Sometimes our lives become loosely entwined with remarkable people, human beings who possess incredible talents, minds, ideas, and actions. Often we fail to recognize how important they are to our lives. They bring a joy of artistry and spontaneity that our lives sorely need to be rich and fulfilling. And then, without warning, they are gone.
The first time I met Mike Ramsey, I had driven an hour into Kansas City to peruse the local banjo supply at Old Town Music, a long-gone acoustic music store run by a great banjo player and his mother. For me, this was like a trip to a library where you could touch and feel all the old books that the world had to offer. Here was a jungle of open-backed banjos from some of the world’s greatest masters. As I was demonstrating my limited tune knowledge on a variety of exquisitely designed instruments, I noticed a guy in a pair of overhauls and a flannel shirt, with wildly curly hair, watching me. He made me nervous, so I bleated out a weak, “Howdy,” to see if I could unnerve him.
To my dismay, he headed straight towards me. I knew he didn’t work in the store, so I was wondering what in the hell this guy wanted. “Say,” he said, “I noticed you were looking at a lot of banjos. Which ones here do you favor?” he asked.
I hesitated. What business was it of his? “Well, if I had to say,” I cautiously replied, “I’m kind of partial to this Mike Ramsey ‘Woody’ model.”
“Right answer!” declared the stranger gleefully as he stuck his hand at me for me to shake. “I’m Mike Ramsey.” Damn. I was speechless. Standing right there with my banjo-building hero and not a penny to my sorry ass. I wanted to buy that Woody 12″ cherry banjo right there, from the maker, and live happily ever after. Well, in a way I did….
A couple years later, in 2007, having never saved enough to own a Mike Ramsey Woody banjo, I got up the nerve to attend one of his infamous banjo-building workshops near Appomattox, Virginia, at the 4H Camp. It was spring and quite cold, as I can remember, but the eight or so of us locked away in the temporary woodshop Mike set up at the camp didn’t notice. These many years later, I refer to it in my memory as a weekend of guys, whiskey, power tools, and eventually banjos. Mike was not only a master banjo builder, having built over 2,000 banjos in his first ten years in the business, but also an inspirational and remarkable teacher. In three days he helped each of us build, inlay, finish, and play a quality banjo, largely from scratch and hardware. When each of us knew we had just ruined our project and took it to Mike with tears, he just laughed and said, “The thing about wood is, it forgives you!” He would take our partially built instrument to the belt sander, fix our wounded wood, and send us on our merry way.
After getting to know Mike at the banjo building fling, I decided I’d write an article about him for the Old Time Herald. What I learned about him was pretty amazing. Born in 1949, Mike first heard old-time music when he was in college, a business major at the University of Tennessee. Originally from Roanoke, Virginia, Mike had heard the music of the mountains most of his life, but never really listened until a moment in college when he, with his guitar, walked into a jam that he happened to pass at an old church in Knoxville. Inside were two fiddlers and two banjo players who showed him the chords to “Liberty,” and off he went. “I was mesmerized,” Mike told me. Soon he was traveling to old-time music festivals across the South soaking up music from some of the great players of the time. “It changed who I was, forever,” said Mike.
After college, Mike went to work in the corporate world as a manager for Proctor & Gamble. He soon realized he wasn’t cut out for supervising hundreds of people and toeing the corporate line. “They just couldn’t stuff me into that jar,” Mike told me. In 1983, Mike started a small hardwood lumber business in Ohio, learning about wood just as he was learning about old-time music. He took banjo lessons and in 1986, won his first banjo contest. That same year, with the help and encouragement of friends, he built his first banjo. When he held it in his hands, his life changed once again. Having ordered a banjo from Kyle Creed, the legendary builder from Galax, Mike was so disappointed when he found out Creed had died before finishing his banjo that he set out on his own quest: to build the perfect banjo. The one that Kyle would have built.
Soon, banjo making consumed much of his spare time and began to eat into his business time. In 1992 he met banjo builder Bart Reiter who became a tremendous supporter, advising him about his work and helping him set up a production shop. In 1995, in Appomattox, his banjo shop was complete and his business Chanterelle Banjos was born. Mike started off by putting a beautiful rendition of Saturn in the headstocks of his banjos, and built them to sound deep and throaty like Kyle Creed’s instruments. Before long, he was building banjos at a record pace and his banjos were featured in high-end music shops from New York to Portland, Oregon.
Mike was an innovator in many ways. One was the speed at which he could produce a quality, hand-crafted banjo. At one point he was able to produce a banjo a day, unheard of by most small builders. Another of his great innovations was the banjo head or skin itself. Mike, like many builders, was always searching and experimenting for that authentic sound, that mysterious Kyle Creed plunk. In the early 2000s he was approached by a company that made timpani drum heads, and was experimenting with a new synthetic head they called Fiberskyn (because of its resemblance in sound to skin heads, but without the hassle of using real skins, which took great care and skill to fit and maintain). Mike loved the idea and was one of the first banjo builders to use the fiber heads, which have now become standard among open-back banjo builders.
Mike was also known as a character. He liked whiskey, Volkswagens, cooking, and collecting guns, among other things. He was kind and generous, fun-loving, and an endearing friend. He was also wild as hell.
About a year after my story about Mike appeared in the Old Time Herald, I was at my home in Lawrence, Kansas, when the phone rang early on a Saturday morning. It was Mike. “What are you doing right now?” he asked.
“Thinking about breakfast,” I answered honestly.
“I need you to come get me at the airport,” he said. “I’m at the Kansas City Airport. We have a mission.” I tried to explain to my wife why I had to spend the day driving to Kansas City to go on a mission with a banjo builder I barely knew, but she finally just shrugged and waved me away. I picked Mike up and he handed me a banjo case to put in the back of the truck. Other than the banjo, his only luggage was a backpack.
“What’s up?” I nearly begged, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Mike jumped into the truck and pulled a wad of papers out of his front pocket. “Your mission is to find this place.” He handed me a piece of paper that had an address in some rural northern Missouri town I’d never heard of.
“OK,” I said trying to decipher his MapQuest printed directions. “I bought me a VW Bug on Ebay, he told me, “and you’re going to help me find it.” After a couple of hours driving, we pulled into a strange farm with a small house but two huge barns. A tall, slender fellow with a cowboy hat met us in the drive. He brought us into the house, and filled two huge bowls with some of the best and hottest chili I had ever tasted. Turns out he was an international chili competition winner and was preparing for the Tulsa chili cook-off. Go figure.
We had discovered a Missouri anomaly: a VW ranch. We headed out to the first barn and the fellow raised the door to reveal several VWs in varying states of disrepair. Except one. Mike got in the small black bug, shoved some cash at the guy through the window and yelled, “Follow me!” as he left in a haze of dust. I followed him out of the drive and onto a road, knowing full well that Mike had no idea where he was or where he was going. It was clear, however, that he was looking for something. And then he found it. In the middle of nowhere, northern Missouri, Mike had somehow led us to a biker bar.
He came over to the truck and took out his backpack, which seemed to only contain a fiddle case. He handed me the banjo in the case and smiled, saying, “Let’s go have some fun. Bikers love old-time music!” I wasn’t so sure.
Once inside the bar, Mike was holding court. Soon, he handed me the banjo case and said, “Here.” I opened the case to find a brand-new Mike Ramsey 12″ Woody with a beautiful inlay in the scoop, a “peace banjo” identical to the one I have tattooed on my right knee. I tuned the banjo up and we proceeded to play the day away in that bar. Finally, at about 6 pm, Mike leaned over to me and whispered, “Time to go.” I figured he’d finally had enough. As we got out to the parking lot, he asked, “How’d you like your new banjo?” I couldn’t believe it – he had remembered that day in the store. I finally owned a real Woody. I pleaded with Mike to go home with me and rest up before he drove back to North Carolina, where he was living. “Gotta go!” he proclaimed, and drove out of my life, only to be seen as a glimpse at a festival or concert here or there.
Mike Ramsey was a wild genius. He was an innovator, a master craftsman, and a lover of humans. He had his flaws, as we all do. He made some mad, but many more happy. He made the world he lived in a better place because of the joy he got from hearing people play his banjos. He is survived by two beautiful and incredible daughters, Sarah Rovnak and Rachael Kearns, and by his sister Gayle Brown and brother Kevin Ramsey. He is also survived by a worldwide community of old-time musicians who often tell stories about him around campfires, high in the mountains late at night, or play dance music on plunky banjos early in the morning. His thousands of banjos live on!