John Herrington: Banjo-Totin’ Pastor - Interview by Paul Roberts
John Herrington is a man with a deep personal devotion
to the 5-string banjo.
“I love music,” he says, “and I have to say that the 5-string banjo has provided me a challenge late in life. My church is excited for me and enjoys my music performances; they encourage me to play. A good song, religious or secular, draws me into the music, and the banjo somehow frees me to express my heart through lyrics and strings.”
John is the pastor of Risen Son Southern Baptist Church in Thermopolis, Wyoming. He is the author of “Jedediah, and a Tale of Revenge,” a colorful historical novel about a mountain man in the 1800’s. When he’s not ministering to the needs of his congregation, John likes to play music and build gourd banjos, hunt, fish and build American longrifles.
I met John Herrington on Banjo Hangout, a website where banjo enthusiasts from around the world share their love of all things banjo. Reading John’s posts on the Hangout made me want to find out more about this intriguing man who exudes an overflowing, lively energy and excitement about banjos.
“Lots of times I'll just take the instrument and begin playing, not sure what I'm doing or where I'm going, and the tune just builds and flows. Kinda like when I was a boy in the hill country of Texas and I just ran for the fun of it - wind in your hair, dirt road or trail flowing underneath you, and nothing else matters at the time!”
His colorful way with words is so in tune with the banjo and American old-time music.
“After two cups of coffee my wife is reading the paper and I’m in the picking room with my banjos. I started with a tune or two on the gourd banjo and got into my own version of ‘Liza Jane,’ really plunky like. Then I whanged away a little on the Prust minstrel 'jo with the 13" pot, reveling in the growl of that 4th string, followed by ‘Cluck Old Hen’ on my mountain banjo in the style of Frank Proffitt. Finally I picked up the Gold Tone White Layde and a bunch of pickin’ stuff I can't even name but which leaps to my mind at the touch of this grand instrument, and all of a sudden everything is good!”
I asked John to tell me something about himself and his banjo story, and here is what he said.
“I was born in January of 1935 on the old Herrington home place in the hill country of Texas. My grandfather homesteaded it in 1873 and raised 12 kids there. My dad was born there and so was I. Growing up on the Lampasas River on that small ranch, we raised a few cattle and Angora goats (the mohair producing goats). I was an only child and grew up on my own, so to speak, at the tail end of the Great Depression and World War II. I learned to make my toys.
We had an old RCA Victor battery operated radio and I remember listening to the Grand Ole Opera and the Louisiana Hayride when I was very young. My older brother played the fiddle, but he had gone off to war by the time I could learn anything about it. No one other than a couple of cousins played at all. There were dances and musical get-togethers, but our family did not go to these things.
I started my musical journey with a beat-up old guitar when I was 9. One of my older cousins taught me 3 or 4 chords and I practiced them and sang to them. I never took any formal music - had a good ear, and just prowled my way through tunes I heard. I have played guitar from that beginning until the present.
The fiddle came because I got tired of accompanying my young neighbor friend all the time. He was a good guitar picker and I just followed him, which taught me a very keen sense of time. Then he decided to play the fiddle and I accompanied him. I felt there was no future in that, so I dug up an old fiddle and learned to play it and let him follow for a change. I think I could have been good on the thing, but he moved away after a couple of years and my development stopped at that point. I played very little after that. Some about 20 years ago, it came back but I had nobody to play with so it went back under the bed.
I felt the Lord called me to preach when I was 15 and I began to do so in little churches up and down the Lampasas river basin. I went off to Baylor U. in Waco Tex to study for the ministry and finally completed my schooling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. I met my wife, Patricia ‘Triss’ Flatt, in eastern New Mexico and we were married in May of 1958 (we celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary last May). I pastored churches in Texas and came to Wyoming to pastor in 1965.
Now at 74 years young, I still have the great privilege of serving my Lord in His calling and ministering to my fellow man in the love that Jesus has shed in my heart. Along the way, He brought me under the spell of the banjo!
About three years ago, I got interested in the tenor guitar. An elderly friend of ours sold me an old Martin O17-T tenor guitar in excellent shape. It had the clearest tenor sound and I just loved it. Then I found out about the tenor banjo and purchased two old pieces of junk, one of them being an old Kay. Well, these never really turned me on but there they lay, tenor banjos in my room.
I went to Hedges Music in Worland to buy strings for those string-eating tenors and heard one of the owners playing a 5-string banjo in the middle of the music room. Wow! There was a lot of action going on, and a strange droning sound ringing in the background of his music. It hooked me. It was a different sound than my guitars - a kind of haunting, lilting, cheery sound. I talked to the man and he indicated that banjo music was fun stuff, happy music. They had bought two Fender banjos, one for him personally. The other one I purchased two weeks later after listening in my mind, over and over, to the galloping, droning, ringing music.
That happened in August of 2007. I had never held a 5-string banjo in my hands until I bought that Fender. Then I went about trying to learn how to play this drum with a stick through it!
After pining away for a better banjo, and looking for a fine old Vega, I finally decided that I could settle on a less expensive model. I came upon the Gold Tone line and fell for the WL-250 White Layde. You see, I'm an old man and learning to play the instrument will never get me to the purchase of a fine old Vega, although every time I heard my friend Jim Conner (of John Denver fame) play his old Vegas, I would do flip-flops inside. The Gold Tone was a worthy compromise. It has set my soul on fire. To play the thing has stretched my imagination and rocked my soul.
Now I have the Fender, the Gold Tone (my pride and joy), a mountain banjo, a gourd banjo and an Eric Prust minstrel tackhead banjo. They keep me busy just about every spare moment.
I have played and played and played each of my banjos, hours and hours and hours. I would say practiced (and I certainly did) but I have tried to look upon what I do as playing instead of practicing. It’s more fun that way and more fulfilling as you learn. I have been playing for less than two years now and am making some progress. Perhaps I would say I have learned to play by playing. I sing a lot to the banjo’s accompaniment, too.
I learned what little I know about playing banjo from books, tapes, CD’s and a few pointers from my friend, the great Jim Connor who played for the New Kingston Trio for five years and was John Denver’s banjo picker for years. I feel that I have not learned by the rules very well, though I truly feel that I play real clawhammer and I am developing my own style while staying in that genre.
The galloping droning ring of the Gold Tone White Ladye and the deep, throaty growl of the Eric Prust minstrel tackhead banjo enable me to express the joy in my soul. I sit alone in my little music room with the Banjo Hangout website on my screen, five banjos around me, the grand old Martin J40 and its little brother the O17-T in the corner - my wife humming ‘Amazing Grace’ in the kitchen - and think, ‘Does it get any better than this?’
The music flows out of me from deep inside where happiness is sometimes almost covered over with concerns of job and cares of others (these things and a dozen others almost put the musical fires out at times). The banjo has thrown back the covers. Once again, from the heart of Old John on the Big Horn River (in the empty vastness of Wyoming's wonderful plateaus and mountains and canyons) music comes forth.
I do solos in our church and accompany myself on the banjo. It allows great latitude for interpreting the great old gospel songs I grew up with. It’s amazing how quiet the congregation gets when I sing into the head of the Gold Tone, the last chorus of ‘There Is A Balm in Gilead.’ The haunting ring of that ol’ drum with a stick run through it fills the auditorium, reverberating these words:
“There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.”
At times, when I'm feeling good, the music sort of takes off and it becomes a journey through mountain meadows and I feel like something wonderful is happening! Then all the work is truly worth it, if for no more than that trip. The banjo sure is my vehicle to express my own joy!
Read John's article on gourd banjos
|Gourd Banjos - John Herrington|
|Bob Carlin - Cello Banjo History|
|Bob Carlin - Banjo Missionary|
John Herrington , Author, Banjo Maker, Banjo Playing Pastor on Clawhammer Banjo, Gourd Banjo
From Thermopolis, Wyoming - Old John on the Big Horn River
Author of “Jedediah, and a Tale of Revenge,” a colorful historical novel about a mountain man in the 1800’s