Ernest Herndon

Genre: Bluegrass



There’s something unique about the idea of canoeing Mississippi waters accompanied by the pastoral and timeless sounds of a banjo. No one understands this thought better than writer, musician, and adventurer Ernest Herndon. As author of Canoeing Mississippi and Paddling the Pascagoula, he has paddled every major river and stream in Mississippi. Herndon is also a staff writer for the Enterprise-Journal newspaper in McComb, and he even plays banjo in the Bluegrass group Dogwood Cross. If pickin’ and paddling sounds enjoyable, Ernest Herndon is your man.


What was your first memory of music being something important in your life?

Shortly after I turned 13, my dad walked in the house and handed me a guitar he had bought at the PX (we were living on a military base in Okinawa) for $10. I fell in love with it instantly. Later I bought a fiddle for $75 from a pawn shop on Beale Street in Memphis. After that, I got a banjo. I plunked around with it but didn't get serious until the 1990s.

You have said that you do not have a particular banjo style.

I am self-taught. I don't read music, either. I play a cross between old-timey (clawhammer) and bluegrass styles without properly playing either. I don't use finger picks and I alternate between two- and three-finger picking as the need arises. As a longtime former guitar player I place a lot of emphasis on the left (fretting) hand as well. Banjoist Mark Johnson uses the term "clawgrass" and I like that.


Tell me about your current bluegrass group, Dogwood Cross.

We call ourselves bluegrass-gospel just to give people an idea of the type of music they will be hearing, but really our style encompasses folk, blues, country and other influences. We do a mix of traditional and original. We have two CDs out, "Fertile Soil" and "Mississippi, Land that I love." Members are Thomas Bessonette, Billy Gunther, Keith Guy, Tim Higginbotham and Sam Moore.

When you camp, do you take an instrument?

I have a banjo-mandolin with a metal body that is small, light and tough, and I have a travel guitar, so I take either or both. I play everything from blues to hymns, Celtic to Bach. I've serenaded wild landscapes from the glaciers of Montana to the swamps of the Atchafalaya. It's a major stress reliever on a trip and can be a form of worship.

What's been your most memorable canoeing experience?

There have been many; I've canoed for more than 30 years all over North America and in
the tropics. One of the most memorable was when I was canoe-camping on the Homochitto River in southwest Mississippi in 1979 and woke to a flash flood. The river had risen maybe 15 feet overnight and was a raging torrent, with sections of bank falling in, whole trees bobbing down the river, and a whirlpool as wide as a house. We were in a remote location and paddling out seemed the best option. We almost didn't make it out of there.

Either dead or living, who would you like to ride the river with?

Jesus Christ! And hopefully someday I will.