Bluegrass folks have known, and admired, Danny Roberts for many years. These days we think of him as the mandolinist with The Grascals, where he has been since 2004 as a founding member. But he had a long career in the music before that.
Danny was also a co-founder of New Tradition, who played grass and Gospel all over the US for close to 20 years. When they disbanded in 2000, Roberts took a job at Gibson, allowing him to work in luthiery, where he had dabbled all of his adult life. He rose to the position of plant manager for Gibson’s Original Acoustic Instruments, where he oversaw construction of all mandolins and banjos made with the Gibson brand, plus the Dobro resophonic guitars.
Gibson mandolins built and signed by Danny are prized by modern instrument fanciers, and since leaving their employ, he has continued to do repair work for a select group of clients who trust their valuable mandolins to his care. This side business, which he calls Just Off The Bench Stringed Instrument Repair, has been a blessing to he and his wife, Andrea, as the only income they have coming in while both of their main music jobs are shut down.
Just recently, another opportunity in luthiery has come his way, pairing his many years of experience with the brilliant custom mandolins made by Jonathan McClanahan. The McLanahan mandolins are widely hailed by professional bluegrass artists for their similarity to the great Loar F-5s that Gibson made in the 1920s, and for the detail work that Jonathan puts into each individual instrument. Top players like Wayne Benson of IIIrd Tyme Out, CJ Lewandowski of Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, plus Chris Davis and Jesse Brock use and endorse them, as well as a long list of serious amateur and part time musicians.
Now Roberts makes a couple of trips each week to the McLanahan shop in Hendersonville from his home in Murfreesboro, TN to assist the master builder.
He described how this all came to be.
“I had known Jonathan since the New Tradition days. He played in a band then too, and I would see him regularly at The Milton Opry. I knew him when he was first building arch top guitars. One day he put up a video online, and I really admired how he talked naturally about his work, and how God had blessed him to be able to do it.
So I called him to catch up, and he invited me to come out to the shop. So I went out there, and had no thought of getting one of his mandolins; been a Sorenson guy for years. Jon works for the railroad, 3rd shift, and as we talked I could see that he was real tired looking. As we chatted he said, ‘I could really use some help here.'”
Roberts told us that he never thought of turning the McClanahan mandolins into Gibsons. He just wanted to help Jonathan make them.
“I’m going up there now one of two days a week, bending rims, and watching him go about his work. He does everything by hand – and by ear. He has that ability to hear something with wood, and knows how to take a piece of wood and scrape away everything that’s not a mandolin.
I always have respected someone who can just take a piece of wood and build an instrument from scratch.
When I was at Gibson, it was more like building a kit. We got the parts pretty much ready to put together. Jon was in the custom shop when I was there, but we never interacted much back then since they were in a different location.
I’m learning so much from him, and am so excited about the future with McClanahan. He’s still getting better at what he does. We’re having a ball, getting the work done and enjoying each other’s company.”
Danny plans to continue offering his own repair and restoration services as Just Off The Bench, and says that his association with McClanahan now allows him the use of some of the tools and equipment which he doesn’t have at home. He is not only enhancing his own skills, but shortening the wait time for Jonathan’s mandolins.
You can learn more about McClanahan Mandolins online, and see additional photos of his work.