Or, just Kirk, as he preferred. Trying to sell my Kirk banjo (see photos in classified ad) has got me to thinking about him and looking at archived forum entries. He really was a character. Charming and gruff at the same time, but very knowledgeable about instruments and bluegrass music, and a very fine builder.
As a novice banjo player in the late '70's, I figured having a better banjo would make it easier to learn. I was referred to Kirk and went to meet him. He wanted to sit in the living room and get to know me before he would agree to build a banjo. He built me a fine bluegrass banjo with a custom inlay pattern (oak leaves and acorns) that he fussed about to no end. I originally wanted just dots but he said no to that! "Nope, can't do that", he said. "Inlay's one of my favorite parts."
It took him most of year to build it, mostly due to getting the inlay right. He wanted me to play when I went to pick it up. As a novice, that made me extremely nervous, but he was very gracious about it.
Someone unloaded the banjo from a car about 5 years later and leaned it up against the outside of the car. As more equipment was unloaded, it slowly fell over on its face and the neck broke behind the nut. I was devastated and took it to Kirk for repair. He was quite surly at first but softened up a bit after I assured him that I wasn't the one who unloaded it. He took a few months to glue the neck back together and it held for a few years, but then separated again. We decided it just needed a new neck so he built me a new neck and transferred the finger board. It took him more than a year to do this and I think he was having some serious health problems. Seems like maybe his wife passed during this period, but I'm not sure. At any rate, he was having difficulty with his painting and finishing equipment. It came back beautiful and like new, except that the finish was really soft. If you touched it with a fingernail or a pick, it would turn opaque and then flake off.
After a few years, I had heard that Kirk had basically retired, so I decided to have the banjo refinished because it was really looking funky and took it a well-known local luthier, Ken Miller. He said he was not into doing repairs anymore and initially declined. I noticed his wife was doing really fine inlay work and asked if he would refinish it if we got her to do a custom inlay on a new fretboard. They agreed and that is the banjo now. I still have the original fretboard.
Perhaps it was a mistake to have the instrument refinished and a new fretboard put on, kind of like refinishing a fine old antique. But, the finish was really becoming a mess and the wood was being exposed.
I feel privileged to have known this fine fellow and to have played one of his instruments for these years. I can't play a heavy banjo anymore because of an injured shoulder, so I'm hoping it will go somewhere and be played.
Great story. A true gentleman was Marion. I would have loved to have known him myself.
'figuring out the key' 2 hrs