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the banjo Earl Scruggs is playing in my avatar photo

Posted by corcoran on Sunday, October 31, 2010


This is the story of the banjo in the photo that constitutes my BHO avatar.

For over 40 years I have been custodian of a wonderful prewar Gibson model 6 flathead.  I know, I know, a banjo with a 2-piece flange and a light weight high profile tone ring should not be outstanding, because it does not conform to the profile of Earl Scruggs’s banjo – one-piece flange and heavy ring – that has been so effectively promoted by Sonny Osborne and others.  But, for whatever reason, this banjo is outstanding.  Here is what I know of the banjo’s provenance:

I previously had a Mastertone, a 1960 flathead that I had sent to Eric Schulte for conversion of the neck into a vintage reproduction, with double-cut peghead and flying eagle inlays.  It was an okay banjo.  Unfortunately it was stolen at the 1966 Fincastle festival.  To say I was devastated is an understatement.  However, the theft was covered by my parents’ homeowners policy, and so I had some cash sitting around, awaiting another banjo.

I had a friend named Jerry Shereshewsky, who then was president of the folk music society at the University of Wisconsin.  Like all the bluegrass banjo players in Chicago, I was familiar with Jerry’s banjo and lusted after it, but knew there was no chance it would become available.  Well, for a variety of reasons Jerry decided to sell the banjo.  He first offered it to someone else, who chose not to pay the $1,000 Jerry was asking.  I had more than half that amount from the insurance payment, I was able to borrow the rest, and I purchased the banjo.

Here is what I know about the banjo’s history, gleaned from some e-mail messages I have exchanged with Jerry and with the banjo's owner before him, Eric Nagler.  Eric bought the banjo in New York City, where he then lived.  He reported that it was originally a tenor (TB-6), but "Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902 - 1941" identifies the 9242 series of banjos as being made up of the Royal PT-6, with a scale midway between tenor and plectrum. So let's assume it was a Royal PT-6. Eric was having a 5-string neck made by Roger Siminoff, who apparently cannibalized the 4-string neck for the peghead overlay, and Eric does not know what happened to the original neck.  As luck would have it, the banjo was stolen from Eric's car, and some time later Jerry found the neckless banjo in a pawn shop in New Jersey (I have the original receipt).  Jerry bought it and had Tom Morgan make a 5-string neck for it.  The neck was a nice piece of curly maple, bound with gold sparkle, close to the original binding on the resonator, with a double-cut pehead and hearts-and-flowers inlays.  So the neck was not a faithful copy of the model 6 pattern, but was more a hybrid of the Granada and model 6 necks.
As noted, Jerry eventually decided to sell it, and the rest is history.

I bought the banjo from Jerry early in 1967.  After some time, a problem appeared with the Morgan neck, which began to warp.  This was not a relatively simple warp, such as a bow or back-bow, but rather it was a nasty torque.  (Subsequently, Winnie Winston told me that several necks Morgan made from the same batch of curly maple developed serious warps.  Apparently the wood had not been  sufficiently kiln-dried).  I sent the banjo to Mr. Morgan several times for remedial action, but he eventually declined to do any further work on it, presumably when it became clear that the problem could not be cured.  Thus in 1970 I commissioned a new neck from GTR (the then-partnership of George Gruhn, Tut Taylor, and Randy Wood) in Nashville.  Mr. Wood constructed a nice curly maple neck that was a close reproduction of the model 6 pattern, with a fiddle-shaped peghead, model 6 inlays, and sparkle binding.  At my request, GTR installed 4 Keith pegs, purchased from Earl Scruggs and Sons (ironic in view of the legal dispute that Bill Keith and Earl Scruggs entered into around that time regarding credit for authorship of the Scruggs book).  I kept that neck on the banjo for nearly 30 years.  However, it began to bug me that the orange sparkle binding on the neck did not match the gold sparkle binding on the resonator.  So I began to cast about for another neck builder and commissioned Monte Hendricks, in Northern California, to build a neck whose gold sparkle binding matched that on the resonator.  The highly figured curly maple neck was delivered in 1998.  Unfortunately it too developed a warp, and after several episodes of sending it back to Monte, I decided to acquire still another new neck.  Chris Cioffi and Robin Smith of Nashville, TN, have made a wonderful new curly maple neck for the banjo, and Chris (the Banjo Whisperer) assures me that the neck will outlive me.  That's either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it!  Whatever, I am mighty thrilled with the neck -- it is a powerful piece of work.

What, I can hear you asking, does this all have to do with the photo in Corcoran’s avatar?  Here is the story:  When Jerry and a bunch of folks were leaving the 1966 Fincastle festival to head back North, they decided to detour through Tennessee and see whether Earl Scruggs was home.  It turns out that Earl was at home, the first Labor Day weekend in years that he and Lester were not performing.  Earl invited them in, they picked a little, and the photo in my avatar shows Earl playing Jerry's banjo, which I ended up owning 6 months later.  The person on guitar sitting behind Mr. Scruggs is his son Gary Scruggs.  Around 2016 another photo of that session surfaced on facebook, and I have included it on the media section of my BHO webpage.  It shows the larger group of pickers participating in the jam.

Where they are now: Jerry Shereshewsky went on to fame in the world of advertising and is currently the spokesperson for  Eric Nagler has lived in Canada at several times in his life and currently is located near Toronto, where he is a highly respected children’s performer who still plays banjo and about 15 other instruments.  I recently retired after over 40 years of studying the plasticity of the brain, particularly with regard to the development of epilepsy.  I also try to understand the attraction I feel to the banjo in general and this particular banjo in particular.

3 comments on “the banjo Earl Scruggs is playing in my avatar photo”

banjotef Says:
Sunday, October 31, 2010 @1:13:38 PM

Hi Mike:
Are you the one who wrote the series on Nueral Plasticity in the Banjo Newsletter recently? I really enjoyed that article.

corcoran Says:
Sunday, October 31, 2010 @1:35:44 PM

No, not guilty.

Gary T Meadors Says:
Thursday, August 23, 2012 @5:39:06 AM

Thanks for the historical overview...makes me want to know more about my 6. I lived near Fincastle during the 60s, but had not yet discovered bluegrass...another missed opportunity!!

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