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She picked the banjo to relieve stress

Jennifer Stanton, 49, has played music since she was 15 years old, after she was given a guitar and music lessons for her birthday.

During her lessons she played both Bob Dylan and classical pieces, but never found a type of music she really enjoyed. It wasn't until she was in college in 1985 that she realized country music was her passion.

"I had grown up watching 'Hee Haw' and Buck Owens, but growing up in New York City I didn't have much exposure to country music," said Stanton. "When I heard Rosanne Cash and Reba McEntire, I fell hard for it."

While Stanton played at family events and with friends, she rarely performed for strangers. She said she has always considered herself a shy person and never felt she was good enough.

"Although I loved it, it was more of a hobby than anything," said Stanton.

In 1993, Stanton began working as vice president of Strategic Planning for the real estate firm Faison in Charlotte. She also had a son, Raymond, and found her life had become busier than she expected. Her music took a back seat to career and son.

In 2002, at 42, Stanton was laid-off after Faison sold some of its real estate portfolios.

"I was completely overwhelmed and stressed out," she said. "I didn't know what I would do next."

As a way of relieving her stress, Stanton began taking music lessons with an old-time country instructor. The other students were no older than 12 and musically were far in advance of Stanton.

"I hadn't played in 10 years," she said. "These students were remarkable and I was having a hard time keeping up on the guitar."

Her instructor suggested she try the banjo.

"I learned to finger-pick when I was taught classical guitar," said Stanton. "The banjo came easy to me, and I really enjoyed it."

Stanton said the banjo isn't an instrument meant to be played alone; it usually is accompanied by the fiddle. In an attempt to learn to play the banjo better, she sought out another adult student, Rita Hartman, to play the fiddle with her.

"We were both beginners and played every Wednesday night together at my house," said Stanton. "But when we first got together, we couldn't get through one song."

After attending a singing workshop in 2006 in Greensboro, Stanton found what she and Hartman needed. During the workshop she was paired with Tom Covington, a Charlotte resident and avid old-time country guitar player.

"He joined us every week and we all played together," said Stanton. "His presence really helped us become better."

Word spread of the Wednesday night meetings, and eventually more people began to show up to play.

Stanton said that anywhere from six to 10 people come to her home every week for dinner and "making a racket."

As her playing progressed, Stanton became more confident in her ability.

In 2009, Covington encouraged Stanton to audition for the Spenser-Bryant music scholarship awarded by the Charlotte Folk Society. The scholarship grants recipients a full ride to a weeklong adult music camp, the Swannanoa Gathering, to play old-time country.

"When I arrived to the auditions, I was so nervous," said Stanton. "There were people trying out who, under different circumstances, I would have asked for their autographs."

Stanton played the banjo and sang, which she believes helped give her an edge over the competition. "Not many people play the banjo and sing," she said. "It's really an old-time tradition."

She won the scholarship, and when she returned from camp she felt more energized than ever to play with others.

Since her experience in 2009, Stanton has become involved with four groups, all with different styles of country: old-time, honky-tonk, accordion fusion and choir music. She also is involved with the Charlotte Folk Society and helps lead the "slow-jam" session for beginners and performs at the Mint Hill and Davidson farmers markets.

Stanton's favorite music to perform is still old-time country. She said she was able to attend the Country Music Awards in Las Vegas in 2000 and became inspired by the musicians who performed.

"Country music is raw, earthy and real," said Stanton. "The beauty of it is that it's not synthesized or over-produced."

Her son, Raymond, now 17, hasn't followed his mother's passion for music, though Stanton said he can play almost anything he picks up.

"What takes me 10 tries to get, he gets in one," said Stanton.

Stanton also began her own retail advisory service company in 2002. She said owning her own business has allowed her to keep playing and have the flexibility to perform.

Stanton said her immediate goals are to keep playing and one day become a good enough musician to perform with those she admires. She also wants to encourage others to play.

"It doesn't matter if you're shy or if you don't think you are good," said Stanton. "Just pick something up and try."