Call of The Banjo-Man: An Interview with Neal James

Call Of The Wildman is a popular show on Discovery’s Animal Planet starring Ernie Brown, Jr., an animal lover with a flair for adventure. Ernie has been helping animals (and people) for thirty years, by safely removing critters from precarious situations and release them into the wild. Known as “The Turtleman,” his expertise is removing dangerous snapping turtles from Kentucky ponds. He always finds ways to get into sticky situations by removing unwanted (and sometimes deadly!) pests.

Ernie’s right hand man, Neal James, is a bluegrass fan, and is often seen playing clawhammer banjo on the show. I got a chance to sit down with Neal, and talk about his love for the banjo, what it’s like working with The Turtleman, and find out more about the Call Of The Wildman Holler Day Cheer Special coming up this Sunday on Animal Planet.

DM: Well, first off, I was tickled to death to find out you’re a big bluegrass fan. It’s music after my own heart.

NJ: There ya go. You can’t go wrong with bluegrass. Especially, when you live in a state that’s called The Bluegrass State!

DM: Haha. That’s right! How long have you been a fan of bluegrass?

NJ: Most all of my life. I don’t know many of the names, and who a lot of the signers and writers are, but I really appreciate the music and the style and the way it’s laid back and talks about the Lord and about good and pure things. I just love every aspect of it. In fact, I play the clawhammer banjo on Call Of The Wildman quite a bit. It’s not really meant to be considered folk, I don’t think, so much as it is original bluegrass.

DM: When did you learn how to play the banjo?

NJ: About twenty years ago I started trying to learn how to play Earl Scruggs-style and never could get no better at it, and I thought “Well, I’ll try to play like Uncle Dave Macon or Grandpa Jones, something like that,” and it just kinda worked for me. It came pretty natural, and I’ve been playing it like that ever since.

DM: That’s great! So, Uncle Dave and Grandpa Jones are some of your inspirations on the banjo?

NJ: They are and Dave Akeman, but the correct pronunciation is Stringbean. Good old Kentucky Stringbean!

DM: I’m glad you play the clawhammer. It’s got such a mountain sound. There’s not enough clawhammer banjo players today, in my opinion, so I’m glad you can join the ranks.

NJ: Thank you, buddy. My style is very, very simple and it’s very primitive. I hope that people can just appreciate that I try to do what’s right, and try to make it sound as good as I can. I don’t believe I’ll ever be an accomplished picker at anything, but I do try to make a good sound and at least make you think of something to do with down in the mountains or to think about home.

DM: Sounds good to me! What about the banjo appeals to you the most?

NJ: You can’t make sad music on a banjo, and in Turtleman’s outfit, there ain’t nothing about sadness. It’s all happy. It’s meant to make you happy. I can probably make good music sound bad, but you cant make a sad song on a banjo. It just don’t work. You can maybe make it sound haunting or something like that, but definitely not sad. It gives you a charge! It makes you think and feel a little better just listening to a banjo.

DM: Charles Schulz, who made the Peanuts comic strip, wrote the classic line, “I think every child needs to be issued a banjo when they’re born.” I think that’s true.

NJ: Now, I do too. What I’m trying to do is find a banjo maker out there, that can get us one affordable enough for people to buy them for their kids, and let me show em just one or two things about how I do it. Maybe they won’t be the world’s greatest banjo player, but if I can do it, a monkey can do it! I think we could get something started. I would love to do that. I could show em on YouTube or Facebook, how I do it, and then they can enjoy it as much as we do.

DM: That sounds a lot more useful than having kids sit and play video games all day.

NJ: I hear you! I told someone the other day, that I’d rather see a kid get bit by a garter snake than I would to have them get carpal tunnel surgery from sitting in front of a dad blame TV.

DM: Alright, since it’s Christmas time, what bluegrass album would you like to give someone as a Christmas gift? Obviously you’d rather give them a banjo and teach them how to play, but if you had to give them one bluegrass album as a Christmas gift, what would you give them?

NJ: Let me see. Anything at all by J.D. Crowe, because J.D. Crowe is my hero.

DM: That’s hard to beat. Anything by Crowe sounds good to me as well. Have you met Crowe?

NJ: Yes, I have and he’s a fine fellow. I sat down and and dinner with him and he picked up an old banjo and looked at it, and I think the song was Blue Ridge Cabin Home, and where most people would try to play the melody, he sat down there and played the second part by himself! I thought, “Lord have mercy!” His brain don’t work exactly the way everyone else’s does. He’s something else. In my opinion, he’s the best bluegrass banjo player alive today. He is truly a legend.

DM: Amen! Let’s shift gears here and talk about Call of the Wildman. I know my 6-year old cousin, Anthony, is dying to know the answer to this next question: what’s it like working with The Turtleman?

NJ: I have got a front row seat to live action. The most exciting, interesting thing in life that you will ever witness, and I’ve got a front row seat just as it goes down!

DM: For those who aren’t familiar with him, Turtleman is kind of like The Hillbilly Crocodile Hunter.

NJ: Oh, he’s that and then some! I’m telling you. He is so deep. He has showed me about arrow heads. He’s showed em about animals. He’s showed me about Native American culture. He’s showed me about music. He’s showed me hawks that come around when we go and do something!

DM: How long have you and Ernie known each other?

NJ: Oh, about six or seven years now. We’re getting to put a few years behind us. I’m awful glad I met that old boy. He’s a good fellow and feels like family to me.

DM: What’s the craziest situation that you and Ernie have been in when out on a call?

NJ: Well, the thing is it don’t take him but just a minute to catch the animal. He’ll throw his hand out there in front of him and act like he’s staring and thinking about something. That is just fantastic and it excites me to see him do his radar out there, because I know something good is fixing to happen. But the thing is, all of that’s cute when he’s catching animals, but it ain’t cute on the interstate at 4 o’clock in the morning when he’s trying to figure out where it is that we’re at!

DM: Hahaha. I’m sure you could talk for hours about the Turtleman. He seems like quite a unique individual.

NJ: I could. There ain’t nothing short on him. He’s just a good guy. He’s a down to earth guy. He’s all about living and life and being fair and sharing with people what you got. I’ve learned a lot from him.

DM: The Call of the Wildman‘s Holler Day Cheer special is coming up on Sunday. What can we expect from Team Turtle when Call of the Wildman gets in the Christmas spirit?

NJ: Well, one thing is, we fixed a fellow’s Christmas lights, but I had to have a squirrel go up my britches leg to do it!

DM: Hahaha. Now, that sounds like good entertainment!

NJ: It’ll be entertaining now, but man, it sure wasn’t that day! I thought I was gonna quit!

DM: Have you ever heard the Ray Stevens’ song Mississippi Squirrel Revival? Because you lived it is what it sounds like!

NJ: I LIVED THAT! I don’t think many people can say that. I said, “That squirrel has hit my shoe three times. It’s inevitable.” I started once to tuck my britches cuff to where he couldn’t get up my britches leg, but just about the time I thought it up, up he went!

DM: I can’t wait to see how that turns out on Sunday! That’s Sunday at 9 EST: Call of the Wildman’s Holler Day Cheer Special.

NJ: Absolutely. Thank you, buddy.

DM: Thank you very much for your time, Neal. You take care, and you start tucking your britches’ legs in, alright?

NJ: I believe I better do that or put rubber bands around em or something! Thank you, buddy. God bless you, and Merry Christmas!

As you can probably tell from the interview, Neal and I had a lot of fun. He was nice as can be, and even played me a song on the banjo before we got finished! After interviewing Neal, one thing is certain: I will definitely be tuning in on Sunday at 9:00 p.m. EST to see that squirrel run up his britches leg!


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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.