The cast of the Bear and a Banjo podcast have slipped out of their audio personas and stepped into the real world, specifically into Black Star Music Studio in Studio City, Calif. Dennis Quaid, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, “Jingle” Jared Gutstadt and Rosanna Arquette, alongside producer T Bone Burnett, came together to discuss the launch of their innovative musical history project — which premiered this month under the joint helm of Gutstadt’s company Jingle Punks and iHeartPodcast Network.
The cast sat down with Billboard to unpack their journey into the “wild west” of podcasting. Unlike any other musical podcast, Bear and a Banjo is a fictional anthology series that follows the unlikely duo of Bear (Boyd) and Banjo (Gutstadt), who are placed in pivotal moments of American musical history à la the comedically chronicled 1994 film Forrest Gump.
Some of the genuine historical moments Bear and Banjo experience and influence include blues icon Lead Belly getting broken out of jail by folklorists John and Alan Lomax in 1934 and the extravagant wedding of rock-and-roll trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1951. But Bear and a Banjo is a historical moment in its own right by telling the first musical narrative within the podcast medium. The audio-heavy production comes with an eight-song soundtrack originally written by Boyd and Gutstadt and produced by T Bone Burnett. Bob Dylan, for whom Burnett was a guitarist in the 1970s, contributed lyrics to “Gone But Not Forgotten,” which will premiere during the eighth episode (set to be released Nov. 21) alongside Arquette’s guest appearance as Louise.
With the premiere of each podcast episode every Thursday, a new song from the soundtrack will be available the following day on all digital streaming platforms. The first three episodes are currently available on the podcast’s website and their accompanying tracks, alongside the “Better Days” bonus single, are already out on all digital streaming platforms.
“We’re a fake band, to be honest,” Boyd told Billboard. “And [Gutstadt and I] were just gigging on Saturdays, making music, and we decided, ‘You know what? Let’s make this an even more fake band and actually record these songs.’”
Ahead of the interview, the two teamed up for an intimate performance — so much so that Boyd teased Gutstadt about their touching knees — of some of their original songs exclusively for the podcast. Gutstadt’s guitar playing was curt in the verses of “No Way (That’s Not America)” but streamlined for the chorus, adding a fitting layer to Poo Bear’s singing “without preaching” for a more optimistic nation. The renowned songwriter doesn’t get much time in front of the mic, but when he does, his spectacular vocal range is shown through songs like the blues-folk fusion track “Can You Hear Me Now?”
Boyd said he’s “personally always wanted to be part of an Americana project,” which is different from pop undertakings with his No. 1 client Justin Bieber — with whom he co-wrote “10,000 Hours,” alongside the massive country duo Dan + Shay. His genre versatility has lent him a hand in Gutstadt’s unconventional audio storytelling project.
“So we assembled this Marvel Avengers of legends and amazing actors and writers and producers together,” Gutstadt said with a laugh. “Between Dennis, Rosanna, Poo, the Bob Dylan lyric stuff, T Bone and all the writers that have been involved is what attracted me to all of this. I just wanted to work with the best people across all parts of the entertainment business.”
Quaid, who voices the host character “Dr. Q,” described Bear and a Banjo as “a true fiction of American music.” He compared the visually imaginative quality of podcasts today to the collective listening experience of radio programs back in the day.
“It harkens back to the old radio programs that they used to have… back in the ‘40s, ‘30s, when the whole family would sit around the radio and imagine together,” he said. “And it’s a great way to listen and to be in your car for about 20 minutes long, which is the attention span of most people. You know, that’s also about the average distance it takes you to go wherever you’re going. Or you can get lost for an hour.”
And that kind of talent is ingrained in Arquette’s DNA: Her grandfather, Cliff Arquette, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for his contribution to radio and theater, according to the famous boulevard’s website. Her love for music drew her to the project — with the help of her brother David Arquette’s introduction to Gutstadt.
“She definitely has a connection to music — about half the songs in the ‘80s are about her,” Quaid teased her, as Poo Bear thanked Arquette for her historically inspiring tracks such as Toto’s No. 2 Hot 100 hit “Rosanna” from 1982 and Peter Gabriel’s No. 26 hit “In Your Eyes” from 1986.
“I think the special ingredients is just the fact that it’s different threads of my style of writing, [Gutstadt’s] style of playing chords, Dennis’ character and even [Rosanna’s] character came all together just makes this gumbo and it’s new,” he said. “I feel like it could possibly be the beginning of something really cool.”
But why hasn’t it been done before? It’s incredibly expensive and time-consuming to get all of the necessary licenses for music that’s already been recorded — especially if you’re shopping for a major band’s catalog like Queen or The Beatles, according to Gutstadt. He’s become all too familiar with the rights side of the music business because of his role as president/CCO of Jingle Punks, a music publishing and licensing company he co-founded in 2008.
“I was like, ‘If we’re going to do a musical, we have to write our own music and license it into our own so we can build our own IP up,’” he explained. “And I kind of think that could be the future of entertainment: musical stories built from the ground up.”