Banjo Masters Oral History Project: Hank Smith

A few years ago just before the Carolina in the Fall festival (the third week in September), I stumbled upon some recordings by Hank Smith. I don’t remember how I found them, but I do remember sitting here listening to his tune Django’s Dream ( ) and thinking that this player was something special. I looked him up and saw that he was currently playing with a different band and I made a mental note to check them out. I was pretty happy when I saw that they would be at Carolina in the Fall that year.

At the festival I watched two sets of Hank, Pattie, & The Current and was definitely intrigued by Hank and his playing. One song in particular struck my fancy, it was very classically inspired and very lengthy, two things I enjoy in a banjo song. After that set I went over and spoke briefly to Hank and walked away feeling even more interested in him and his playing. The band was very interesting to me because it seemed an odd mix of people and musical influences, and I always like that too.

After the festival I started buying albums that Hank was involved in and each one delighted me. He has a real sense of melody and tosses in chromatic runs and classical-like lines in a really smooth and unassuming way. All of us banjo players have our set of chops we go to and Hank’s seemed to be in a totally different space than mine, or those I was used to. I was even more intrigued and so started researching him.

The more I learned about Hank Smith, the more I wanted to really talk to him, so one day I contacted him and set it up. I studied up and on the appointed day my associates Aaron Spelbring and Tom Snediker and I loaded up the van and headed to Raleigh, NC to talk to Hank.

Since he may not be a household name yet, here is a very quick snapshot- After getting his masters degree in (I think) Religious Studies, Hank hit the road with the acoustic based jam band Barefoot Manner. They toured the country repeatedly for several years playing the jam band circuit and had the pleasure of actually opening for the Grateful Dead one time! After Barefoot Manner, Hank joined a few bluegrass and Americana bands, frequently with his friend Pattie Kinlaw. The two of them later formed their current band, Hank, Pattie, & The Current. Hank is currently also a part of the UNC music faculty and teaches banjo. In addition to those mentioned bands, he also formed the first (and only?) Bela Fleck and the Flecktones tribute band- Blu Bop. AND, he has written a novel. I mean to tell you, this is one interesting guy!

So now that you are intrigued, watch this video and meet the amazing Hank Smith!

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Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn




A few years ago, I was listening to an album I randomly picked out to play by a band called The Sparrow Quartet.  I knew it was a project that old-time banjoist, Abigail Washburn had put together, but I didn’t know anything else about it at all.  It didn’t take long for me to focus right in on the other banjo though.  I was really fascinated by the way the Scruggs-style player was interacting with the other musicians and really supporting the vocal and old-time banjo.  It was fascinating and as I wondered who the other banjoist was, I decided it had to be Bela Fleck because of some of his musical phrases.  I looked and…. yes indeed, it was, along with Casey Driesen, and Ben Sollee.  It is a fascinating album.

Bela Fleck is undeniably one of the world’s top Scruggs-style players (for lack of a better way of saying it, I mean Bela plays single string and melodic and Celtic and classical and whatever other style he feels like!).  Abigail Washburn is, in my opinion, one old time music’s big name success stories and she is definitely one of my favorite old-time banjo players.  These two have an undeniable riches in musical talent.  They also are amazingly diverse and creative people too- between their respective forays into jazz, classical, old time, bluegrass, electronica (Abigail recorded an electronica project to help raise money for relief from the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008) and a blend of Chinese and old time music that is hard to classify, there is much musical foundation to build upon.   As I mentioned above, I find that the sound of Bela and Abigail playing though is so much more than just the sum of its parts, I can’t help but think all of their many musical projects make this so.  I hear a certain element of “more” when I listen to them together and I attribute that to the fact that it sounds like they are playing “together”- in contrast to playing at the same time.

In 2014 Fleck and Washburn released the first of their albums together, an eponymously  named album I immediately bought for the library’s collection.  Give it a listen or two…


Call Number Status
M1630.18.F54 B45 2014
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Geoff Stelling- Master Banjo Luthier

More and more, the word “luthier” seems to be one that people don’t know the meaning of.  Basically, a luthier is a person who makes musical instruments (and these days one might be hard pressed to name more than a few people who actually still do this).  I find it still a little bit hard to believe that musical instruments can be mass produced, even though I know that they are.  At the same time, I also find it hard to believe these days that there are individuals who own their own shops and can compete with the mass produced places.   That there are a few such individually owned banjo shops here in the state of Virginia speaks a lot about how important that instrument is to this area.

One of these shops is Stelling Banjo Works Ltd and coincidentally- produces Stelling banjos.  These instruments are considered among the best banjos in the world and every one of those banjos has come from the small but efficient shops of Geoff Stelling.  There have been two Stelling shops, the original shop in Spring Valley, California and the current shop in the tiny town of Heards, Virginia and all 7,000some Stelling banjos, mandolins and guitars in the world have been made in one of those two locations and have passed through Geoff’s hands.

In full disclosure, I have been a fan of and owner of Stelling banjos for a long time, so I may be a bit overly interested, but Geoff Stelling is one of the very first people I thought of talking to when I started the banjo masters interview series.  His success in the banjo building world, the uniqueness of his instruments, and the list of well-known luthiers that have worked in his shops over the years is so very impressive, not to mention the sheer beauty of his instruments that interviewing him seemed almost a given.

Part 1 of our Geoff Stelling interview.

Part 2 of our Geoff Stelling interview.

On April 4, 2017 John Hildreth, Aaron Spelbring and I loaded our camera and light gear and drove over the mountains and through the woods- we literally did that –  we drove over the mountains and through the woods, only we were not going to grandmother’s house, we were going to Heards, Virginia to visit the Stelling Banjo Works shop to talk to Geoff Stelling.  Anyone who has not visited the shop might be surprised to see it.  From the outside, it is a modest building that once upon a time was a one room schoolhouse serving the needs of several of the communities surrounding it.  On the inside though, is a highly efficient workshop that produces banjos as well as mandolins and guitars to a lesser extent.  We had a tour of the shop and included audio from that as well as some photographs in our interview video linked above.  But just in case you are curious, this is the outside view of the workshop- it really is small!

As far as my recollection goes, Stelling banjos were really the first banjos to depart from the Gibson style banjo pot (for non-banjo players, the pot is the round part of the banjo).  I have always been curious about how he came up with the idea for the Stelling wedge-fit tone ring/rim/flange and Geoff gave us a very interesting explanation of that in and compared it to aircraft he worked with during his time in the Navy.  For those who might not be that familiar with banjo design, for various reasons centered around certain banjo players in the 1940s (namely Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Snuffy Jenkins and others)  for many years the Gibson musical instrument company was THE place to get a banjo for bluegrass music.  Many considered Gibson banjos to be the only banjo that would do.  Other people wanted to make banjos too and so various other banjo making business’ sprang up and they generally all followed the Gibson style of building banjos in terms of how the parts looked and how they fit together.  We I say this, I am mainly talking about the banjo tone ring, rim, and flange, which together make up the banjo pot. Geoff Stelling however came up with a different idea about banjos and banjo parts and so came up with a different way for the tone ring, rim, and flange to work together in a design we call the wedge-fit design.  This different design makes Stelling banjos sound very different from Gibson banjos in most cases and as I mentioned, the first to depart from the Gibson design.

In our interview, Geoff also talked about several of the people who have worked with him in the past- well known luthiers like Greg and Janet Deering (Deering Banjo Company), Kim Breedlove (Breedlove Guitars), Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton (Huss and Dalton Guitar Company) to name a few. He also talked about various people who play or have played Stelling banjos- Alan Munde, Tony Trischka, Marteka Lake, and many more.

Our interview is roughly two hours and contains many photographs and probably about everything a person might want to know about the Stelling Banjo Works Ltd company.  This interview is posted on the same page as our other Banjo Master interviews and is free for all to view!  Please enjoy the learning process.

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Rex McGee- Banjo Playing Enigma

I first became aware of Rex McGee somewhere in the early 1990s at the first Merlefest that I ever attended.  At the time the festival was pretty small but it was packed to the gills with music and workshops.  These things are commonplace now but at the time they it was still kind of unusual to be able to go to a workshop and see top level musicians give demonstrations, answer questions, and generally just be available to anyone who wanted to come rub elbows with them.  One of these workshops I remember distinctly was one in which Bela Fleck and a few others were talking about banjos.  Bela was talking about playing Celtic music on the 5 string and gave a little musical demonstration- I loved it.  But then he started talking about how the best person to demonstrate celtic banjo was actually sitting in the audience.  He called on a young player- Rex McGee- to come up and show us a bit about phrasing and technique.  I was very intrigued by that and impressed that Bela Fleck was deferring to a much younger player.  I never forgot that.

In later years, I would occasionally comb Youtube for videos of banjo players or certain songs.  Being a fan of Celtic music, I would often seek out 5 string players playing Celtic tunes and often saw Rex McGee as the player.  I am also a fan of more avant garde music and again, Rex McGee would pop up in my searches.  The guy intrigued me even more.

Like most banjo players, I have subscribed to Banjo Newsletter for many years and always love the main interviews in that magazine.  Two times over the years Rex has been the main interview.  Both are fascinating and memorable.  In the latest interview, Ryan Cavanaugh called him an enigma.  I somehow felt that appropriate form the little bit that I knew about him.  Mysterious and puzzling…. yes, that seemed accurate and Rex seemed almost an underground musical legend in my mind.  I really wanted to include him in my Banjo Masters interview series.  On a whim, I looked him up and set it up and folks, here it is-  Rex McGee- Banjo Playing Enigma.


Part 1- Rex McGee- Banjo Playing Enigma

In part 1, Rex talks about his musical family, the Pilot Pick-N-Parlor, various music festivals including the one he hosts at his home, and much more.  Rex provides many musical examples and demonstrations while he talks.


Part 2- Rex McGee- Banjo Playing Enigma

In part 2, Rex talks about his various musician friends, why he tunes his banjo in 4ths, his band Kripplekrunk, his 24 Creations for Solo Banjo recordings, and more.  There are many musical examples and demonstrations in this as well.


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Banjo Masters Interview Series- Previews

There are a lot of things I like about our Banjo Masters interview series. One of the first things that come to mind about that is how I really enjoy picking who to interview.  My thought on that subject has always been that the banjo is a very versatile instrument and there are masterful players doing radically different things from each other out there.  My idea with this series is to pick players who represent different genres of banjo playing and who I consider master players who are both carrying on traditional banjo styles, but also expanding on what may be considered non-standard banjo styles. I also think it is really important to include players who may not be in the most popular or widely known categories.  There are a lot of masterful players out there doing some exciting things with and for the banjo and I like talking to them and helping them to share their stories.  Judging from the success of this series, I think people enjoy that too!

I am currently preparing a video preview for the newest interview in the series, Rex McGee, and I had the sudden urge to watch the previews we made of some of our other interviews.  Here they are, in case you want to watch them again too!  (And in case that inspires you to check out the actual interviews, here they are- )


The Butch Robins preview was a lot of fun to make.  John Hildreth and I put it together to highlight the various aspects of Butch’s talk.  Personal stories, live music demonstrations, heartfelt memories of life with Bill Monroe and a lot of history.


Sammy Shelor is a quiet, soft-spoken man who has a lot of fascinating stories to share once you get him started.  He is a local legend around here and spoke a lot about family and tradition and music.


Ever since I first heard John Bullard play Bach on the banjo I was fascinated and kind of obsessed.  John was one of the names I immediately came up with when I thought up this interview series because he is not only a masterful player, but he is doing something totally different from most players.  He is a very nice guy and what he is doing is fascinating!


More to come soon folks!  There are a lot more banjo players out there on my list!

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Night Noises

Last night after work I met my wife out in the country for dinner.  We met at our cabin in the mountains of Floyd County and ate at the picnic table outside since it was a cool evening.  As we sat there, the idea of quiet came up in my mental checklist of reasons I like the mountains so much.  Quiet, peaceful, uncomplicated- these are words I always consider during moments like that.  In my daydreaming times when I am not in the mountains, I often picture myself sitting outside in the evenings watching the light fade and soaking in the quiet.  That is a frequent “go-to” place for me, imagining that time when I look up at the sky and the dark silhouettes of trees seem to stand out as a vivid border between land and sky.  There are no individual features in the trees, they are just vivid black shapes against whatever is left of the day.  I like that time.  And the quiet…. it is a nice place to be in a daydream and I go there often.

But… a lot of daydreams, reality doesn’t quite match up.  Last night as we sat there quietly listening, the thing that just amazed me, as it always does, is the balance between light and sound.  As the day fades, the sounds increase in a really incredible and almost eerie way.  Frogs, cicadas, crickets, birds, and many more things I won’t even pretend to know the names of start their songs/chatter/calls, whatever words you want to assign them- and the sound grows and grows and grows to an amazing cacophony.  The mountains in late summer and early fall are anything but quiet.

As I sat there listening, I tried to pick out individual sounds.  The stream passing over rocks in its bed; breeze blowing through the trees; tree frogs calling to each other; crickets looking for each other; birds.  All these sounds are there, all a part of a massive and complex soundtrack. I would occasionally walk from place to place to listen in a different spot and even the sound of walking gets added to the collective.

Sometimes the wall of sound seems a constant, sometimes it pulses with what I imagine is a call and response situation but on a huge scale.  I assume what I think is a wall of sound is really hundreds of tiny voices all calling out to each other individually, but because of their number, the sound all gets blended together and becomes one thing. (If that is not true, please…nobody tell me otherwise, I like that idea!)  Add to that the sounds that are always there, the breeze blowing through the trees, the occasional dog barking in the distance, the stream making its way over its rocky bed.  It all adds up to a wonderfully complicated symphony.  It also represents thousands of living things going about their business completely unconcerned with me or anything I am worrying about or thinking.  Thousands of living things in a massive relationship with each other, with the trees, the mountain, the stream.  All of them part of a community I will never really understand but am thankfully allowed a glimpse of through these night noises whenever I take the time to listen.

John Cage taught us that chance occurrences are art.  Andy Warhol taught us that everyday objects are art.  Andrew Goldsworthy taught us that shapes in nature are art.  They are all correct, and I thought about them last night and what they taught us while standing there in the dark listening to these night noises.  I am sure that each of them would sometimes just stand somewhere special just listening.

Since this blog is about Appalachian music and culture and I frequently make listening suggestions in it, today I suggest you spend a little time going outside in the evening and just listening.  There is culture there.  There is music there.  Back to the three words that I always consider during special mountain moments- quiet, peaceful and uncomplicated?  Quiet and uncomplicated are surely wrong, but the other- peaceful…… Yes indeed.




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Banjo Construction Photos- Form vs. Function

Recording King- Tailpiece

I like banjos.

There….I said it.  I guarantee that is a true statement too.  I like to play them, I like to hear them, I like to learn about them and I just plain like to look at them sometimes. (Which is one reason I have six of them hanging on the wall in my house, easy access to play and easy access to just look.)  Some time ago I was thinking about people who play banjos, and how when we get together to visit, the talk often shifts to banjos. I will tell you right off, in these situations there is not a lot of talk of playing techniques or music theory happening- the talk is about banjo models, neck inlay, tone rings, tuning pegs, tailpieces, picks…..the list goes on and on.  The take away idea in that is that we are somewhat obsessed with the instrument itself.

In a lot of ways, the banjo is simply a drum with a neck and strings attached to it.  In other ways, it is a finely crafted collection of metal, wood, and a few other things that have been engineered to create a vehicle to make pleasant sounding music.  Over the years luthiers have studied and experimented and changed design and thought about design to attain certain sounds, tones, and looks.

Bacon and Day- Mute

I mentioned “looks”.  There is a lot of importance in the visual aspect of an instrument, if not then we would not have instruments with beautiful pearl inlaid necks, artistic peghead designs, veneer covered resonators, decorative binding patterns etc etc etc.  There is real artistry involved in instrument building.  Some say it doesn’t matter, but it does.  Many people can quickly dredge up images of flashy tenor banjos with rhinestones glued to pegheads, classic parlor banjos with heavily inlaid and etched necks, inlay patterns on bluegrass banjos with names like Flying Eagle, Tree of Life, and the like.  The decorative parts of banjos serve a purpose other than being eye candy but artistry is important. Form vs. Function.
Bacon and Day- Nut2

So with all that in mind, I am happy to announce the start of a new digital photograph collection here in the Archives.  The idea behind this collection is to show that many banjos have very similar parts as far as function, but differ in form- sometimes to a great degree.  NechvilleTailpiece8

Never fear though…..if you are one who is not obsessed with banjos you might still enjoy this collection.  Think of this as a Warholian exhibit of sorts.(Shout out to my grandmother who taught me to understand and love Andy Warhol.) Andy Warhol taught us to appreciate that the package of Brillo Pads is art, the Campbell’s Tomato Soup label is beautiful, that repetition is genius.  Same idea can apply here.  If you look at the shape of the wooden rim hidden deep inside a banjo, you might be surprised at the finely cut grooves and curves and how they differ.  You might be fascinated by the many intricate cuts in the heel of the neck.  The minute differences in the curve of a hook might catch your eye.  Form vs. Function. Stelling- Neck5

So come have a look.  Use your artistic eye, your entrepreneurial eye, your musician eye, any way you want to look is fine. You can compare parts between brands- at the moment this collection represents Stelling, Nechville, Gibson, Bacon and Day and Recording King but that list will expand as the collection grows.  It is all art, it is all functional, it is all beautiful.  Form vs. Function.

Banjo Construction Photo Archive.

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John Bullard Interview

bullard smile

For those who want to jump right to the interview-  Part 1…… Part 2

As a banjo player, I have always been attracted to music that is a little out of the mainstream.  For several years I played banjo in a rock band, wrote music for the solo banjo, became nearly obsessed with playing celtic tunes, then equally obsessed with playing ragtime tunes.  My banjo heroes reflect that trend and people like Butch Robins, Jens Kruger, Bela Fleck, Don Reno, and Tony Trischka have provided a lifetime of inspiration for me.  Being a musician though, I am never satisfied with what I know and am always looking for more.  And my list of banjo heroes seems to be increasing accordingly.

I really don’t remember when or how I first became aware of classical music being played on the banjo.  I do remember though one day in the mid-1990s sitting at my desk looking for something interesting to listen to and remembering an obscure album I had heard somewhere along the line.  It was an album of classical music but it had Eric Weissberg playing banjo on it too.   Playing classical music on the banjo, but only on a few tracks.  At that moment I wanted to hear it again but couldn’t find the album so went to the internet to search for it or something close.  That’s when I came upon the name John Bullard.

John had recently released an album called The Classical Banjo.  I was intrigued and so I ordered it.  When the album (well OK, it was a CD but I am from the time when there were albums and I still think of them as such) came, I was mesmerized by it.  Here was an album of mostly solo banjo playing classical music and it sounded GOOD.  Off and on in the 20 or so years since then I have spent many hours trying to play some of the things on that album.  When his second album came out, Bach on the Banjo, I ordered that one too.  Couldn’t get enough of that stuff!  And with that, my list of banjo heroes had increased by one more name.

So without further rambling, I present the newest in out Banjo Masters interview series: John Bullard- Classical Banjoist.

Part 1– In part 1 of this interview, John tells us about when he was first bitten by the banjo bug, talks about his banjo teacher, about how he became inspired to play classical music on the banjo, has a wonderful Galax story that seems to have changed his life and about his time at Virginia Commonwealth University studying music.

Part 2– In part 2, John talks about banjo setup, various bands and musical experiences he has had, talks about his practice routine and tells us about his new album which will be coming out in the Fall of 2016.

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Banjo Masters Interview Series

For the past two years, our Archives department has been conducting interviews of master banjo players and builders.  As of now we have published interviews of Butch Robins, Sammy Shelor, Jens Kruger, and Tom Nechville.  This is a fascinating and ongoing project and very soon we will be releasing a new interview of classical banjoist John Bullard.  To whet your appetites for that, here is a short preview!


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New Interview- Tom Nechville- Banjo Building’s Mad Scientist



Tom Nechville- Banjo Building’s Mad Scientist

A few years ago when I came up with the idea to interview various banjo masters, I intended to focus on both players and builders that I felt were innovative, influential, and were making a lasting impression on the banjo world.  I don’t think it is quite the same, but I do feel question of which came first the master player or the master builder, is pretty closely related to the chicken and egg one.  Either way, the magic ingredient is the same- innovation.  Whether it came first from the builder or from the player, someone had to do or think of something different in their respective craft to either create or demand a change in the playing and building of banjos.

In thinking about who I felt filled all of those areas, a list of several names popped into my head right away and so far each of them have agreed to sit and talk to me about what they do and why.  Today I am very pleased to release the first of the banjo builder interviews in this series of banjo masters- Tom Nechville.  Tom is founder and owner of the Nechville Banjo Company based in Bloomington, Minnesota and he is doing something truly different in banjo design and building.  Nechville banjos are not like the traditional “Gibson style” banjos in form or tone.  When I said above that Tom is banjo building’s mad scientist, that is probably not too far from being true.  Tom has rethought banjo design and function and has some very innovative ideas that he has put into production to produce a very fine instrument.  (Disclaimer- I bought a Nechville banjo several years ago from a music store in Maryland and still play it and still love it.)

In a lot of ways I think we are living in the Golden Age of banjos, and I have heard that said by others too, so it must be true.  Each year we have large corporate builders making hundreds of a few models of fine quality traditional banjos, small private builders making a handful of custom banjos, and a few builders- like Nechville- doing something in between.  If you listen for it, you can hear banjo being played in television commercials, movies, sitcoms, and hear it in a wide variety of musical styles.  Country stars are playing guitar banjos, electric five string banjos, as well as traditional banjos in front of thousands of fans.  Jazz banjo players are playing tenor, plectrum and electric banjos at jazz festivals and clubs.  Bluegrass and Old Time festivals have more banjos than you can shake a stick at.  Did builders create new and different banjos that players discovered would fit in various musical situations, or did players try to put banjo in situations only to find they needed builders to make different kinds of banjos for?  Who knows…. maybe it is the chicken and egg situation, but really….what does it matter?  Both are mighty important in my mind.  What I do know though, is that Tom Nechville makes banjos for all of those situations and he is a fascinating, fast thinking guy.

In this interview Tom Nechville talks about how he came up with some of his ideas, explains his Heli-Mount design; talks about some of the people playing his banjos; talks about what music means to him and what he thinks is important.

So have a look, feel free to comment too!

Tom Nechville- Banjo Building’s Mad Scientist


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