The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 3

Most Done Traveling: A Tribute to Craig Johnson
By Dave Shombert
Photo: Tim Brown
“It’s my belief that any musician owes a debt of gratitude and acknowledgement to those who showed him the way”

Those words were written by Craig Johnson for the liner notes of his solo CD, Way Down the Road. His untimely death came on December 5, 2009, just a few weeks after the CD was released. It was a body blow to the old-time music community, especially after the recent losses of Mike Seeger and Ray Alden. I knew Mike only slightly, Ray a little better, but Craig Johnson was a mentor and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

We met in 1985. I had been trying to learn old-time banjo for a few months, and a friend recommended him as a teacher. I knew who he was and that he was a member of Double Decker String Band, but no more than that. I approached him after a performance one night at the Birchmere, in Alexandria, Virginia, and asked if he’d take me on for banjo lessons. His shoulders slumped a little, and I thought he was about to say no. Then our eyes met and we just looked at each other for a few seconds. He smiled slightly, nodded his head, and said, “Okay.” I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that was the first step on a path that would change my life. I had fooled around with a couple of instruments but really had no idea of how to play. Or what to play, for that matter. Like most beginners, I had heard “Soldier’s Joy,” “Over the Waterfall,” and a few others, and I probably thought that the book I found those tunes in represented all of old-time music. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as fingerstyle banjo. I barely knew anything about music, only that it was important to me on some fundamental level.

The lessons started soon after we met. I’d go to his house in Takoma Park, Maryland, one night each week and we’d sit in the kitchen and go through tunes as slowly as I needed, which was pretty slowly. But it wasn’t long – maybe the third or fourth lesson – before he started playing records for me. Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, Virgil Anderson, Buddy Thomas, John Carson. Hey, wait a minute, those last two guys were playing fiddle. I’m here for banjo lessons, aren’t I? Well, yeah - he would have limited it to that if I had insisted, I suppose, but his view was that I was there to learn about old-time music.

After a couple months of that, he started taking me along on his trips to Galax. Craig was close to Luther Davis and Kahle Brewer at that time, and weekends in Galax were a regular part of his life. Luther died before my first trip, but we went to see Kahle many times. I was mostly an observer: Craig was there to learn Kahle’s tunes and his style, and a greenhorn banjo player couldn’t really be part of that. But I got to know Kahle and Edna in their home, see how they lived, listen to Kahle’s stories about playing with Pop Stoneman, and see first-hand how music was part of their life. We always stopped at Tommy Barr’s fiddle shop on Saturday morning, and we often went to Alice Gerrard’s house for breakfast before leaving on Sunday. All the way down and all the way back, we would listen to tapes that Craig had chosen for the trip. Different fiddlers, different banjo players, different bands, different styles, different regions of the country. He would explain the differences and tell me about his times with the ones he had known. I learned more about old-time music in the cab of a Nissan pickup than in all the music camps I’ve ever attended.

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