Believe it or not, it all started with a strong passion as a young fellow playing the banjo in England . This was a very rare and unusual thing to do back then in the early sixties because this “Hillbilly music” was relatively scarce and unknown, especially in England .
I started playing American “Bluegrass” music as a child , however, getting records and related material for reference was very difficult, but I was determined and focused and that always shined through.
Back in the mid –seventies I met, whilst on tour in England, American Bluegrass super-group “Country Gazette”. The Banjo player was Alan Munde. We struck up a good friendship and I was curious at the Banjo he played as most “top” Banjoists played “Gibsons”. His banjo was a “Stelling Staghorn”.
The sound of this banjo sent a shiver down my spine because of its wonderful tone, projection and no doubt the wonderful playing of Alan’s. I had to have one of these banjos. The problem was that I had very little money and it was obvious that these banjos were special, not only in their sound, but in their artistry of construction. They were simply a work of art.
Fortunately, within a year I won a music competition with a band I was with at the time. We won “ Pub Entertainers of the year” and the name of the band was called- wait for it. “The Pheasant Pluckers”. This was a great band and even today we all still get together occasionally except now we are called- yes you guessed it, “Out to Grass”. This is because we are now all over fifty and that hurts sometimes being reminded of our age.
So, with the money I won, or rather my share, I ordered a “Stelling Staghorn” through the help of Alan Munde. ( By the way Alan has always been my favourite Banjo player and has a style that is unique in its delivery of all the notes he plays).
I got a “standby” ticket and flew to the States and picked the “Staghorn” up in New York as I had it delivered to a shop in Staten Island called “Mandolin Brothers”. The reason for this was because I also traded with them an old banjo called a “SS Stewart thoroughbred”. This was a sale I always regretted because I did not know the value of this particular banjo. The stupidity of youth!
My new “Stelling” banjo was now apart of me, however, despite the wonderful sound I was slightly disappointed by the use of wood used in this banjo because I understood that the resonator and the neck was made from “Claro Walnut”. My banjo had American black walnut with a jointed laminated neck, ebenol fingerboard which was a man-made material and not real ebony etc.
So now I was seeing things that I was not expecting, and as a twenty one year old I only saw what I wanted. However, the most important thing was never overlooked. The sound. For that reason this banjo was always my baby.
This banjo earned me a fortune over the years, and paid for itself time and time again. What else can I say but thank you to Geoff Stelling the maker of my banjo.
So some 34 years later I’m sitting at my computer thinking who could I write to?
I know, I’ll write to Geoff Stelling with a “tongue in the cheek” complaint after all these years about my banjo and how disappointed I was back then as a young man, but was then too “inward” to make any form of complaint.
Geoff wrote back to me genuinely concerned in stating that my contact with him had been the most depressing e-mail he had ever received in the history of banjo making. His last comment to me was, “Richard, what can I do for you”.
I was overwhelmed that Geoff was genuinely affected by my e-mail, that was only meant in jest, and then of course I felt extremely embarrassed. What an idiot I was. My bit of fun turned out to be hurtful for which I apologise to Geoff.
We exchanged a few e-mails and the result was that Geoff was going to build me a new “Super-banjo” unique to me. What about cost I hear you say? My answer is- how can you put a price on Art!
Perhaps I would need to get a second job, who knows, who cares.
At this point you have discovered how the new banjo came to blossom.
Geoff asked me for suggestions for this custom banjo and I began sending him ideas.
America has some of the world’s most wonderfully talented people, and I have a print from a painting by “Kirby Sattler”. This is called “Two Stars”.
Kirby paints Native American Indians, however, his skill is unsurpassed in every aspect of detail, colour and exacting realism. I suggest you visit his website to prove my point and satisfy your curiosity.
I contacted Kirby’s website to ask him for ideas and generally asking about his art and my passion for his work not expecting a response.
Surprisingly, Kirby responded to me personally and we have regular exchanges of e-mails. He understands my passion for his work and we have talked about him actually doing a commission for me. We have become good friends.
Kirby gave me permission to reproduce any of his works in conjunction with my new banjo. With this in mind, I thought that if only Geoff could reproduce “Two Stars” on the banjo resonator.
Putting this to Geoff he suggested that he knew of a Romanian “Pyrogrpher” called “Dino Muradian” who could possibly reproduce “Two Stars” from Kirby Sattler’s painting, by “burning” the image of “Two Stars” on the resonator back. I was of course intrigued by this.
Geoff put Dino in contact with me as he lived in Bucharest in Romania.
Dino sent me many e-mails about what he does and we are now like brothers to the point that Dino came and stayed with my wife and I in England last summer.
What can I say about this mans skills? I invite you to type in your computer Dino Muradian and see for yourselves , be amazed and mesmerized.
His re-creative work through wood burning is truly remarkable and quite honestly almost unbelievable that a person can create such wonderful pieces of art. He is the best and like Kirby’s art I am without doubt their greatest admirer.
Kirby Sattler and Geoff Stelling both remarked that they thought Dino’s recreation of “Two Stars” was wonderful. I am privileged to have these three brilliant Artists as my friends. I thank them for their contribution of their skills to the making of my banjo. I am forever in their debt.
The general idea of the banjo is a theme around the Spiritual nature of the Native American Indian and the “Wolf” connection. The Banjo is called “Wolf Spirit”
You will see an inlaid wolf of mother-of-pearl howling up at the moon with two stars above the moon motif. The “Snarling wolf” on the peg-head is almost ghostly coming out of the dark against the twirls of the quilted maple wood.
The neck has also a snarling wolf carved on the heel. This carving was done by Engraver, Woodcarver and Painter Ron Raymer. Ron did all the wonderful engraving and also re-created the image once again of “Two Stars” on the banjo’s tailpiece. Like the others mentioned , Ron is an outstanding Artist. Thank you Ron.
As this banjo played an important part of my life, I had to indeed collect the banjo from the builder Geoff Stelling and meet the man himself. This was very important to me. Therefore my wife and I planned our trip to Virginia where Geoff lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains. To be honest I was a little nervous.
We typed in the computer places to stay near Geoff Stelling and there were quite a few, however, when The Inn at Sugar Hollow came up we just knew that this was the place to stay, and boy were we right.
We arranged with Dick and Hayden Cabell, the owners of the Inn, to stay in early January this year. However, possibly not a good time with the recent snowfalls that had occurred. Fortunately, we arrived during a calm period with good weather and clear roads but the snow was all around.
Jeannette and I were gob-smacked how beautiful the area was and how clean everywhere was ,but above all the people. Let me explain. Whilst travelling to our destination from Charlottesville Airport to Sugar Hollow, we took a wrong road and we stopped and asked a man on a John Deere tractor for the correct directions. This was a good mistake by us because this man welcomed us back to his home for a drink and to meet his family.
His name was Keith and his wife was Mary.
Jeannette would like to thank them for their warm hospitality in welcoming us into their home. As a consequence we have become good friends and will visit them when we come back hopefully in the fall.
After getting the correct directions to Sugar Hollow we finally arrived and met the owners Dick and Hayden.
These people made you feel comfortable immediately and welcome you into the Inn like a member of the family. What more could you ask for. The Inn was the perfect place to be and the food was wonderful.
Set in woodland in a picturesque environment, the house was comfortable and clean in every aspect with all amenities you would require from a relaxed stay.
From here we were able to visit Geoff Stelling, the main purpose of our visit, driving about half an hour from the Inn.
When Geoff and I met for the first time I was instantly struck by his welcoming smile to us and hopefully he felt the same way. He gave us all the time in the world, yet, we did understand that this was a busy place of activity so we did not want to overstay our welcome. However, we had to go back to collect a neck Geoff was re-fretting for us to take back to England and it was on this second visit that we bonded our relationship because it was after work hours so Geoff and his wife Sherry were relaxed and invited us back to his house for drinks and nibbles.
We were able to bond as friends and we played a little music. Hopefully we can visit Geoff and Sherry later this year as I want to buy a guitar from Geoff and who knows perhaps one of his wonderful mandolins that he makes also. Geoff Stelling is America’s very best banjo maker without question and revolutionised the banjo through his innovative ideas and Patents.
He is the EINSTEIN of the banjo.
This whole trip has been a wonderful experience to Jeannette and I, and all of you are part of that for which we thank you all.
Richard and Jeannette Barrett.
Dick and Hayden Cabell Owners/Innkeepers
The Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm (Near Charlottesville, VA)
6051 Sugar Hollow Road Crozet, VA 22932
Awarded the Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor.com
Selected for Travelers' Choice Award Top B&B Inns in America by TripAdvisor.com
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