Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chris Bryant - Banjo/Machinist - Profile

Chris Bryant

Sandy Bryant

Garrett Bryant

Route 268 roughly parallels US 421 running eastward out of Wilkesboro, except we’re driving deeper into rural Wilkes County rather than shooting down an arrow headed for Winston-Salem and Greensboro. After a few miles our GPS (the Witch in the Window) tells us to make a sharp left turn, and we drive up onto a fairly sharp ridge line corkscrewing along with views of the Blue Ridge to our left and lovely fields and woods with small churches and farmsteads scattered about. The witch drops us a few hundred yards short of our destination, but we find it relatively easily (the number’s on the wrong side of the mailbox) and pull into the drive to find Chris Bryant standing outside with a cup of coffee in his hand and a smile on his face. He points out his shop, but ushers us into his comfortable home to meet his lovely wife Sandy and sit down at the kitchen table for coffee and talk.

The Bryant Home
We first met Chris playing banjo and singing in some of the trios with the Darin Aldridge & Brooke Justice Quintet singing in a small Baptist Church in rural North Carolina. Since then, Darin & Brooke have married and changed the name of their group. In chatting with Chris I learned that he manufactures the Sammy Shelor stainless steel banjo picks. It turns out, though, that Chris is the major supplier of pre-war (that’s WW II) style banjo parts for Huber Banjos, too. I asked if we could come visit his shop to see the operation while we were in Wilkesboro for Merlefest. That’s what led to this visit.

Chris Pickin'

Chris and Garrett Pick

Garrett and his Dobro
We sit at the round kitchen table while Sandy works on a strawberry sonker. (Don’t ask…well, if you must…sonkers appear to be the name applied only in North Carolina to a variation on cobblers, grunts, slump, brown betty, pan dowdy, crisps… you get the idea, but by any name an absolutely delicious deep dish fruit delicacy developed in the mountains where folks cooked in cast iron pots over wood fires instead of in kitchens with fancy utensils.) Chris and Sandy’s house is just behind his father’s place and his grandfather’s former home is within sight, all on land that’s been in the family for generations. His son Garrett lives on a small farm nearby where he raises cattle and tobacco, collects tractors, and plays a mean Dobro.

Chris grew up in that generation of northern North Carolina and southern Virginia bluegrass musicians that includes Sammy Shelor, Terry Baucom, Alan Bibey, and Junior Sisk to name a few prominent professional musicians, but among the hundreds of very high quality “local” pickers who play in bands, perform in the area, compete at fiddler’s conventions, and get together regularly to socialize and make music. This region has been contributing to the rich bluegrass and folk tradition of the eastern slope of the Smokies for generations. Chris says he had a group of banjo players to learn from and developed his own style by playing records and slowing them down by hand so he could hear the licks and then work on playing them. He also studied one of the early banjo teaching programs called the Bill Blaylock Method. He calls his style a “Duke’s mixture.”

When Chris received a phone call asking him to come to Wisconsin to join the Country Gentlemen for a gig, he asked, “What state is Wisconsin in?” The first gig led to fifty or more dates with Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen late in Waller’s career before his death 2004. Meanwhile, returning from a trip to the west coast, he ran into Sammy Shelor in an airport. Shelor mentioned that his bus was waiting at the airport in Nashville, offering him a ride home. During this ride, the idea of fabricating custom stainless picks for Shelor emerged. Bryant had long worked as a metal fabricator specializing in stainless steel and aluminum, both notoriously difficult metals to weld. At the time, he was rebuilding Camaros from the ground up, but had found that the dust was making him ill. When the Shelor connection turned into an opportunity to fabricate parts for Steve Huber’s very high quality, all American made banjos, it seemed a perfect match.

As we were chatting, Garrett Bryant showed up with his Dobro. Together, father and son played a medley for us including “Fireball Mail,” “Home Sweet Home,” and a hair raising version of “Jerusalem Ridge.” Garrett plays a powerful and precise Dobro style with a unique and arresting chop. Chris has one of the most fluid and light left hands I’ve seen on a banjo player, barely seeming to touch the strings while producing quick and melodious sounds. His style is perfect for the ensemble style of the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Quintet in which the song is all important and supporting the contrasting voices of Darin and Brooke the center of the work. Somewhere during our chat, Sandy serves up the sonker which is truly scrumptious. Chris’s Dad sticks his head in the door and we say “Hey” before he turns down a bowl of sonker because of his sugar.

After a while, we stroll over to the shop. The outdoor covered section still shows signs of its earlier use as an auto shop. Chris has plans to enclose that section to permit more room for his current efforts. We step inside where several lathes, presses, buffers, and rollers of differing sizes litter the floor surrounded by small piles of metal filings and corkscrew cuttings. A sheen of oil covers much of the waste. Amongst all this are the results of his work. A zip-lock bag of brass thumb screws, a set of brackets, a board with banjo arm rests in various states of finish are on tables. There are a couple of banjos in various states of repair. Chris shows us a tension rod ready to be run up the neck of a banjo as well as some torsion rods. The work coming out of these heavy and complex machines is precise, clean, and lovely to look at. Chris’s pride in his work and pleasure in doing it is clear. He says, “I finally found a way to make a living with the banjo that’s not necessarily picking it.” There’s an irony in his saying this, as the band he’s with appears poised for a break out. Their CD is charting high in bluegrass gospel charts, and will be appearing at an official showcase at IBMA this fall, where they’ll be seen by dozens of promoters, bluegrass radio programmers, and record executives.

As we prepare to leave, Sandy wanders out to the shop and we stand chatting. Chris comments that he had turned down an opportunity to work on custom motorcycles when he began thinking of the potential for injury to the riders implied by the work. My admiration for this humble, personable, and thoughtful craftsman rose to new heights. This guy, and his family, are the real deal.