Vernon and his younger brother, Gary, were walking to school one morning when an old guy offered them a ride. I think Vernon was about 9 so it must have been about 1954 when this happened. Vernon’s favorite band at the time was a rock and roll group called Danny and the Juniors. The old guy who offered them a ride had a bluegrass station on the radio. It might have WKRC out of Cincinnati. I think Flatt and Scruggs were playing and Vernon heard the sound of the banjo. He said, “Mister, what IS that??!” The old guy said, “That’s a banjer, son.” And from that moment on, Vernon’s life has revolved around bluegrass in general, and banjos in particular.
Sometime after this event, his dad took Vernon and Gary to the Salvation Army Thrift store to buy three pairs of 25 cent shoes for the upcoming school year. Vernon saw a banjo there for 75 cents and begged his dad to buy it for him. I know it broke his father’s heart to tell him no because the family couldn’t afford the extra 75 cents. Gary spoke up then and said he could make do with his old shoes; he would just put a new piece of cardboard inside to stop up the holes in the soles. Brother Don, who was to receive the third pair of shoes, didn’t get the chance to vote but his shoe money was applied to the banjo purchase anyway. Vernon, of course, eagerly contributed his 25 cents and went home, without new shoes, but as the proud owner of a banjo.
The banjo was an old tenor 4 string without a head. Scot Stoneman, a fiddler and family friend, took a nail and made a 5th string for it. Stoneman helped Vernon cut a piece of old car seat and stretch it across the banjo in place of a skin head. Stoneman is the first one who showed Vernon how to move his fingers in a forward roll and started him on the road to becoming a banjo player.
Vernon practiced that forward roll diligently; 5-3-1, 5-3-1, 5-3-1, over and over and over. He sat in school and thought about his banjo and practiced on an imaginary banjo. He said the teachers thought he was ‘tetched’ because he was always noodling his fingers in that roll. He practiced his real banjo at home for hours on end. Day in and day out he practiced that forward roll. He tells of his grandfather rocking on the porch one day while Vernon sat on the steps practicing his forward roll. He accidentally hit another string. His grandfather said, “Thank the Lord, he found a new note! Practice that one for a while, son!”