I hear the banjo, paddle faster

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Way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, at the literal end of the road, a laid-back banjo builder and his wife have found their own slice of paradise. We switched on the four-wheel drive, locked the doors, and paid a visit to Greg Galbreath, a.k.a. Buckeye Banjos.

Words Jonas Larsson • Photo: Jonas Larsson & Jonas Henningsson

It’s like driving through a green tunnel. The road slowly winds its way through the mountains, and the trees close in around us. At a twist in the road, a beautiful little white wooden church appears. We stop to take a look. Suddenly, there is a low rumbling noise behind us. A bright yellow Willys Jeep comes round the bend, and stops right behind us. Our anxiety intensifies as a giant of a man, with a long grey beard and a bandana on his head, exits the car. And there’s a second jeep behind him. The whole scene is disturbingly reminiscent of “Deliverance”: we’re two city slickers in desert boots, wearing jeans that are way too tight, on our own out here in the middle of nowhere. This can’t end well. The man glares at us and reaches for something in his car. Then, he produces a camera, says “beautiful church, ain’t it?”, and takes a photo. Once our heartbeats have slowed back down, we find out that Joe, the bearded bandana wearer, is a friendly guy from West Virginia, who loves to fish and spend time in nature. We check out some pictures from his fishing trip yesterday, and see a lot of rainbow and brown trout. Then, we exchange some tips on good places to go hiking, and it turns out to be a pleasant encounter in every way. Suddenly, I spot a bumper sticker on Joe’s jeep: “I hear banjo, paddle faster.” I tell him we’re headed for one of the top banjo builders in the US, who happens to live in these parts’ laughs, and invites us to join him on his next fishing adventure. We wave goodbye to our new friends and drive on.

Greg in his work shop.

First, you drive past a house, and then, you take a right at the fork in the road. Next, you’ll see another house—take another right there. Then, there won’t be any more houses, and when you get to the end of the road, you follow the tractor tracks until they end, and then you’ll be at our place! Greg’s directions are just like the wilderness here in the beautiful mountains of Virginia: full of poetry, and easy to lose your way in. We get there eventually, after a couple of wrong turns. Tucker and Jojo run up and greet us with a series of ferocious barks, but after our encounter with Joe, we’re not about to be shaken by a couple of mongrels of manageable sizes. Greg and Cindy Jane, his wife, wave to us from the porch of the large wooden house they’ve built for themselves (we’ll soon find out they’ve built everything here), and walk over to greet us.

The Akonting and the birth of the banjo

The banjo, a musical instrument that we’re mostly familiar with from folk music, country music, and that eerie soundtrack from the 70s classic Deliverance, originated in West Africa. The Akonting is most notably played by the Jola people of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau.

It followed the slave ships across the ocean to the Caribbean islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then migrated on to the American South, where it would eventually be adapted and turned into the instrument we know today. It started out with four strings, but another string was added after some time. However, the shorter string (called the “fifth string”) hails all the way back to Africa. The older style of banjo has an open back, without a resonator, and this is the kind that Greg builds. In the early 20th century, the banjo was developed and given a resonator—this kind of banjo went on to become what we refer to as a “bluegrass” banjo today, and has a completely different sound than a traditional banjo.

After the Civil War, banjo picking spread across the US, and New York and Boston became particular hotspots for banjo players. Competitions were held, and soon, banjos were being played in pretty much every bar and night club. Some of the most notable manufacturers of this period were the Buckbee Company of Webster Ave in New York City, S.S. Stewart of Philadelphia, and A.C. Fairbanks of Boston. While the First World War raged, the USA became more isolated, and its musicians began to search for their roots. The time had become right for the banjo to break into the mainstream, and among other things, it became one of the most popular instruments when a tango craze swept across the nation. But when the stock market crash of 1929 sparked off the Great Depression, the joyful tones of the banjo seemed suddenly out of place. These were dark times, for humans and banjos alike.

Inlays and strong mints.

First pickers

Some of the most important banjo pickers from the first half of the 20th century are Wade Ward and Kyle Creed, who made significant contributions to old-time banjo styles, Pete Seeger, a great picker and singer who worked tirelessly to promote social pathos and popularize folk music, and Earl Scruggs, the man the bluegrass banjo style is named after, and who helped bring the banjo back into style in the early days of The also wrote a banjo playing manual that is still considered one of the best books to get if you want to learn to play.

The banjo’s popularity waned again in the middle of the century, but this trend was reversed by the folk revival of the 60s and 70s, and musicians like Steve Martin, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, , and Bob Dylan and the Highway Stringband all played their part. After falling out of the public’s favor once more, the banjo made yet another comeback 10 or 15 years ago, when the time came for performers like Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, and The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Iron and WIne  to pick up the torch.
Greg and Cindy came here when they were 17. After some time, Greg moved to upstate New York to earn his Master’s degree in Freshwater Ecology at Cornell University. While he was doing this, he was also apprenticing with master banjo builder Mac Traynham. He spent 10 years as a hobbyist banjo builder before taking the plunge in 2006, when he left the field of biology and became a full-time banjo builder. The timing for this decision turned out to be perfect. Bluegrass, folk music, and other traditional music in which the banjo plays a key role suddenly grew much more popular. Now, he builds about 15 instruments a year, depending on their levels of customization and ornamentation. One of the customers he has built a banjo for is Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. All that time he spent by watercourses, and his keen interest in plants and insects now serve as the foundation for Greg’s organic style of banjo design.

 

Trusty and old machines.
Sharp tools and talent makes Greg a happy boy.

The simple life

We sit on the porch, and look out over the valley and Buckeye Mountain. Everything is still, the only things that are moving are Jojo and one of the two cats of the household, who are zipping around and keeping a lookout for mice. Cindy tells us about living in the country.

– We’re self-sufficient when it comes to vegetables and eggs eight months of the year, I give blacksmithing classes, and we organize weddings and parties out here in our garden. We don’t spend much money, either, so we get by on just a little. It’s a good life.

We nod in agreement. This is the kind of lifestyle that could turn any big-city hipster green with envy. But Greg and Cindy aren’t hipsters, or hippies, for that matter; they’re simply two cool people who have found their place in life, and who know how to enjoy it.

Greg takes us on a tour of the farm. Outdoor kitchen and lounge? Check. Smithy? Check. Amazing banjo workshop? Check.

— We built it all ourselves, Greg tells me. Looking at this fantastic place fills me with a strange mixture of envy and admiration: well-tended vegetable patches, a chicken yard, a gorgeous view, lush greenery, and not another human being in sight.

It takes two to banjo

— It takes about two to three weeks to build a banjo, Greg explains, and demonstrates the various stages of the process. I start out by talking to the buyer, and we work out a shop order, with a list of everything I’ll need: the materials, the design, the measurements, and so on.

-Customers often have quite specific requests for the neck inlay. I send them sketches, and then we go back and forth until we arrive at the end result. For example, as you know, I’m building a banjo for your translator Jan, and he’s asked for an Ancient Greek theme. Greg shows us the banjo he built for Cindy. Its neck inlay depicts various vegetables, because she loves to grow things. It’s incredibly fine work. Greg shows us how he first makes sketches of the designs by hand, then cuts a paper pattern copy out, glues it to a sheet of mother of pearl, and then saws it out manually with a jeweler’s saw. Once the shape is done, he begins the laborious engraving process, which is also carried out using small, sharp instruments. Once engraved, the designs are mounted in a perfectly routed cavity in the fingerboard of the banjo. Watching him at work is awe-inspiring.

— You can build the rim itself out of different materials to get different sounds. The most commonly used woods are Walnut, Cherry, and Maple. Walnut gives a mellower tone than Cherry, and Maple gives you the brightest tone, Greg tells us.

The rim is constructed from three plies of wood, each about an eighth of an inch thick. They are soaked in pan full of water, which is gradually heated to 200 Fahrenheit, and then, the wood is boiled for 30 minutes before being bent into shape using a jig.

— When the wood is boiled in the water, the lignin in the wood dissolves, so you can bend it without snapping it, Greg explains. He often makes the necks out of Maple We get to hold some of the different banjos; I’m surprised by their weight.

Greg sits down on the porch and plays us a few tunes. He and Cindy are in a pick-up band, Farm Use Only, with some of their friends. They meet with predictable irregularity to play together.

-We generally play local gigs, mostly square dances, but we occasionally play weddings, farmers’ markets, art shows and the Palisades, which is our local restaurant in Eggleston.

Greg and Cindy are easy-going, and fun to hang out with. They invite us to stick around and spend the night, and it does sound very tempting to stay there on their porch, down a few cold ones, listen to their banjo picking and stories, and watch the sun set behind Buckeye Mountain. But unfortunately, reality calls, and we reluctantly have to turn their invitation down. While we’re incredibly impressed by Greg’s work, and his beautiful banjos that make such beautiful sounds, but more than anything, we’re impressed with the lifestyle that this charming couple have made for themselves. The world would be a better place if it had more people like Greg and Cindy in it. It would sound way better, too.

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Jonas Larsson

Jonas Larsson is an award winning Creative Director, but he also works as a travel writer. Jonas loves to hike national parks and go on adventures. But if there is a dive bar close, you will most certainly find him there.