Tangle and Drift

To Build a Banjo

Written and Photographed by Edward Badham

“One thing he discovered with a great deal of astonishment was that music held for him more then just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of Creation. What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift, but have a shape, an aim. It was a powerful argument that life did not just happen.”

–Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

Instrument Birth

The wind howls above, the leaves rustle and shake as the air caresses them, a limb snaps, the birds flitter off screeching and singing with fear and excitement. The appendage then crashes to the ground. There is a scamper and gallop as the creatures below race to safety. This is a song of mother nature, the earth’s symphonic rhythms and the crescendo of life and death. It can be beautiful or it can be terrifying. It can be both. We live our lives trying to make sense of it all, the beauty and the destruction.

Jason Burns

We build machines and structures to comfort and protect us, we invent science to explain it, we make art and music to remember (or forget) and glorify it. A luthier is a creator of stringed instruments. He, in the practice of his craft, is doing all three of these things. The luthier recovers materials from the tangle of nature and man and skillfully, scientifically, crafts them together into a beautiful, sonorous sculpture. An instrument from which he may then, through the movement of his finger tips, command the laws of physics to make music, returning the vibrations and rhythms to the atmosphere.

Chuck Lewis

Birmingham is home to several such artists, including Chuck Lewis and Jason Burns, who are builders of banjos. The banjo was a mainstay of African

American traditional music in the 19th century, and this music is the root of what is now country and bluegrass. Lewis would ardently deny that he’s a luthier, yet he is working on his 11th instrument. Lewis lives in a log cabin in Chelsea. He is an avid mountain biker, musician and brewer of fine ales, and he works at his craft in a basement workshop. Lewis decided to build his first banjo when his wife, Robbie, presented him with a batch of gourds purchased at a neighborhood yard sale. He uses gourds and scraps of fine hardwoods to create his pieces. He continues to build them, he says, “ because I cannot  wait to hear the quality of sound that emanates from each new instrument.” Lewis is a hobbyist  but no less a craftsman and a luthier.

Burns works out of Homewood Music Shop across from Homewood Park. To me, this place was always the little music shop with the old Ford parked out front. Now that I’ve been inside, I see a magical place where fine instruments are born. Burns is a professional luthier and works diligently in the quaint but well-equipped workshop to create banjos and guitars for musicians worldwide. His instruments are in such demand that it’s rare for him to have a finished product in his shop. He had built close to 40 banjos, and each one is an original work of art. Burns also makes guitars and other stringed instruments

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

After I visited these workshops and spent time with the creators, the banjo has become much more to me than before. It isn’t just the twangy instrument we saw in the film Deliverance or on the TV show Hee Haw. It’s not just the extra strings in a country band. The banjo is an instrument with a rich history and is an  indispensable part in traditional roots music as well as modern bluegrass/newgrass. Its players and craftsmen appreciate the subtle nuance of sound that flows from each custom-made piece. Each masterpiece delivers a brief respite from the ravages of life with a song. Their creators put a temporary halt to entropy, put together the pieces  out of chaos, and create a perfect work that may sing across centuries.

One Response to “Tangle and Drift”

  1. Howard Pardue says:

    Wonderful story about two fine banjo makers. I hope a purchased banjo comes with one of the fine ales.

Leave a Reply