Jere Canote on Banjo Building and Radio Potlucks

What do you never get the chance to say to a banjo player?

“Is that your Porsche out back?”

I coaxed this banjo joke out of Jere Canote. He’s not fond of most of them, and who can blame him? Drooling banjo players gets old after awhile, even for a jokester like Canote. Although he plays guitar and other instruments, he has forged a career of playing, teaching and building banjos. He performs with his fiddle playing twin brother, Greg, teaches classes in the Seattle winters, spends the summers working instructional camps along the West coast, and builds Small Wonder Banjos in his home studio. As a builder, he works with traditional aesthetics in mind, but will try his hand at non-traditional designs, like his guitar banjo and banjo uke. Canote may not have money to burn, but he’s living the good life. “Even if I wasn’t making any money I’d still do it ‘cause I love to do it.”

Jere and I walk his morning commute to the shop in his basement. Laid out on a tapestry are several completed banjos awaiting shipment. His clients are mostly people who have seen his work at events. “This year has just really been tough, because I have so many orders I’m just trying to catch up. It’s a good thing, but I hate to make people wait.”

Canote learned how to build banjos by trial and error. “It was all desire. I didn’t really have the skills, but I’ve always been good with my hands and my Dad was always puttering around the house – ‘Mr. Fix It’ kind of thing, so I learned that you-can-do-anything ethic from him.

Canote buys large tubes of 10 ply maple drums in varying diameters, slices them for each rim, and then faces them with veneer. “I was garage sale-ing and there was a woman whose husband had just died and he was a harpsichord maker and harpsichord makers, they do all veneer. I bought a huge stack of it for like 75 dollars or something, so I have a lifetime supply of it.”

He pulls out what looks like a zoetrope – those revolving drums used to view moving pictures before the advent of film – and demonstrates how he uses it to apply the veneer. “Part of building is just making up jigs for everything.” He caps the rims with dark ebony wood and most often uses maple, cherry or walnut for the necks. Canote is a diverse artist, lately becoming enamored with the letter press, so the inlays are great artistic opportunities for him. His designs often originate from traditional headstock images which his clients then personalize. He does non-traditional images as well, like the dancing skeleton he got off a Grateful Dead poster. One client; a Vet, wanted one of his skeleton banjos but was uncomfortable with the image until he had Jere stencil “War Sucks!” above it. The skins he uses to wrap the rims depends on the sound he wants for each instrument. “One time someone gave me some raw deer hide and I used that and it sounded great, and I was looking for more and I went into this store that sold like, Native American handcrafts, and I go, ‘Do you know where I can get some deer hide?’ and the guy looked at me and said…..‘Kill a deer.’”

Canote is drawn to the the late 19th century banjo aesthetic; the hardware, plating, rounded neck design and hourglass headstock. He often works on old banjos and gets lots of salvaged parts from friends. “When people find out I work on old banjos they start giving me things, and I always say yes, much to my chagrin.” The beautiful turn of the century metal work looks and sounds great on new instruments. Canote makes a traditional fretless minstrel banjo, largely responsible for many of the songs we recognize from our American folk heritage like Jimmy Crack Corn and Arkansas Traveller, and has made dulcimer strum stick banjos. “I’m always willing to experiment.” For the banjo guitar, he puts a flat cutout of a guitar over the banjo rim, and instead of having a tension hoop, “you’re actually pushing the rim into the head of the instrument when you tighten the nuts. I made one for Bill Frisell and he still plays it. We did a concert at the Triple Door and on one of the tunes he played the banjo guitar and it sounded really great. I also make banjo ukes (with a real 20‘s sound) in the same way, it’s just kind of a unique way.”

Canote picks up one of the banjos he made from an old spunover rim, and plays a traditional rag. I get the feeling that he could pull out one song after another for days on end. It turns out that may not be far from the truth. In 1979 Jere and his brother met Sandy Bradley at the Port Townsend Fiddle Tunes Festival. Sandy was calling for dances and Jere and Greg were, by now, fully embedded in American roots music. The three ventured that they would make a good fit, and so began a crazy Alaska tour that ended up spanning 3 years and every state in the Union but Maine, Mississippi, and Hawaii. “It was wild. We could do it only because we were young and stupid. What was great about it was that we did square dances – ‘cause Sandy was a really good caller – and we did concerts. So sometimes – we did this thing in Atlanta that was the coolest thing – it was a big gym and the stage was kind of in the middle of the gym and then there was a curtain on either side of the stage kind of dividing the hall in two. So we did a concert, and then we would just turn around and do a dance. We really had fun playing with Sandy.”

“We got home and said, ‘We can’t tour this much ‘cause that’s crazy.” By chance, [Seattle’s] KUOW contacted Sandy and said they wanted a local variety radio show and she asked, ‘Can we do anything we want?” They called it Sandy Bradley’s Potluck and from 1984-1997 they put on a show with good attitude and authentic music. “The first couple of years were crazy ‘cause we were just learning how to do it. Luckily, we ran into Barney McClure and he was around and he’s a jazz piano player. He said, ‘I can learn this stuff’. He taught me how to write charts. So we each had to bring one song a week. Greg would call me like Sunday night (rehearsal was Monday morning) and he’d go, ‘I can’t find a song.’ and I’d say, ‘write about peanut butter or something!’ Greg got really good at writing songs kind of on demand. Every radio show had at least 3 songs that we did and then we had guests. We had Dave Brubeck, we had Joe Pass, you name it.”

In the beginning, the show aired at Murphy’s Pub in Seattle. Jere and Greg would arrive at 7:30 in the morning for an 11am live show. They had a ritual where they would empty their lungs, turn the key, open the door, and breath in all the stale beer smell to vaccinate themselves for the day, often drinking a couple of Guinness to seal the deal. In 1990 they moved to the Museum of History and Industry and got Denney Goodhew on the baritone sax and a drummer. They were known as the Small Wonder String Band.

All told, they did the show for 13 years; with 35 shows a year and at least three songs per show; that added up to thousands of songs. “It was a challenge to find all that material. I got a lot of material from discovering KBCS’ Al Barnes; a record collector who did music from the late 20’s and early 30‘s. We got really good at finding a song, learning it, teaching it to the other band members, performing it…and then forgetting it.

The Canote brothers’ Mom had been deaf up until a few years ago when she had her hearing restored for the first time as an adult. Jere recounts the night she sat in the audience and could hear their music for the first time, how she was smiling and laughing the whole show. Afterwards, he asked her what she thought. “I heard every word” was her reply. After a lifetime of singing and playing music she could finally hear them. When one is blessed with so many small wonders, who needs a fancy car?