I knew I would be driving through middle Tennessee near the hometown of the company who built my second favorite banjo, of the two I own. I had not bonded with this particular instrument, so I called the number on their website and told the owner of my concerns, making it clear I was a tyro player.
"Everything sounds too tinny and bright." I said.
The banjo maker, who I would later learn had been a first rate performer in the 1960's and 1970's, told me, "Yes, I've had arch tops, and I'd love them for a period of time, and then I'd prefer something a little softer. However, six months later I'd want to return to that harder sound. I have a conversion tone ring on order that will change an arch top to a flat top. But, I'll forewarn you there will come a time when you'll want to return to the arch top sound." I told him that I was interested in the conversion kit and when I might be traveling his way.
A few days later, I received a package in the mail with a CD featuring my new acquaintance, two hats with his company's logo, a new set of strings, and a bridge that would lower the action (the space between the finger board and the strings) on my not-so-beloved banjo.
Before heading through Tennessee, I called again and inquired of the status of the conversion kit and confirmed the date of our rendezvous. He told me of his difficulties getting the needed parts from the machinists and chrome plating operations on which he depends, but said, "I'll have something for you when you arrive."
I called the morning of our appointment to say, "I'm here." The man with whom I had now spoken to on three occasions said, "I'm glad to hear from you because I've got all the pieces to convert your banjo. I hope you've set aside some time, because I'm prepared to spend the day with you." He gave me directions, along with a warning about a speed trap along the way.
I was halfway expecting to meet a geezer in overalls with a chaw of tobacco wearing a moonshiner hat. But it wasn't to be. Instead, I arrived at a 500-acre estate nestled in the heart of walking horse country, with a federal style home overlooking immaculately groomed grounds. I was directed to two outbuildings on the property comprising the banjo manufacturing operation.
I was greeted warmly, introduced to some other guests who quickly departed, and then received the full attention of my host. I spent the next seven hours with a man who knew nothing of me other than I had purchased, used, one of his banjos, and that I had only been playing three years.
My host was a chatty fellow, but also very interesting. While it is my nature to want to get on with things quickly, I was sufficiently intrigued to recognize that this was a time to 'just go with it.'
He said, "Did you get a chance to walk through the barns?" Then he took me on a tour of his farming operation including a building housing dozens of immaculately restored trucks and cars, most impressively featuring two 1948 International Harvester coal trucks, one red the other green. His array of large and small tractors, dozers, backhoes, and assorted other machines was sufficient to give me a major dose of farm equipment envy.
I said, "You've got a lot of toys."
To which he replied, "Yes, I do."
Then it was off to the banjo operation that was surprisingly small, consisting of two buildings, one the size of a mobile home and the second the size of a double wide. They contained an immaculate woodworking and machine shop, a ventilated paint/varnish room, assembly area and storage. He walked me through the entire process of building a quality banjo including how he shapes the necks, sets the pearl inlays on the fingerboards, builds the resonators, etc.
He demonstrated the nuances in sound between walnut, mahogany, and maple necks and trim and chrome, gold and nickel-plated tone rings. Walnut/chrome (what I have) creates a bright, bold sound. Maple/gold plated is softer and more melodic. The tone ring, the metal piece that clamps the head down on the frame of the banjo, is the most critical piece of the puzzle. He said, "When I started to make banjos in the early 1970's I focused my attention on the tone ring. I would start with a relatively heavy casting, assemble the banjo, play it, shave 1/10 of an ounce off, re-assemble, and play again. I'd do that until I thought I hit the sweet spot, note the weight, and then keep going."
I said, "Are you self taught at building banjos?"
He expounded, "Yes and no. I knew a lot, but I didn't know how much I didn't know until I hired a genius from Gibson. He had learned from the masters who built the Gibson banjos in the 1930's and helped me take our craftsmanship to a higher level."
He said, "I'm sure glad you showed up, because I made two extra trips to Nashville to get these castings machined and chromed for you. Let's take a look at your banjo."
He picked it up and started playing. In his hands my banjo sounded like the most perfect instrument ever created. He said good-naturedly but sternly, "It would be a crime to convert this banjo to a flat top. This is one of the best sounding arch tops I've ever made. Are you sure you want to change it?" Until this point in time, I had little appreciation for the distinction in tone created by one skilled v. one deficient in such matters. I gave pause, and he added, "You will be a much better banjo player if you learn on an arch top. It will force you to play more crisply. You'll hear every mistake you make."
"And that is a good thing?"
"Yes, it is."
It was noonish, and he said, "I'll call my wife, and we'll take you to lunch." She drove down from their home, and we were introduced while he went off to give some instructions to a part-time farm mechanic.
We drove along a winding country road to nearby Bell Buckle, TN to dine. During the course of our trip we chatted amiably. They mentioned that they were both from the coal country of southwestern Virginia near the Tennessee/Kentucky border and were married at age 19. I mentioned my basic training tussle with a redheaded 'Deliverance-like' boy from the hills of eastern Tennessee. My host's wife commented, without a molecule of mirth, "You are very lucky to be alive to tell the tale." She went on to say, "Growing up in that region, you learned early to stay way from those folks. They are born with a rifle in their hands, and they'll use it."
Bell Buckle is an old railroad village of preserved and restored Victorian homes and churches. The Bell Buckle Cafe features a giant display of Moon Pies for $.91 and terrific food. I enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken fried steak, pickled beets, black eyed peas, oatmeal cake, and coffee. The place was packed and for good reason.
I offered to pick up the tab for our lunch, but my hosts' would not hear of that. "You may not pass this way again, so I've set aside the day to show you around my shop, introduce you to my collection, and I'll give you a lesson while we're at it." And he proceeded to do all of the above. And this man did not know me from Adam.
He started playing banjo at age 5. I asked him how he got interested in banjo at such a young age. "My uncle was a serious player, and he left his banjo around and encouraged me to play around with it if I wanted to. And I did." I told him of one of my grandson's interests in sitting in my lap and strumming along, and he said, "Just leave a banjo near him and let him know he's welcome to pick it up. The worst he can do is break a few strings." (I didn't argue the point, but three days after this conversation I was attending my twin grandson's 4th birthday party, where I was to provide the accompaniment for a game of musical chairs. I left my banjo in its case in the presence of a few small boys and later espied one of them trying to ride it like a rocking horse.)
I mentioned an article I read in the WSJ saying it takes about 10,000 hours to become accomplished with an instrument. He responded with the following anecdote. "A fellow once encountered Chet Atkins, possibly the best guitar player ever, and said, 'I'd give anything to play as well at you.' And Chet responded, 'would you give your life?'"
In 1969, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt split up their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Lester needed a banjo player to replace Earl, and he offered my host the job. He declined, and I inquired, "Why?"
He said, "Lester offered me $200 a week, but I was making many times more than that with my coal mine. In addition to being a banjo maker and performer, I would learn that I was dining with a tycoon with a degree in electrical engineering. He and his wife have owned coal mines, apple orchids, radio stations, and cell phone towers, all dwarfing the banjo business in dollars, if not in passion.
After lunch, we took a tour of his mountain on which one of his cell towers stands. He told me of the necessity of getting a DC law firm specializing in FCC matters when negotiating with Verizon or ATT. If one were to judge this man by his dress or dialect, he would severely underestimate his sophistication.
After the mountain tour we went to his studio situated above his four-car garage. Four banjos were on stands in the middle of the room along with two guitars, a piano, and a standup bass. Two of the banjos were 1934 and 1935 Gibsons, gold-plated and engraved, possibly the most valuable banjos that exist. One of them was previously owned by Earl Scruggs and was used in the recording of his Foggy Mountain Breakdown album. The two guitars were pre-WWII Martins. A nearby closet contained about 50 pre-WWII banjos of varying makes including a Gibson Florentine and several Degas. I noticed a photo dating back to the 1960's of my host jamming with Jerry Garcia, John McKuen, and Steve Martin. I was duly impressed.
He played a few tunes for me and rhapsodized about times past performing in the 60's. He picked a catchy version of "Puff the Magic Dragon", first on one of the Martin guitars and then on the 1934 Gibson banjo and said, "I would introduce this song by saying, 'now we're going to play some hard core bluegrass.' Folks loved it. We'd get our biggest applause of the evening."
Then he said, "Okay, it's time for a lesson. Get out your banjo." He listened and watched me play a few tunes. He winced slightly when I mentioned the beginning instructional books I'd been using. Then he had me mimic a few rolls he played, each a little more complicated than before, and then he declared, "You have what it takes to become a banjo player."
We went into his recording studio, and he put an Earl Scruggs record on a turntable. He slowed it down, and played along, then speeded it up. Then he put on one of his records and did the same thing. "See how crisp that sounds, at both slow speeds and fast? Spend time trying to play these songs in time with the record. Start real slow, and then get up to speed."
He gave me some helpful tips, showed me how to replace broken strings rapidly, as if one were on stage, but mostly he encouraged me in my quest.
Although he had incurred a significant expenditure of time and money getting a conversion kit ready for me, I decided to follow his advice and leave my Walnut Deluxe arch top unaltered. I offered to compensate him, but he declined. "I'll be able to sell those kits to someone else."
As I was leaving, his wife came out of their house to bid farewell. They gave me directions to the interstate. I left in a state of bewilderment with my arch top in tact.
Sales of NNAOPP continue to trickle in and are now up to 1,294. If you're in their respective neighborhoods, please patronize the Sanibel Bookshop and Bruce Smith Drugstore. They continue to be my best selling venues. I've been invited to speak to a Rotary group in a few weeks, so I haven't gone completely dormant. Best wishes to all.
Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
Author of: Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
Now available in print and Kindle format at http://www.amazon.com
Follow my blog at: http://www.nudenuns.blogspot.com
Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
The Raven Bookstore, 8 East 7th, Lawrence, KS
Architectural Salvage, 2045 Broadway, Kansas City, MO
Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO
Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS