideas.”
The show’s narratives combine fiction and reality with the aplomb of an E.L. Doctorow novel, using various story-telling techniques through technology, old and new, very much like the original “Blair Witch Project.” Individual episodes were written by noted music journalists Tom Piazza and Bill Flanagan as well as Burnett’s friend Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of HBO’s “True Detective.”
“I thought the podcast format lent itself particularly well to music, but the publishing and performance rights are usually so expensive, we just decided to create the songs ourselves,” explained Jared. “This is a film for your ears. We want to build a brand here — create the Marvel Cinematic Universe of musicals.”
“I was intrigued by taking a new approach to releasing music outside the normal industry channels, like Woody Guthrie once did,” explained Burnett, describing his involvement as producer in the project, which began with the eight songs that will appear, one every week, in each episode. These songs will be released to all streaming services on the Friday after the premiere of the podcast the day before, until a full album is assembled. “The narrative for the radio show came about at least a year later. I wouldn’t call it exactly reverse-engineering, but it was present in the warp-and-woof of the songs.”
Dennis Quaid points to Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” album as an example of the kind of concept “Bear and a Banjo” aspires to. “It conjures a story in the mind. T Bone put Jared and I together, because they needed a narrator. My character is sort of an erudite, academic know-it-all trying to win the Nobel Prize for music.”
Quaid’s Dr. Q is related to music archivists and field recordists such as Alan Lomax, Jac Holzman or Harry Smith (famous for his “Anthology of American Folk Music”) crossed with the Coens’ recent Western anthology “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which Jared was watching when the idea came to him.
The podcast itself took root at SXSW, where “Bear and a Banjo” managed to snag an opening slot for Tim McGraw, thanks to iHeartMedia, which caught the eye and ear of Giant Spoon media powerhouse Laura Correnti. A big believer in the retentive power of audio media in an attention-deficit age, she proceeded to pull in health provider One Medical, which inspired the original song “Better Days,” but has otherwise let the creators do their thing with no interference.
Boyd may be a surprise in this context, as a multi-platinum pop producer/writer whose credits also include Usher, Mariah Carey, Jill Scott, 112, J Balvin and Lupe Fiasco as well as Bieber. But he says he’d always wanted to perform roots music. “Playing around with Jared, pretending to be this Americana band, was the perfect escape for me from my everyday life,” he says on the deck of his studio complex. “And then it just took on a life of its own. It keeps evolving to the point where even we don’t know what to expect.”
The imagery of the biracial musicians — in real life, a black American from Baltimore and a white Jewish kid from Toronto — recalls similar iconic teams like Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons or the “Ebony and Ivory” of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
“It’s true to life, because there are so many situations that Jared aka Banjo gets me into that I wouldn’t ordinarily get into,” said Poo, pointing out the plot’s similarities to real life. “The story is very parallel to our lives over the past two or three years we’ve worked together.”
Poo Bear is perhaps the only artist around that can say he’s worked with both Justin Bieber and Bob Dylan, writing the music for the latter’s “Gone, But Not Forgotten.”
“Knowing his ability to stretch the truth, I asked Banjo, ‘Are these really Bob Dylan lyrics?'” he laughed. “But they are amazing. So visual, so poetic. Bob Dylan really was the first rapper, even before Sugar Hill Gang. A lot of people don’t know that.
“I’m a real melody guy, so words don’t come easy to me. To be able to put my melody to his lyrics, put the soul in it… It’s like we’ve all been there — having somebody we love that left us. I’ve been through that. It was a blessing, a dream come true, to do that.”
One could say the same thing about “Bear and a Banjo,” which started as a dream between two musicians taking a holiday from their day jobs and has now turned into podcast reality.
With a sly angle on racism — and a potential anthem in “No Way (That’s Not America),” which will premier on the second episode on Oct. 10 — “Bear and a Banjo” has plenty on its mind in looking for parallels between the past and present.
“Growing up as dark as I am has been hard, a struggle for me,” admitted Jason. “I’ve always had to over-prove myself. This story shows, no matter what color or race you are, if you have a vision, and you work hard, you can achieve your goal … even if you have a crazy partner like Banjo who is pulling you in all these different directions. Anything is possible.”