You’re cruising deep into a holler tucked in the cotton-tufted mountains of western North Carolina. An ominous rain drones on your windshield, and you can’t help but whistle that most notorious of banjo tunes.
“Deliverance is a horrible example because that plays on Appalachian stereotypes, which has nothing to do with bluegrass, but, unfortunately, people associate that movie with bluegrass-playing.”
That’s Haakon Oyen, one of the three gentle-natured twenty-somethings who work for Patrick Heavner, owner and shop foreman of Pisgah Banjo Co. Get any of them tuned up about the differences between bluegrass and old-time, and they get pickin’—These are not bluegrass banjos! They’re old-time, open-back banjos. Huge difference.
“The banjos we make are modeled after banjos from the late 1800s,” says Heavner, standing at a shop lathe that’s spinning out frames and spraying excelsior-like shavings. He wears headphones that, at one point, play “Sweet Little Julie,” a traditional tune with the banjo playing right alongside a fiddle.
That’s another big distinction between bluegrass and old-time. Bluegrass plays for the song: each tune’s pickers—guitar, banjo, mandolin—take turns taking lead; think Del McCoury Band. You don’t hear a lead in “Sweet Little Julie,” just a dance number.
That’s how the African- and Caribbean-inspired instrument reputedly evolved. According to “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History,” a 1975 article in Ethnomusicology, one Reverend Jonathan Boucher in the mid-1770s described the “Bandore (pronounced Banjor)” as a “rude musical instrument.” And Nicholas Creswell, writing in 1774 about watching enslaved African-Americans, is quoted: “Sundays . . . they generally meet together and amuse themselves Dancing to the Banjo. This musical instrument (if it may be so called) is made of a Gourd. . . . Some of them sing to it, which is very droll music indeed.” Finally, an escaped slave wrote in 1854: “When we made a banjo, we would first of all catch what we called a ground hog, known in the north as a woodchuck. After tanning his hide, it would be stretched over a piece of timber fashioned like a cheese box, and you couldn’t tell the difference between this homely affair and a handsome store-bought one.”
Heavner, who sells to handsome stores nationwide, doesn’t skin animals, though one of his 11 models happens to be The Woodchuck—along with The Pisgah Possum, The Appalachian, and Dobsons. Nowadays, their heads are synthetic plastic or, okay, goatskin. The 31-year-old banjopreneur, who opened in 2014 just southeast of Asheville, is especially proud of the wood he sources only from Appalachia, the maple, persimmon, cherry, and walnut that account for so much richness and tonal variation.
“I love how local Patrick is making his instruments,” writes Leah Song. “It gives me a lot of pride to know the wood types, where the banjo was crafted.” Song is half of an old-time sister act, Rising Appalachia, playing Pisgah banjos all over the world, including Washington, D.C.’s renowned 9:30 Club to Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, where they’ll open for String Cheese Incident this summer. She joins a chorus praising the banjos’ simple aesthetic and “deep bellow sounds” that she and others, such as “clawhammer” strummers, make with Pisgah’s beguiling instruments.
Seems old-time’s everywhere. Even in Manhattan, where TR Crandall Guitars sells Heavner’s products among 200-odd vintage guitars, mandolins, and amps crammed into its 550-square-foot showroom in the funky Lower East Side. “Banjos are big in New York City. There’s kind of a resurgence in traditional music here,” says Tom Crandall, who heard about Pisgah from the legendary craftsman Bart Reiter. “They’re the best thing going out there—at least, what I’ve seen. I love the aesthetic. It looks very ‘mountain,’ y’know? They’re a cool thing to have, and they’re easy to sell, as easy as a banjo gets in Manhattan.”
Reiter, from his shop in Michigan where he’s fixin’ to retire at 64, adds: “Tastes have shifted to an older style.” Heavner’s century-old design appeals to folks turning “back to the land, natural, organic, make-your-own, small, beautiful stuff, the alternative to mainstream music and musical instruments where the big money is,” Reiter says.
Back to Heavner, who carries on a near-mythical tradition while carving his place in the regional lore he learned while studying geography and renewable energy at Appalachian State University. Before starting his company, he worked as a solar installer; he plans to power Pisgah 100 percent with 100 panels by the end of this year. That’s pretty innovative for an instrument that isn’t—an instrument whose singular nature keeps Heavner tuned up. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s my favorite banjo?’ And I say, ‘All of ’em.’”
Except the ones that play that certain movie theme song.
Pisgah Banjo Co.’s instruments start at $1,195. For more information, visit pisgahbanjos.com.