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Lots of folks have picked up new hobbies and passions during the pandemic, like knitting or growing a garden. In Harlan County, Kentucky, a 20-year-old punk musician turned to the banjo. And that led to a search for a 97-year-old banjo maker.
Everything I Was Doing I Couldn’t Do Anymore
Southeast Kentucky is home to a vibrant punk rock music scene. Bradford Harris is the guitarist and lead vocalist of the punk band L.I.P.S. of Harlan. They used to play out a couple times a month, but had to stop playing live shows because of COVID-19.
“All I’d been doing was booking shows and touring and playing with bands,” Harris said. “And then everything I was doing, I couldn’t do anymore.”
Without an outlet to play loud punk music, Harris recently started playing old-time music. In this part of Kentucky, it’s common for punk musicians to also play old-time. And during the pandemic, Harris started messing with the banjo.
“It wasn’t until this year that I actually really started appreciating it,” Harris said.
One day, Harris was looking up tunes on YouTube and came across a video of someone talking about making banjos. Harris’s dad, Steve, runs the woodshop at the local community college. So Harris got the idea that the two of them should build a banjo.
“I’m not an instrument-maker,” Steve Harris said. “I’m a cabinet and furniture guy.”
To figure out how to build a banjo, they ordered a kit from the internet, and pulled out the family’s set of Foxfire books to reference the chapter on banjo-making. Then the two of them got to work.
“He knows so much about woodworking that I can’t even fathom to know about,” Harris said about Steve. “And I know stuff about instruments that he wouldn’t even consider.”
The two of them built their first banjo this past summer, and they haven’t stopped since. Harris even quit a job at a local car wash to focus on building banjos. They’ve joined online banjo-building forums and Facebook groups, and they’ve connected with banjo players and makers from around the area.
The Search For Al Cornett
Harris stumbled upon one of their best sources of instruction while using a sander at the shop one day.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a banjo neck hanging out of the shelf,” Harris said. “And I was like, ‘I will worry about this later. I just saw something cool.’”
Harris went to investigate and uncovered a stockpile of handmade tools, banjo templates, and detailed, handwritten notes about building instruments. They had been left behind by a man who used to work in the shop. His name was Al Cornett. Cornett retired years ago after working at the college as an instrument-builder and teacher.
“He would write down things that I would have never thought about. You could tell he was writing down years of experience. And his drawings are superb,” Harris said. “Although he hadn’t been in that shop for 15 years, he’s been one of the most monumental people in me learning how to build.”
Harris knew that a luthier had previously worked in the shop at the college, but didn’t know much else.
“I had just heard about him,” Harris said. “And somebody was like, ‘I doubt he’s still alive.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I mean it’s worth checking.’”
Harris started asking around the college to see what people knew about Cornett and where he might be. All anybody knew was that if Cornett was still around, he was probably in his 90s. Undeterred, Harris posted on social media, looking for more information.
“And somebody was like, ‘Yeah I know, Al. I go check on him every now and then.’ And I was like, ‘This is it. The search begins,’’ Harris said.
With confirmation that Cornett was in fact still living, Harris was determined to meet him. Finally, after several weeks of searching and trying to get in touch with Cornett, Harris was able to visit with him. They sat down in Cornett’s living room, and a friend, Will Major, recorded the meeting on video.
“How old were you when you started building instruments?” Harris asked on the video.
“I started in 1977,” Cornett said.
“So you said you first started building dulcimers?” Harris asked.
“I started building dulcimers, yeah,” Cornett said. “I have the first one I built.”
During the visit, Cornett talked about his experiences as a luthier, and he shared some tricks of the trade with Harris. Cornett even talked about some of the more challenging projects he worked on, like the one time he built a fiddle.
“I worked seven years on a fiddle,” Cornett said.
“Have you made more fiddles than that one?” Harris asked.
“No, I quit after this one,” Cornett said. “It takes too long.”
In pre-pandemic times when punk shows in southeast Kentucky were still going loud and strong, Harris would not have thought they would be tracking down someone like Cornett.
“If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be playing old-time music and doing this old-time history stuff and going and meeting old banjo players and stuff, I would have been like, ‘No, probably not,’” Harris said. “But I also wouldn’t have thought there would have been a pandemic.”
Harris is eager to book and play punk shows again, but for now at least, they’ll keep making banjos. And Harris is grateful to have had the chance to thank Cornett in person.
“I just felt that it was important for this rad 97-year-old man to know that somebody is carrying on this tradition in the same workshop that he was,” Harris said.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.