Stolen banjo finds its way home after 42 years

David Luttrell with Karl Smakula, who ended up with his stolen banjo

Mississippi banjoist David Luttrell’s original pre-war Gibson RB-00 banjo was stolen in 1981. After a 42 year search and a bit of luck, the two were recently reunited.

“That was the cheapest priced banjo that Gibson made in the ’30s. It came with no tone ring, and only binding on the back edge of the resonator, with dots for the inlay on the fingerboard,” he recalled.

Prior to its purchase, the RB-00 had been uniquely customized. Luttrell treasured this specialized instrument and never stopped looking for it even though he had other good five-strings. Like the parable in the New Testament where Jesus told about the shepherd leaving the 99 to find one lost sheep and rejoiced when it was found, Luttrell is rejoicing because what was lost (stolen) is now found!

The 68-year-old picker who now works for the USDA shared his story.

“It was unnerving, but I’ve come to grips with getting it back. I bought the banjo from Randy Wood at GTR in Nashville in 1976. I was playing out of Memphis and got in one night super late to discover that my place had been broken into. A variety of things were taken, including my old Gibson banjo. I was sick about it. I filed a police report, listing everything. I even offered a reward for the banjo, but never heard anything. The other stuff I never worried about, but I couldn’t get this banjo out of my head. My dad had helped me get it.”

Luttrell never gave up his search.

“I spent years looking. I would go to bluegrass festivals, IBMA, and SPBGMA. Finally, I prayed, ‘Lord, if I ever find my banjo, You’ll lead me to it.’

I went to (the website) Banjo Hangout looking for a used banjo case, a feeling came over me to scroll through the Gibson banjos, and saw this ad. The inlay on the fingerboard caught my eye. It wasn’t a standard Gibson inlay. It was a custom inlay done by Rual Yarbrough during the early ‘70s. He only did three banjos with this particular inlay.”

Yarbrough had made other modifications.

“Rual added binding around the peghead and around the back edge of the resonator. He also inlaid ‘The Gibson’ in mother-of-pearl on the headstock, along with a fleur-de-lis. He cut the rim and put in a Steve Ryan flathead tone ring. It was a one-of-a-kind. Once I saw it, I knew that was it! I emailed the young man who had it, ‘I’m not trying to point fingers. Not trying to ruin your day, but that banjo was stolen from me 41 years ago.’ He wasn’t even born when the banjo was stolen. We were both in shock.”

Even with no published photo, Luttrell described the banjo’s case to the seller.

“It was an old brown Lifton case that really didn’t fit the banjo very well. I identified something inside the banjo that was coming unglued. He removed the back and said, ‘Yeah, man, it’s there.’

He really worked to make it all good. He was so nice, kind, and helpful. He even did the legwork in contacting the Memphis Police Department’s records division hoping they could find a 41 year old burglary report, and as God would have it, they did.  It was intriguing that the banjo was stolen in Shelby County, TN and recovered in Shelby County, AL. That was really weird.”

The seller, Karl Smakula of Nashville, shared his side of the story.

“I purchased this Gibson RB-00 from a gentleman from Alabaster, Alabama in December 2022. He had it listed very inexpensively on Facebook Marketplace, and I happened to see the listing ten minutes after he posted it. I initially thought it was a parts banjo, but I liked it enough to offer him a few hundred extra dollars to hold it for me until I could get to Alabama from Nashville. He found that agreeable and offered to meet me at Cracker Barrel in Cullman, Alabama that evening to conduct the deal. 

He and his wife were waiting for me and as I was giving it a look over, I asked how he acquired the banjo. He told me he was a traveling representative for Goodyear Tires, and he and his wife spent time together when he was off the road going to estate sales. This banjo showed up at one such sale near his home in about 1992 or so. He was not a musician, but impulsively bought the banjo (for $10) because he thought the case looked really good. He took it to a music store for new strings and then left it in a closet with the Christmas decorations until getting sick of moving it to get to Christmas lights. 

I took it apart immediately when I got back to Nashville, and quickly came to the conclusion it was likely an original Gibson RB-00, albeit a highly modified one. I posted pictures of it and its components to the collector’s corner forum of to get some more knowledgeable eyes on it. Some helpful members identified cosmetic modifications as the work of Rual Yarborough’s shop. I took the banjo to my hometown in West Virginia where my father, Bob Smakula, refretted the neck. 

I listed the banjo for sale in early April 2023 in the Banjo Hangout classifieds. There had been minimal interest until David Luttrell contacted me a couple weeks later and informed me it had been stolen from his residence in Memphis, TN roughly 40 years ago. I contacted Memphis Police Records who found the corresponding burglary report from August 1981. Mr. Luttrell and his family found some pictures of him with the instrument, which removed any uncertainty I had about the situation. I was able to reunite Mr. Luttrell with the instrument on April 28th, 2023 at my home in Nashville.”

Luttrell, a Tishomingo County, MS resident, was grateful to be reconciled with his stolen banjo. 

“The day I went to Nashville to get it, I knew it needed to be looked at by Steve Huber. I drove straight to Steve’s and left it for repairs.”

Huber related, “We disassembled the banjo and fit the tone ring correctly, did a slight neck set on it, added a new Presto tailpiece and a good set up. That’s it.”

Luttrell concluded, “The guy was asking $300 (on Facebook Marketplace). The boy offered him $500 to hold it. I paid Karl what he had paid to get it. Originally, I bought it for $1200. I still came out way ahead! That’s really the whole enchilada.”

 Just like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, his lost sheep (stolen banjo) has been returned to the fold. What a happy reunion!

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.