by Connie Garrett
“Christmas Time’s a Comin’!” is the song… Well it came early at the Garrett household. November 12th to be exact! That’s the day my Custom Chuck Lee Banjo arrived in Nashville, Tennessee all the way from Ovilla, Texas! Rewind to the beginning of this year: my husband, Jeremy, made the suggestion to me, “Connie, I think you should try claw hammer banjo. I think you would really like it.” I was surprised by the suggestion. I had never considered banjo! Jeremy had taught me some guitar, which was so much fun compared to reading piano music! I was certainly willing to try his idea, so I mentioned it to our friend, Ned Luberecki. Ned was used to the Garrett fascination with banjos. A couple years prior, he had lent Jeremy a banjo to learn bluegrass style banjo. Ned suggested lending me his open back banjo, so I could give it a go.
Well, with our busy schedules, it took us about a month to setup a time for my first lesson with Ned and his borrowed banjo. I had no idea what I was in for. I knew nothing about the banjo. And I mean nothing. “Aren’t all stringed instruments tuned the same?” I thought. No, sir! Ned showed me how to tune it to G-tuning, showed me my first C chord and D7 chord, and the basic claw hammer strum, and I was hooked! HOOKED! I tell you. Banjo in tow, I went home and practiced for two hours that night! I put my head in the banjo head to listen in amazement at all that sound inside. Even with my pitiful playing, it was music to my ears! Well the year was swiftly flying by. Before I knew it, several months had passed, and I only had been able to arrange for a few lessons with Ned. My progress was slow, but I still thought the banjo was the coolest thing ever. This was more than just a one-night stand with the banjo. So, one evening, Jeremy and I were sitting at dinner when out of nowhere Jeremy says, “Connie, I have a secret that I can’t keep any longer.” “What is it?!?!” I ask. “I’ve been saving to have a banjo made for you!” “WHOOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOO!” I about flipped out of my seat. When a professional musician gives you an instrument, it is true love. This is just as significant (maybe more) than a wedding ring with a big fat diamond on it! So it was at this point that I got to be involved in on the “Build-A-Banjo-For-Connie-Mission”. Come to find out, Ned, and his wife, Kelley, were in on the secret. Jeremy had been getting Ned’s advice about where we should go for an open back banjo. There were lots of options, and I was getting confused in the haze of all this discussion of tone rings, heads, necks, tuners, gears, etc. etc. etc. I was still working on getting that D chord right, not the easy D7, mind you, the real D chord! How could I possibly make an intelligent decision on the subtle differences all these options would make in the banjo? Through the haze, there was one clear beacon: Ned was strongly urging me to check out Chuck Lee’s banjos, and when he talked about them, his eyes lit up, and he flat out said, “If I was to get an old-time banjo, I’d get a Chuck Lee Banjo.” Well once I saw how beautiful and elegant the Chuck Lee banjos were, and clearly saw how much Ned liked them, I knew. The decision was made. I was going to get a Chuck Lee Banjo!
So, in September, Ned called Chuck to warn him that I was going to call. I was nervous to call Chuck. I told Chuck, “I don’t know anything about the technical stuff. I just know I love music and I love the banjo!” Chuck was very patient and intuitive. He got clues from our discussion about what kind of banjo he should make for me. We decided to go with the Ovilla model made with black curly walnut! So the process began. I eagerly waited for the banjo to be finished. It was rough for me not to bug Chuck about it. “When it will it be done???” “Be patient!” Jeremy insisted. A month and a half later, Chuck emailed me with news: “Your banjo is ready to go to the finishing room tomorrow. It should ship in two weeks!” I called Jeremy screaming with delight over the phone, “My banjo’s ready! My banjo’s ready! MY BANJO’S READY!!!!” My voice going up an octave with every yell!
Two weeks later, I was checking the UPS site every half hour to find out where my banjo was. I Google mapped the journey from Ovilla to Nashville to see the miles between me and my new banjo. I texted Ned, Kelley and Jeremy when it left Ovilla, arrived in Memphis and then finally in the Nashville UPS hub. Then on a rainy Wednesday the banjo arrived at my doorstep! Unfortunately, Jeremy was on tour, so I waited one more day to open the box, so I could open it with Jeremy. With barely a hug and a kiss greeting upon Jeremy’s arrival home, I said, “Let’s open the banjo!!” We opened the box! The Ovilla Black Curly Walnut Banjo was even more beautiful than I had imagined. However, there was no time to sit around and admire it with Jeremy or even send Chuck a thank you email. I headed downtown Nashville to pick some tunes with my girlfriends: Kelley Luberecki, Julie Pennell and Myrna Talbot! A couple nights later, we had Ned and Kelley out for dinner, and I learned my first pickin’ tune on the banjo: Angeline the Baker! This weekend, we got around to putting the Christmas tree up, and had Ned and Kelley out once again for some dinner and music: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Old Joe Clark, and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, or Frailin’ Around the Christmas Tree, as Ned would say.
In a town filled with world-class musicians, I am humbled to own such a world-class instrument. So many folks here in Music City are much more qualified to play this instrument than I. Regardless, I am head over heels in love with my new Chuck Lee Banjo! Thank you so much to Jeremy, Ned, Kelley, and Chuck for helping a girl find her voice. I am looking forward to many-a-night strummin’ tunes on my ol’ banjo!