THE BANJO PICKERS
Uncle Archie was an eccentric fellow. He drove a Model T Ford, was married at least three times, fathered fourteen or more children, and he played the five-string banjo. I remember Saturday afternoons spent singing on the front porch of the Hutson family homeplace in Barnwell County, South Carolina. Uncle Archie picked the banjo. Cousins Parnell and Billy played guitars. Neighbors came with a mandolin and a fiddle. Uncle Creech was the percussionist, alternating between a scrub board and two clacking spoons. Sometimes there would be a harmonica, a jaw harp, or a one-string, broom-handle washtub base. Uncle Archie’s brother, Uncle Quincy, would occasionally play a limber handsaw. But the banjo was the featured instrument. It was on that front porch in the sandhills that I grew fond of the five-string banjo.
I got my first banjo when I was a senior in high school. It is a Gibson extended neck five-string. My banjo is just like the one played by Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio and by the folksinger Pete Seeger. I learned to strum a few chords, but I never have learned to pick the way the best banjo players do.
Jerome Fowler of Clifton taught me to play the guitar. When I showed my banjo to him, he said, “Playing the banjo will drive you crazy!”
That must have been what happened to Uncle Archie.
Most people who have tried the five-string agree that in order to pick the thing you have to be a little bit addled. If you’re not deranged when you begin, that short drone fifth string will drive you batty with its constant ringing of a high G-note.
In 1965, when I was a senior at Furman University, I was president of the Pep Club. One of my responsibilities was to organize a campus-wide concert on Friday night before the Homecoming football game. I decided to hold an outdoor event in the middle of a big grassy field. I made arrangements to borrow an eighteen-wheel flatbed truck.
I delegated most of the details to other club members and plans were in place. All but one! The guy who promised me he would secure a band came up empty.
With the event only two weeks away, I decided to call on a fellow from my hometown, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Our band for the event was pure country. I engaged Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups.
I wondered how the Furman student body would respond to bluegrass music.
Don Reno and his boys climbed onto the flatbed decked out in cowboy hats and boots. They cranked up the volume and cut loose with a rousing performance. On that cool, sunny afternoon the Furman student body heard one of the best five-string banjo players ever. Using his unique three-finger style of picking, Reno had some students clogging in the grass. Many were toe-tapping and knee-slapping throughout most of the concert.
Don Reno was born in Spartanburg County. His family moved to Heywood County, North Carolina, when he was a boy. He first picked the banjo when he was five years old. He was basically self-taught. He became known as one of the best by the time he was a teenager playing with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks. He recorded with Woody Guthrie. He joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, playing with them for several years.
Later in his career, Reno reunited with Arthur Smith for one recording session. Together they produced “Feuding Banjos,” which was later re-titled “Dueling Banjos” for its use in the 1972 film “Deliverance.”
There are other great banjo pickers from Spartanburg County. Buck Trent was born and raised in Arcadia. He played with Bill Carlisle, Porter Wagner, and Roy Clark, and was a regular on the television show “Hee-Haw.”
Bobby Thompson from Converse Mill worked with Carl Story, and became one of the best studio musicians in Nashville. He played in the band on “Hee-Haw.” He was credited with developing the melodic style of five-string banjo picking.
Some have said, incorrectly, that the banjo is the only instrument to originate in this country. By the early 1600s, the four-string banjo had been brought to America. Enslaved Africans fashioned instruments like those they knew in their homeland. Early versions were made from tanned skins stretched over gourds connected to strips of wood. Gut and hemp were used for the strings. Slaves on Southern plantations used African names for these instruments. Called bangie, banza, banjer, and banjar, the instrument finally became known as the banjo.
Joel Walker Sweeney had a traveling minstrel show with banjo players in the early 1800s. Sweeney added the fifth string to the instrument. So, it is the five-string banjo that is a uniquely American instrument.
The drone fifth string gives the instrument its distinctive sound. Constantly tuned to a high G-note, that fifth string is the steel demon that will drive you crazy.
My grandfather, born and raised in middle Tennessee, told me that Uncle Dave Macon from McMinnville, Tennessee, was the best five-string player he knew. Macon was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. There have been many other notable pickers from Mark Twain to Steve Martin to Ricky Skaggs. Each person who plays the instrument develops a unique picking style.
One of the finest is Ralph Stanley, born in Big Spraddle, Virginia. His mother bought him his first banjo when Ralph was 15 years old. She agreed to pay five dollars for the used instrument. The woman she bought it from took payment in groceries from the small mountain store run by Ralph’s mother. His mother, a member of the famous Carter Family, taught Ralph to play using the claw hammer style in which the thumb and the first two fingers move rapidly across the strings.
Stanley and his brother Carter formed the Clinch Mountain Boys. Drawing on the minor-key singing style of their Primitive Baptist tradition and the harmonies of the Carter family, the Clinch Mountain Boys found their place in Bluegrass music. They were featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a movie produced in 2000. Ralph had learned the theme song of the soundtrack, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” years before from his dad.
Among the banjo players in my acquaintance are some unique people. Ralph Boney not only plays the five-string, he picks it left-handed!
Walker Copley, who sells and repairs watches as his day job, plays the banjo on the side.
Clare’s cousin Donna Roper plays the five-string continuing the tradition of many fine lady pickers.
On a Sunday afternoon nearly five years ago, 2,300 mourners crowded into the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. An iconic banjo surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements decorated the platform. A closed casket was placed in front of the famous stage. The audience gathered to pay tribute to bluegrass musician and Grand Ole Opry star Earl Scruggs who died on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. He was eighty-eight years old.
Scruggs’ public funeral service was held at the same auditorium where he had played his songs for years on the Grand Ole Opry. The four-time Grammy Award winner recorded his final album at this Nashville landmark. Nearby is a cluster of downtown honky-tonks where Scruggs’ music is still played. A plaque in his honor hangs three blocks away in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Charlie Daniels, best known for his fiddle playing, commented, “No one will ever play the banjo like Earl.”
Ricky Skaggs stated that Scruggs “was the most humble musician I ever met.”
On Sunday evening just a week later, the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show in Las Vegas. Rascal Flatts was joined by a special guest on banjo, Steve Martin, to pay tribute to Scruggs.
Earl Scruggs put his trademark on bluegrass music.
The North Carolina native started playing the five-string banjo at the age of four, using the traditional claw-hammer style of picking. By the time he was ten years old, he had developed a three-finger method that became known as Scruggs style. Combined with a string-bending technique, Earl elevated the banjo from backup to a lead instrument.
Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945 and quickly popularized his syncopated, three-finger picking style.
The unique banjo picker played for twenty years with guitarist Lester Flatt. The two were best known for their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies television series. Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
In January 1973, a tribute concert was held for Scruggs in Manhattan, Kansas. The concert was filmed and became the 1975 documentary film “Banjo Man.”
Earl learned to play on the banjo belonging to his father, who died when Earl was only four years old. Earl’s last banjo, a 1935 Gibson RB-3 flathead nicknamed Nellie, was surrounded by flowers on the Ryman Auditorium stage for his memorial service.
Born and reared in the Flint Hill community in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs is, hands down, the best of all time. At an 80th birthday party for Earl in 2004, country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
Even with his world-wide fame and numerous awards, the talented musician from just south of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, remained a humble man who remembered his roots. He never forgot his own people, and they will never forget him.
In the 1960s, my brother Lawton, while a student at Gardner-Webb College, joined a folk group called The Joyful Noise. One Monday, the Campus Minister asked the group to sing in chapel. They gladly accepted, but Lawton had left his banjo at home in Spartanburg.
The college chaplain said he knew where to find a banjo for Lawton to borrow. A maintenance man at the college loaned his banjo to Lawton. When Lawton returned the impressive old five string, the generous fellow said, “Thank you for taking care of my banjo. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. It belongs to my brother.”
The maintenance man’s name was Horace Scruggs.
His brother’s name was Earl!