Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Conversations With North American Banjo Builders

This month’s highlight selection is very different from all of the others. This week I am featuring volume 1 of a 9 DVD series in three parts. This series is composed of interviews of banjo builders. AND HISTORIANS!! (I have a little obsession with banjo history.  I can admit that in public.  There is probably a therapy for it but I am not interested in therapy, I just want to learn more about banjo history.)  There are actually four parts to this series but the library only owns the first three at this point.  (I will buy the fourth this year- I just haven’t gotten to it yet!)

I realize that some people might not think a conversation with a banjo builder would be very interesting.  I can understand that thought but I am here to tell you, this stuff is fascinating.  Anybody who has ever built or thought of building anything at all will enjoy some of the shop tours in this series.  We see a lot of really interesting things and hear some of the thought processes that went into inventing the process these guys use (as well as some of them inventing tools and jigs to use).

Volume 1 Conversations with North American Banjo Builders- Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi.

The back story on this series is delightful. Old-time banjo player Craig Evans, (from Minnesota) decided that for a 60th birthday gift to himself, he would travel the country to interview, film and photograph those who he considered to be the best builders of old time banjos in the country. He made the decision to do this in two parts, those East of the Mississippi and those West of the Mississippi, and so in May 2011, equipped with cameras, recorders, roadmaps and probably a banjo or two, he set out on a journey that has surely more than surpassed his ideas and hopes in huge ways. Craig has put together a priceless glimpse into the workshops and minds of many builders and presents them to us in an honest and intimate way. He tours their workshops and gives us up-close and personal views that most of us would never see otherwise.  According to Craig, that birthday gift ended up being a 4 year, 20,000 mile and 60 interview adventure!  I am willing to bet its not over yet.

“But wait…” you are probably thinking. “East of the Mississippi and West of the Mississippi only make for two parts and you said there were three.” Yes indeed, after finishing the two DVD sets he decided that he had to have more and so set out to interview banjo historians and collectors. This part of the series is my favorite and I was very pleased at the group he selected to interview in this set. Many of the folks in the banjo historian interviews are involved in a group that organizes a yearly conference of banjo collectors and having attended one of those, I was already acquainted with most of these people and so was excited to see them interviewed by Craig.

Something I think worth mentioning here is that the range of builders in this series is pretty wide.  There are some builders making gourd banjos (yes, you read that right, modern builders making gourd banjos!), some making fairly low tech but very fine banjos and some making high tech, space-age type banjos.  There are as many building techniques as there are banjo builders too.  Fascinating stuff too, most notably a conversation with one-armed banjo maker Bill Rickard .

There is a lot to talk about with these three DVD sets, so I will feature one set at a time. This week’s selection…..Vol 1, Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi. These DVDs are not high-tech slick productions, they are real and honest and homey and the make you feel like you are really and truly being included in a conversation. The word is in the title- Conversations with North American Banjo Bulders, and that is what it is, a conversation and not really an interview. And we are included in this conversation as silent partners.

A few highlights of Vol 1-

P1030425 I am sure that I am not being prejudiced here or anything, but my favorite part of Volume 1 was the conversation with Greg Galbreath of Buckeye Banjos– who is what I will call a local boy. Greg went to school at Virginia Tech at roughly the same time I did, majored in Biology (the same time I did) and lives in the next county over from me. I have met him several times over the years and will say that his banjos are some of the most beautiful looking and sounding banjos I have ever been around- despite the fact that I do not play old time music, I am always very tempted to get him to make me one so I can play old Classic music on it.  His work is artistic beyond anything I was expecting, be it his unique inlay, his wood choices, his carving choices- its all amazing. In his interview with Greg, Craig Evans shows us a quick view of Greg’s home, and when I say home I mean the house, the chickens, the covered area music parties are held at and the shop. Then he and Greg sit on the porch and have a very nice casual chat that really shows who Greg is. There are no putting on or airs here, this is just like sitting down and talking among friends. Craig asks and Greg answers and when the interview portion is over, I think we all get a really nice feeling of who he is. Next, they tour and film the workshop and we are shown Greg’s supply of wood for necks, his inlay material and sketches, his machinery, instruments and more. This is great stuff.  (The photograph of Greg Galbreath is courtesy of and copywritten by Craig Evans.)  Craig has generously provided us with a short preview of the conversation:


Greg Galbreath from Craig Evans on Vimeo.



Another highlight for me is the conversation with Chuck Lee of the Chuck Lee Banjo Company. Greg gets to the question I would ask pretty quickly- “Do you consider yourself more of an artist of a craftsman?”  This and other questions are laid out in an easy pace.  I particularly liked that Mr. Lee told us about telling his wife he wanted to invest their retirement money into a banjo building business.  That is for sure something worth watching the conversation to hear!

I have always liked the look of Chuck Lee banjos and so enjoyed the photos of them that Craig includes in the conversation. (This photograph of Chuck Lee is courtesy of and copywritten by Craig Evans.)  As with the others I’ve mentioned here, Craig has provided a preview!


Chuck Lee from Craig Evans on Vimeo.

And while we are on the subject of previews, Craig has also offered up a preview to the conversation with the very inspirational Bill Rickard that I mentioned in the beginning of this post:


Bill Rickard from Craig Evans on Vimeo.


So watch Volume 1 of Craig Evans’ Conversations with North American Banjo Builders and see what your favorite things are.  Even if you are not a banjo player or even a banjo lover, I bet you will be surprised by a lot of what you see and hear.  The people making these instruments are artists, craftsmen, inventors, machinists, musicians and scientists all rolled into one.  Craig has done a wonderful thing in giving us these glimpses into their minds.

Title: Conversations with North American Banjo Builders- Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi

Location: Video-DVD- Level 4

Call Number: ML418.C66 2011 v.1 Disc 1-3


P.S. Craig Evans is a really good banjo player too.  On his website he has a lot of music, links to CDs, information about banjos and should you decide you want to get a set or two of his banjo builder DVDs…. well I know he would love to hear from you.

This entry was posted in music, old time. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Conversations With North American Banjo Builders

  1. Becky Smith-Mandin says:

    Hi Mr. Bennett,

    I’m with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and we wanted to let you know we’re going to be distributing the whole Banjo Builders series on November 13, 2015. Check out the link below for more info. So glad to hear that you’re enjoying the series!



    Becky Smith-Mandin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.