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Growing Up Out Proctor: Musical Mentors — Part 1

By Gary Eller - | May 5, 2021

I don’t recall that either my Mom or Dad or any of my seventeen aunts or uncles played a musical instrument to any great extent. Nevertheless, when I was growing up there always was a lot of music around our house and car from daytime radio broadcasts from WETZ in New Martinsville and WWVA in Wheeling.

Often on Saturday nights, my Dad would dial in the famous country music shows on WWVA (the Wheeling Jamboree) and, when we could get it, WSM in Nashville (Grand Ole Opry). We were well immersed in the many branches of the country music tree, from the old-time style of Grandpa Jones and Stringbean to the smooth crooning of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

Bluegrass was definitely on the menu with my greatest banjo hero Don Reno playing often at the Jamboree with his partner Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, the Stanley Brothers, Ola Belle Reed, and others were big WWVA hits for my family. Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe were hardly a blip on the radar screen for us.

At that time, bluegrass had not yet been artificially lopped off the tree of country music. I remember going to the Jamboree and local country music events with my parents. Without a doubt, seeing that huge range of great country music being performed live and hearing it on the radio had a strong influence on my life-long interest in playing banjo and guitar.

We had a piano at our house and brother Fred and I took a few lessons when we were maybe seven or eight from Louise Hall who lived a mile down Route 89. However, neither of us had much interest in piano and never got past Schaumberg’s book number one. When I was about twelve, my interest in banjo surfaced with a passion.

Though neither my Dad nor I knew anything about banjos, other than that we liked the sound, he bought a banjo for me from a friend for fifty dollars. It was a tenor (four string) banjo and after about a year of messing with it, I figured out that my hero Don Reno played a five-string banjo and used finger picks, not a four stringer played with a flat guitar pick. We sold the tenor banjo for a hundred dollars feeling great about the deal, not realizing until later that it was a pre-World War II Gibson Mastertone — one of the most sought-after banjos for bluegrass musicians and that a five string neck could be adapted to it.

That banjo eventually wound up in the hands of Al Spencer, a very good bluegrass banjoist who lived in Sistersville about twenty miles down the Ohio River. With the five-string neck that Al put on it, now that banjo might be worth over $5,000 today.

We then went through a series of Kay, Ode, and Fender five string banjos until we bought a new bow-tie Gibson Mastertone in 1966 in Wheeling. I still have that banjo and play it on occasion. It is a treasured part of my instrument collection acquired over the span of sixty years.

The neck of a bow tie Mastertone looking exactly like mine is prominently shown on the front cover of Earl Scrugg’s LP record Foggy Mountain Banjo, the most famous banjo LP of all time, released in 1961.