So many of the fine people who make contributions to bluegrass do so outside of their primary profession or occupation. For example, next week at the World of Bluegrass convention will be hundreds of folks who are taking time off work to focus on their bluegrass passion. Some will be radio hosts, others part-time professional artists, and still others event producers or journalists.
Many of these people, like Virginia’s Wayne Blythe, receive only rare recognition yet they continue on to support bluegrass in their own ways. For Blythe, it’s been banjo building during his retirement from a lengthy teaching career, but it has given him a brief brush with fame owing to his Carter Center banjo.
The Carter Center is the non-partisan organization created by President and Mrs. Carter after they left the White House. Their official motto is: “Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.” They take as a primary challenge tackling diseases in underdeveloped parts of the world that don’t get much attention. Wayne shared with us the example of Guinea Worm disease, in which worms up to three feet in length grow inside the human body, only to eventually exit painfully through the skin. He said that under the leadership of the Carter Center, reported cases dropped from roughly 3.5 million in 1986 to less than 150 in 2013.
And it was to support this mission that he built that banjo. Its purpose was to be auctioned during this summer’s annual fundraiser. Wayne designed it to represent the work done by the Center in its appointments, along with references to President Carter. The headstock has a stylized American Eagle (The Carter Center logo), with the fingerboard inlays including the outline of the African continent, interfaith symbols, several peanuts, “1982” for the year the Center was founded, and the text “Thirty Nine” for the 39th president.
Wayne built it as a first class professional instrument, which was autographed by Mr. Carter prior to the auction. There it sold for $14,500 to a couple from Grand Rapids, MI and the husband reported it as his atonement for having stepped on his wife’s banjo neck when they were in college some years back.
Other than the metal parts, this instrument was truly hand made. Blythe bent the wood for the rim, made the resonator, carved the neck and inlays, and even cut down the walnut tree himself! It was only the second banjo he’s built, having kept the first for personal use.
The banjo was donated to the Carter Center.
Well done, Mr. Blythe!