Bluegrass Banjo

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Snuffy Jenkins can be called a Banjo Pioneer, for it was he who developed and popularized the three finger picking style that later influenced the some of the greatest Bluegrass banjo players. DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins (b. October 27, 1908 in Harris, NC) was the youngest of ten children, all of them excellent musicians. As a very young child, Jenkins tried to play the fiddle, but he was too small to use a bow so he picked the instrument as if it were a mandolin. While still a teenager, he played guitar in a trio with banjo players Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks, and it was there that he first began to use a three finger picking style. In the late 1920’s, Jenkins played guitar and fiddle with his brother, Virl, and two other musicians. As the Jenkins String Band, the four played at local dances and on WBT Radio in Charlotte, NC, until 1936. Jenkins then played on WIS Radio and recorded on Bluebird Records with J.E. Mainers’ Mountaineers until 1938, when Mainers decided to leave the band.

By 1939, the banjo had become Snuffy Jenkins’ primary instrument, although he continued to play guitar, washboard, and harmonica. That year proved to be an important one for Jenkins, for it was then that Byron “The Old Hired Hand” Parker, station announcer at WIS, became the new leader of Mainers’ band. Parker added to the band a new fiddle player named Homer Lee “Pappy” Sherrill, who had already played with several bands, including the Blue Sky Boys and the Morris Brothers. Parker, who played no instrument himself, now had band with a repertoire that ranged from instrumentals to harmony quartet singing. The band continued to play on WIS as the Hillbillies, but by 1940 they had recorded 16 sides with Bluebird Records as Byron Parker’s Mountaineers. Parker’s band saw a number of personnel changes during the next five years, and it was during this time that Jenkins and Sherrill developed the “Snuffy and Pappy” comedy routines for which they would later become famous. By 1946, when they did a series of recordings for the De Luxe label, Julian “Greasy” Medlin, a former medicine show entertainer, had joined them as lead guitarist. When Parker died in 1948, Jenkins and Sherrill decided to continue to run the band as the Hired Hands, possibly choosing the name as a tribute to their friend Parker, for whom they had worked for so many years. Jenkins and Sherrill varied the Hired Hands’ performances to include Snuffy and Pappy’s comedy as well as Bluegrass and old time music. When WIS added television programs to its format in 1953, the Hired Hands and Snuffy and Pappy became instant hits. They would continue to perform on radio and television, to record for various labels, and to tour the Bluegrass festival circuit until 1989, when they recorded their last album for Old Homestead records. By the time the album was made, Jenkins’ health had deteriorated so badly that his son, Randy, who had replaced him on banjo and guitar, only allowed Snuffy to play banjo on two numbers. Snuffy Jenkins died on April 30, 1990. During his lifetime of music, he developed the banjo picking technique that would bridge the gap between old time and Bluegrass music. Among the many banjo players he mentored, none is more famous than Earl Scruggs, who would surpass his teacher and bring to Bluegrass banjo his own subtlety and grace.



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