The Panfill Brothers
Mark & Chris Panfil: The Panfill Brothers - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2016
For brothers Mark and Chris Panfil, making music was just a part of growing up in a close-knit family from Lackawanna.
Early on, their talents were encouraged on a wide variety of instruments, making them the sort of in-demand “utility” players who can pick up gigs seemingly at will. Mark covers banjo, dobro, piano, accordion and harmonica. Chris specializes in fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, acoustic and electric guitars.
Now, as they are being recognized for their various talents and contributions with their induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, they are quick to give credit where it is due.
“It’s definitely an honor,” said Mark, referring to their induction into the Hall. “To be included with the people from the past who are in there, who we’ve heard about all our lives—Harold Arlen, Spyro Gyra, Bobby Militello—these people are heroes. It’s just a big honor.
“I know I speak for Chris when I say that our Dad, although he didn’t teach us lessons, he was as hands-on as he could be. He bought us our first instruments and sought out lessons for us, and then would take us to various bluegrass festivals and expose us to different kinds of styles. So it also means a lot to his legacy. He passed away in 1991, in his early 60s, and never got to see us when we finally began to play as the Panfil Brothers. He always encouraged us to call ourselves that, but we were always sidemen in other acts,” he recalled.
Their dad, Eugene “Gene” Panfil, was an amateur musician who specialized in the harmonica. A lawyer, he spent a lot of time working in Albany, driving back and forth to their Lackawanna home on weekends, passing time on the road by blowing on the harp. The brothers also recall the sound of his fingertips softly tickling the ivories of the family piano late into the night. Their mom, Loretta, possessed a beautiful voice and would take the boys to sing in the St. Paul’s Cathedral Men and Boys’ Choir in Buffalo three times a week.
By the age of 14, Mark had begun playing the banjo while his 11-year-old brother had started picking away on the mandolin and sawing on the fiddle. They both point to the landmark album Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall as a seminal influence. Upon hearing the infectious sound, they got bit by the bluegrass bug—an affliction from which they have never recovered.
While still in their teens, they formed the Erie Lackawanna Railroad Bluegrass Band and began playing venues throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario during the thriving 1970s country music scene. When Chris graduated from Lackawanna High School, he left to play bluegrass in Florida, while Mark continued on with his music studies at the University of Buffalo.
Upon completion of his degree, Mark was hired as a vocal music teacher by the Frontier Central School District in Hamburg. He was soon filling his nights as the piano, banjo, dobro and fiddle player for the Quarter Horse Country Band.
From his Florida base, Chris toured Europe and around the southern U.S., first with a five-piece outfit called Bluegrass Southern Style, and later with newgrass pioneers Sleepless Nites. In 1985, he returned to Buffalo to complete his college degree in electronic communications technology.
He also joined his brother playing with local bluegrass legends Creek Bend—a gig they both maintain to this day. After several years playing country music with the J.C. Thompson Band, Chris moved to Nashville. While there, Chris spent several years as an in-demand musician, playing with touring acts, as a session player and landing a coveted steady gig at the Stagecoach—a popular haunt for industry insiders in Music City.
Like his brother, Chris went on to teach. He is currently a technology education teacher in the Lake Shore school district, instructing teens in audio recording technique and live sound set-up and operation, among other things.
They both admit to a “healthy amount of competition” between one another when they were younger. Now, “We have a lot more musical similarities than we have differences,” said Chris.
“We’re lucky,” Mark added with a chuckle. “We cherish that. And we work at it. We really try not to get the other one mad.”
One thing that helps is that there isn’t much overlap in their multi-instrumental duties. “Chris plays guitar, I play piano; I play banjo, Chris plays mandolin,” said Mark.
“What’s the sense in duplicating things?” Chris added. One exception is the harmonica, which they both play, like their Dad.
One thing passed down from their parents is their dedication to spreading the love of playing music to young people. For the past 16 years they’ve both been instructors at the prestigious Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York and the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania as part of the Bluegrass Academy for Kids—where up to 140 youngsters get the opportunity to learn songs on bluegrass instruments and then perform them on the main stage.
Mark has been involved with the Bluegrass in the Schools Committee of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in Nashville since 1996. Since 2010, he’s been involved with the Foundation for Bluegrass Music—the charitable/education arm of IBMA—and has served as chairman of the board there for the past two years.
In 2013, Mark founded the Buffalo Bluegrass Youth Ensemble, which evolved from the Frontier Fiddlers group that he founded and had directed since 1998.
He also put out a popular instructional DVD and subsequent book to teach students how to play the dobro. Since 1992, he’s been a dobro instructor at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia—where many of today’s bluegrass stars honed their chops. Since 2000, he’s played with son Scott and daughter Katie (both Buffalo Music Awards recipients), performing as the Panfil Family.
Along with teaching young people audio skills, Chris has been mentoring music and songwriting through a weekly “Jam Club” since 2000. He’s been a volunteer instructor for the Buffalo Bluegrass Youth Ensemble since 2014, and before that, he spent six years as a volunteer instructor for Frontier Fiddlers. As a recording engineer and producer, he cites capturing the early efforts of a 16-year-old Ani DiFranco in his home studio as a profound highlight.
In addition to their many contributions as performers, instructors and various award winners in a long list of bands, they also write original songs. In order to create a platform for this music, they finally, officially, began booking gigs as the Panfil Brothers in 2007—over three decades after first learning to play bluegrass together in the family home.
By Buck Quigley