I’ll never forget that day I walked into the music store at Friendly Shopping Center, in Greensboro, NC to buy my first banjo. I had been playing guitar for several years and was writing songs and learning from anyone I could find, but I’m not quite sure what sparked my interest in the banjo. It could have been the Andy Griffth Show or Hee Haw – two shows that filled our TV screen every time they were on with good music and fun. Or maybe it was the movie Deliverance that inspired me? Who could forget that famous “duel” with the kid on the porch playing the heck out of a banjo while actor, Ronnie Cox, tried his best to keep up on the guitar with a look of amazement on his face. Perhaps it was that double record album offer on television? I remember begging my mom to call the number, then waiting with daily anticipation for the “please allow six weeks for delivery” disclaimer. The album was called Banjo Bonanza and I think it’s still around here somewhere in what’s left of my stack of albums. That album had every kind of banjo music you can imagine on it. Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Joe Maphis and The Banjo Barons. Songs like “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Dueling Banjos” filled my room for weeks, and I was sold. I had to have one of my own!
So I went to that music store with money in my pocket and an air of excitement. The store manager knew me from the countless times I had played his guitars (and bought a couple of them) or come in to buy reeds for my E-flat Alto Sax that I played in the school band. I had picked out the banjo I wanted – or more likely, could afford. She was an Aria Classic Goodtime Special five string with a hard case. Not top of the line, but I bet Scruggs could have made her sing! It had a beautiful ring to it, and I couldn’t wait to get home to my room where I could play it as badly as I wanted with no one around. I spent many hours trying to get the hang of the 5 string finger roll that Earl Scruggs played. I also wrote a few songs on that banjo – not so much bluegrass style – but more like the claw hammer strum. My “audiences” back then were mostly people that came to our house for dinner. My parents would often invite people to our table and without fail my mom would say, “Tim, why don’t you go get your guitar and play something for us.” In fact, I realized at her funeral in 2010, when I was playing my guitar for those present, that she had unknowingly groomed me for that moment.
Over the next few years I began to write more songs on the guitar, and I played that banjo less. Ultimately, it spent more and more time in the case under my bed collecting dust. Then in the fall of 1974, I met a pretty girl, and she changed my world! I’ve always jokingly said that I learned to play guitar because “chicks dig guitars”. That may or may not be true, but there’s one thing for sure, chicks don’t necessarily “dig the banjo” (my apologies to my friends Marc Pruett and Tim Carter). And so that banjo, like a toy in the movie Toy Story, faded into the background as I lost interest in it and paid more attention to other things.
That wasn’t the end of that banjo’s influence on my life, it in fact took center stage in one my favorite life stories. In 1977, I asked that pretty girl’s father if I could marry her. We met with her parents in a hotel lobby in Boone. They were hesitant, to say the least. Her dad told me we’d be starting below zero. He pointed out the obvious – I didn’t have a job. (I was working part-time in college at WCU in Cullowhee at the time.) To be honest he scared me a bit. Not just because he was 6’5″, wore a cowboy hat, smoked a pipe and had guns (an avid hunter) but, because he made sense. But, I was young, foolish and in love, so, even though that talk slowed me down, it didn’t stop me from wanting to marry that girl.
There was a problem, however. With my part-time job, I didn’t have much money and if I was going to ask her to marry me I had to have a ring. My dad was a banker in High Point and he knew a man named Samuel Hyman who owed a jewelry store and pawn shop in town. So, on my Christmas break that year I dug that banjo out from under my bed and took it down to Hyman’s to see what he would pay me for it. With that money, and a little more I had saved, I bought Angie a marquise diamond ring and band in a white gold setting and the week after Christmas I officially popped the question. When she showed the ring to her folks that night her momma said, “Well, I guess we have a wedding to plan.” We were married the following June.
That pretty girl is still wearing that ring I bought her and this June we’ll celebrate 39 years. We have three grown sons, one beautiful daughter, two great daughters-in-law and two wonderful granddaughters. It’s hard to believe how fast life goes by, but, we have so many good memories and family stories to tell and many to come. I finally bought another banjo sometime last year. It’s not quite like that Aria Classic Goodtime Special, but, it stays in tune and it has a nice ring to it. And every time I play it I remember that banjo that helped me get my girl her ring.