At the early part of each year, prewar banjo enthusiasts of every stripe converge on the town of Maryville in east Tennesse for an annual celebration of all things banjo, known simply as Banjothon. The 2013 get together was held this past weekend, and Dean Hoffmeyer was there with his camera.
Banjothon is not widely promoted, and even has a bit of an invitation-only vibe, as the idea is to limit attendance to serious players and collectors, with a minimum of looky-loos.
And boy do the serious banjophiles show up! It’s a rare year that doesn’t find luminaries like J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Curtis McPeake and Jim Mills on hand. Many dealers and brokers set up instruments on display, but the vibe is not about buying and selling so much as about celebrating and sharing a love for these classic banjos.
Banjothon is the brainchild of Larry Mathis, longtime picker and banjo fancier in the Knoxville area. It was launched informally 13 years ago, with just a handful of collectors in attendance.
“I started it in my home in 2000, just because I always loved old Gibson banjos. I had one, as did some of my friends like Jerry Keys, Jim Millsaps, Glen Rose, Ken Collins, Kent Leadbetter, and Scott Houston, just to name a few. That first Banjothon we had 8 banjos. The second year Steve Huber, David Parker and a few others came, and we had 14 old prewars.
The next year I saw very quickly we could not have at my house, and that was the first year Jim Mills came. We had 38 pre war banjos. We’ve moved a couple times since then due to running out of space. Each year we’ve grown in numbers, especially the number of banjos.
Last year (2012) was the most people we ever had. The best we could count was 175, give or take a couple (like trying to count bees in a hive). This year we were down a few but not too many. We usually have around 175 to 200 people (some forget to sign the register) and this year was about the same in attendance.”
Jim Mills has a been a regular at Banjothon since leaving his gig with Ricky Skaggs, and always made every effort to get there even when he was on the road. In addition to being a top professional player, Jim is an avid collector and dealer of original prewar banjos and conversions, and he tried to explain the appeal this meet up has to the banjo world.
“These particular banjos are of great importance to a large portion of the bluegrass community. And more than just banjo players enjoy Banjothon as well. After all, these are the very banjos that made “Bluegrass History” with Earl, Don, Sonny, J. D., and on, and on, and on, and on. In my honest opinion, and that of many others, these old banjos may have been replicated, but have never been equaled, much less bettered.
Larry Mathis deserves a world of credit here for not only coming up with the idea, but also for carrying that idea through with action. Idea’s are great, but they’re absolutely useless until someone makes them a reality. And he and his wife literally made Banjothon happen, out of thin air.
I remember when they used to do it all, literally, from starting it in his living room, and them actually cooking everyone’s lunch, to standing out side parking cars in the snow, to sweeping up when it was all over, only to go in the hole financially himself. But through it all he’s kept it going, and today it has really grown into something special.
The appreciation for these fine old prewar Gibson banjos is greater than it’s ever been, and I for one hope that Banjothon continues to grow, even larger than we could ever imagine!”
Though started as a strictly banjo congregation, you can now find a number of classic guitars and mandolins on display in the hall. Still, Banjothon is about the vintage, prewar banjos, and the people that cherish them.
Thanks to Joe Spann with Huber Banjos for his help putting this article together.