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Arts & Culture

Young Punk Rocker Finds New Pandemic Hobby Building Banjos

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lots of people have picked up new hobbies, passions during the coronavirus pandemic - knitting, baking bread, even recording TikToks. In Kentucky, a 20-year-old punk musician turned to the banjo. That led to a search for a 97-year-old banjo maker.

Nicole Musgrave of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has the story.

NICOLE MUSGRAVE, BYLINE: Southeast Kentucky is home to a vibrant punk rock music scene.

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MUSGRAVE: That's the band L.I.P.S. from Harlan. Its members used to play out a couple times a month, but they had to stop live shows because of COVID-19.

BRADFORD HARRIS: All I'd been doing was, like, booking shows and, like, touring and, like, playing with, like, bands. And then, like, everything I was doing, I couldn't do anymore.

MUSGRAVE: Bradford Harris is the guitarist and lead vocalist of the band. But Harris also recently started playing old-time music.

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MUSGRAVE: In this part of Kentucky, it's pretty common for punk musicians to also play old time. And during the pandemic, Harris started messing with the banjo. One day, Harris was looking up tunes on YouTube and came across a video of someone talking about making banjos. Harris' dad runs the woodshop at the local community college.

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MUSGRAVE: That led to an idea. The two of them should build a banjo. They made their first one last summer and haven't stopped since. Harris even quit a job at a local car wash to focus on building banjos. They've relied on Facebook groups and online forums for help figuring out the banjo-making process. But Harris stumbled upon one of their best sources of instruction at the shop one day. It was a stockpile of handmade tools, banjo templates and detailed handwritten notes about building instruments. They'd been left behind by a guy who used to work in the shop, Al Cornett. He'd retired years ago after working at the college as an instrument builder and teacher.

HARRIS: He would write down things that I would have never thought about. His drawings are, like, superb. And although he hadn't been in that shop for 15 years, he's been one of the most monumental people in me learning how to build. And somebody was like, I doubt he's still alive. And I was like, well, I mean, you know, it's worth checking.

MUSGRAVE: But all anybody knew was that if Cornett was still around, he was probably in his 90s. Undeterred, Harris posted on social media, looking for more information.

HARRIS: And somebody was like, yeah, I know Al. I go, like, check on him every now and then. And I was like, this is it. I was, like, the search begins.

MUSGRAVE: After several weeks of searching and trying to get in touch with him...

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HARRIS: So how old were you when you started building instruments?

MUSGRAVE: Harris was able to visit with him. They sat down in Cornett's living room, and a friend recorded the meeting on video.

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AL CORNETT: I started in 1977.

HARRIS: Awesome.

I just felt that it was important for this rad 97-year-old man to know that somebody is carrying on this tradition in the same workshop that he was.

MUSGRAVE: In pre-pandemic times, when punk shows in southeast Kentucky were still going loud and strong, Harris wouldn't have thought they'd be tracking down someone like him.

HARRIS: If you would have told me, you know, a year ago that I would be playing old-time music and doing this old-time history stuff and going and meeting old banjo players and stuff, I would have been like, nah, probably not. But I also wouldn't have thought that there would have been a pandemic. So (laughter)...

MUSGRAVE: Harris is eager to book and play punk shows again. But for now at least, Harris will keep making banjos.

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MUSGRAVE: For NPR News, I'm Nicole Musgrave in Harlan County, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.