Because she grew up as the youngest of 10 kids, Donna Lynn Caskey (aka the “banjo gal”) had the run of the place by the time she was 9 years old. It was the Tidewater area of the Virginia coast, and there was music in the air, handed down through the maternal lineage from Caskey’s great-grandfather to her granny to her mom. The older siblings also contributed to Caskey’s musical education with far-ranging influences, from Buddy Holly to the B-52s: “I remember old 78s with scratchy fiddle music they had from yard sales and thrift stores. Sisters also introduced me to the wonders of the record bin at the local public library,” she recalls.
There were also MTV dance parties, college radio shows, mix tapes and live music in the house, as several of the Caskey kids played instruments — violin, viola, guitar, banjo, flute and piccolo. All of it combined to form a passion for music that is both wide and deep, and one that Caskey leans into for her own artistry. “There’s still nothing quite like hearing a beloved tune spontaneously turn up on the radio, to have a new tune catch your ear and touch your heart,” she muses.
With her eclectic palette and a fondness for hymns in tow, Caskey made her way to the banjo, partly due to watching lots of Austin City Limits as a kid. She notes, “I went to college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and would go listen to old-time and bluegrass jams on the weekend. I absolutely fell in love with the music, banjos in particular. I heard Mike Seeger [Pete’s half-brother] play a show. He made music and banjo seem so accessible, so I bought my first banjo as a college graduation present to myself.”
The banjo became her security blanket, her morale booster, her nerve calmer. “I was a shy, closet singer for much of my early life. Nerves made it hard for me to sing solo for a long time. Playing banjo helped me get out there and get over it enough to do it.”
And do it she did. A mythological studies program at Santa Barbara’s Pacifica Graduate Institute lured her — and her banjo — from one coast to the other around 2001. Though she only took one semester of the program, California had called and Caskey had answered. “It felt like the right move. And I was right — it was as though a whole life was waiting for me. My first day in town I met a fiddler at the farmers market up there. He invited me to a weekly old-time jam and those people are still part of my extended musical family. It felt right to stop school and focus on learning banjo.” Part of that learning came in Ojai from Brad Leftwich, an old-time banjo and fiddle player, who gave Caskey lessons.
As her musical craft has progressed, her artistic creativity has spread outward, and Caskey puts a good amount of energy into visual art as well. “Creative process is creative process in a lot of ways. It doesn’t matter what the medium is so much. I love images — you can create images with words and sounds just as much as you can with paper and paint, for instance.”
Collages are Caskey’s main mode and they often coincide with the themes in her songs or, as she explains, “They can cross-pollinate each other. The flow of collage can get a song flowing, can help me find a word, a color, a feel.” And by piecing scraps and scratches together, be they musical or visual, Caskey makes her mark.
Donna Lynn Caskey will celebrate the release of her new album, Nameless Heart, at the Unitarian Universalist Church on April 6, at 2 p.m. 5654 Ralston St., Ventura. For more information, visit www.donnalynncaskey.com.