Back in the summer of 2004, my wife Cheryl and I were attending the Grey Fox Bluegrass festival in Ancramdale, N.Y., about two and a half hours north of New York City.
I had been teaching dobro to kids at the festival that afternoon, and Cheryl was shopping. Earl Scruggs and some of his sons were on the main stage, and after the set Earl and his wife, Louise Scruggs, were selling autographed banjo heads. Cheryl talked to them a couple minutes and bought me that autographed banjo head. I think it was $25 dollars and I was understandably thrilled when she gave it to me that afternoon.
And that is how it started. From that day on, I brought that banjo head with me to many workshops and concerts. Here is a little history of these iconic banjo players and where I got them to sign this banjo head. The numbers are not on the head itself but only on my photo of the head, and each number is placed as close to the first letter in the name as I could get it. The numbers do not reflect the order of when I had the players sign it.
- Earl Scruggs (1924-2012). Credited with popularizing the syncopated, three-finger style of picking the banjo so much so that it has been called Scruggs style since he first appeared as a 21-year-old member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Later he went on to move bluegrass music to an unprecedented level of notoriety when he and fellow Bluegrass Boy Lester Flatt formed their own band, Flatt and Scruggs, in the late 1940s. You may have heard and seen him on the Beverley Hillbillies where they played the theme song before each episode and appeared in front of the camera as cousins, Lester and Earl. His wife, Louise, is also a member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame for her innovative booking and business savvy. She was the first to realize that colleges and music festivals would welcome bluegrass music.
- Bill Emerson (1938- 2021). Banjo player and founding member of the Country Gentlemen and the US Navy Country Current Band. The Country Gentlemen were a groundbreaking bluegrass band from the Washington, D.C., area mixing traditional songs with mainstream songs from other genres like folk (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – Bob Dylan) and rock’s “Fox on the Run” (Manfred Mann). He joined the United States Navy in 1973, attaining the rank of master chief petty officer and performing in both the United States Navy Band and its Country Current bluegrass ensemble for the next 20 years. In 2012, we taught together at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va. He signed it during a lunch break that week.
- Carl Jackson (1953- present). At the age of 14 he was invited to play banjo for Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, one of the most respected bluegrass bands at that time. After five years with Jim and Jesse, Jackson tested the musical waters elsewhere before landing a job with Glen Campbell. Jackson remained in Campbell’s band for 12 years. One of my most cherished memories was singing in a trio with him as we jammed at the Augusta Heritage Center (AHC) in 2011. He signed the banjo head that year for me.
- Eric Wiessburg 1939-2020 He was well known for playing the banjo solo in “Dueling Banjos,” used as the theme in the film “Deliverance” (1972). The song won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. I met him at Asbury Hall at Babeville in Buffalo when he came to play with New York State Banjo Summit in October 2013.
That night I also saw Richie Stearns (16) from the Ithaca-based alternative country/folk group the Horse Flies. Richie signed that night and we talked about the days when Creek Bend and the Horse Flies played the now defunct Rooney Mountain Bluegrass festival in Deposit, N.Y.
Also that night, I asked Noam Pikelny (11) from the Punch Brothers and Leftover Salmon to sign the banjo head that night. We talked about the summers we spent at Augusta when he was developing his playing style as a student and late night jam sessions we shared those years. The last to sign it that night was Bela Fleck (18), banjo player for the New Grass Revival and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
- Bill Keith (1939-2015). Bluegrass banjo innovator responsible for the melodic style of three finger playing now known as “Keith Style,” playing every note that a fiddle played in his banjo solos. Keith was also a teacher at Augusta. He signed the banjo head in Nashville during a World of Bluegrass convention.
- Pete Seeger (1919-2014). Folk singer, song writer, political activist and banjo player. Autographed the banjo head in Milford PA before his concert in June of 2013.
- Steve Martin. Comedian, writer, actor and banjo player. Signed in July 2011 at the back stage of the Chautauqua Institution. A security guard said Steve would not be signing anything but when I told him Earl Scruggs signed it, the security guard brought it back to me with Steve Martin’s signature.
- Tony Trischka. Tony is a composer, author of many banjo instruction books, closely associated with the jazz/bluegrass style known as “Newgrass.” He is also a producer and a world class banjo player of all styles. He signed the banjo head in 2005 while we were teaching at the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Camp.
- Jim Mills banjo player with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Signed August 2011 at the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Camp.
- Greg Cahill is the founding member of the Chicago based bluegrass band, Special Consensus. Signed at the Augusta Heritage Center.
- Noam Pikelny (See under No. 4 Eric Weissburg).
- Dr. Ralph Stanley (1927-2016) of the legendary Stanley Brothers bluegrass band signed at a concert at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
- Eddie Adcock, banjo player with the Country Gentlemen, signed at the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival in Wind Gap, Pa., in 2015. Look up Adcock’s brain surgery on YouTube.
- Alan Munde, banjo player for the Country Gazette, the Kentucky Colonels and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He signed the head at Augusta Heritage bluegrass camp.
- John McEuen, banjo player and founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, signed after a concert at the Sportmen’s Tavern.
- Richie Stearns (See under No. 4 Eric Weissburg).
- Pete Kykendall (1938-2017), co-founder of the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, composer, writer and a banjo player for the Country Gentlemen. Signed at the Mast Farm Inn in Boone, N.C.
- Bela Fleck (See under No. 4 Eric Weissburg).
- J.D Crowe, banjo player for Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, the New South and the Bluegrass Album band. Signed at the World of Bluegrass convention in Nashville.
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, the Irish Bluegrass band Jigjam will return to the Buffalo Irish Center in South Buffalo. Last time they were here, they brought the house down with the hard driving power and instrumental prowess of their performance.
On Saturday, Nov. 20, Creek Bend will present a concert at the West Falls Center for the Arts in West Falls.
The Buffalo Bluegrass All Stars return to the Sportsman’s Tavern on Nov. 4 and 18 for lunchtime shows, noon to 2:15 p.m.
If you are looking for a good bluegrass song to look up for this fall season, how about trying the song “Thanksgiving” by Creek Bend or the song “God’s Coloring Book,” written by Dolly Parton and recorded by the Country Gentlemen. With Veteran’s Day coming up, you might consider listening to “More Than Just a Name on the Wall” by Dailey and Vincent.
This past October another great bluegrass musician moved up to the angel band. Phil Leadbetter was a three-time dobro player of the year for the International Bluegrass Music Association. He played with the Grandpa Jones Show, the Vern Gosdin Band, J. D. Crowe and the New South, Wildfire (founding member), Grasstowne (founding member), the Whites and the Dale Ann Bradley Band.
He was a five time cancer survivor and a very inspirational player, teacher and person. You will enjoy anything you hear by him, but perhaps start with “I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” and his version of “Closer Walk With Thee.” He died of Covid-19 on Oct, 14, 2021.
As this summer and fall fade into winter, I hope the local live music scene continues to rebound after the last 18 months or so. I hope to see you at a live concert soon, and I truly wish you good health and happiness and above all great music.
Take care and keep on pickin’