Across Tennessee. By Kia.

He takes my hand in a bear-like grip and shakes it warmly.

I am relieved that he has a bear-like grip. Having just watched him play the most amazing banjo music in the world, I had worried that there might be something a bit odd about his hands, to allow him to play so fast, so casually. But he has normal hands, if a bit bear-like. I will not have to deform my own hands in order to play like him.

Sonny Smith is a national banjo champion of the USA, and you don’t get much more accomplished in the banjo world than that. Like many true greats, he is also a very modest man, and has no airs about him. He stops shaking my hand and there is an awkward pause.

The problem is that I am not very cool around celebrities, especially musicians. I sort of go in awe and stuff. I am not name-dropping or anything, but I have met the likes of Peter Andre and Tony Hadley and stuff, PLUS supported the Sultans of Ping on one date of their UK tour. So you would think that I would be a bit more comfortable around legends.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” says Sonny Smith, US banjo champion.

There is another short pause.

“Iamthatwasimeanthatwasbrilliantbanjogreatreallyamazedhowyougetthatwow,” I reply.

“Oh – well, you know,” says Sonny Smith, modestly.

There is another pause. This one is a bit longer.

“I play the banjo as well!!!” I blurt, after a while.

Sonny Smith does look genuinely interested at this, as I don’t suppose he has met many other banjo players in his life. He gives me a broad grin, as I am part of the brotherhood.

“Are you any good?” he asks, in an interested (not challenging) way.

I consider this. I have just watched one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in America play, which makes him one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in the world. So his definition of ‘are you any good’ is probably a bit different than if, say, I had been asked by Eddie up at the Village Pub. I am a reasonable banjo player compared to some people, but I do not have – and never will have – the right hand technique to play proper Scruggsian bluegrass, and I’m frankly a little lost once I start wandering around the neck. But he seems genuinely interested, and I would really like to have a conversation with him about banjo playing as – let’s face it – it’s not that often that you meet somebody who is so eminent in your chosen field (apart from Peter Andre, Tony Hadley and the Sultans of Ping).

In the end I decide that the best course is be to be honest, but to also make a bit of a joke of it. Banjo playing is hardly an English thing – so I could be said to be better than many of my peers, most of whom wouldn’t know a banjo from a mandolin from a ukulele… but I am nothing like even a halfway-competent American professional exponent. So I try to encapsulate this in one sentence, getting across that I’m pretty average but that sometimes people think I am a bit better than I am as there aren’t a lot of other people dotted around the Village to measure my banjo playing ability against.

What I actually say is:

“I am the best banjo player in England.”

Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, is a bit taken aback by this – but being from the USA he is used to people telling it how it is. I, on the other hand, hear the words coming out of my mouth and want to hide inside a giant banjo.

“Hey, that’s great!” he says, and goes into a detailed conversation about banjo playing. I do not hear most of the conversation, as all I can hear is:

“I am the best banjo player in England.”

The rest of his band (who are also brilliant musicians) are still milling around. I have a horror that he will call them over and introduce me. So instead of having a nice conversation about banjo playing and perhaps getting some tips, I mumble something about the Toddler waiting for me, buy three CD’s and run for it. I might be really suave, cool, attractive etc on the page, but I am rubbish – rubbishy rubbish – at meeting people in the flesh. If Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, ever Googles this then it was really great to meet you and the CD’s are fantastic.


EDIT – Sonny has very kindly left a comment, which has chuffed me to bits. For readers who are interested, Sonny’s CD is available – contact him through his website at for information. It’s all-instrumental, with a mix of guaranteed favourites and some that were new to me – some bluegrass, some veering towards swing. I’m sure that he’d set you up with music from his colleagues in the Smoky Mountain String Band as well – I came back to the UK with some truly great stuff.

And for those who like reading – if my books share a theme then it’s the joy that a deep love of music brings you. You can get them in paperback or in e-format; try the links above, and thank you!

25 thoughts on “I meet Sonny Smith, US banjo champion.

  1. AndrewM says:

    ‘Best banjo player in England’ huh?

    Sounds like you be wanting a pluck-off!

  2. alan.sloman says:

    Steve Martin is currently in England, isn’t he Jonny?

  3. Megan says:

    Next time be truly honest, ‘I’m the best living banjo player in England.’ The others all having been quietly put down for the sake of the empire.

  4. Mujja says:

    Ah what a fearful web we weave when first we practice to deceive…. eh Johnny?..oh dear dear dear dear…

  5. JonnyB says:

    For shame, Alan… yes, he is.

    Perhaps he will visit? Steve?

  6. You may very well be the best banjo player in England, Jonny. For all I know you’re the only one in England. Which is very sad both for banjos generally and for you personally, but a rare and welcome ray of sunshine for poor old England.

    The Devil goes down to Georgia for fiddle player souls, and to Tennessee for banjo strummers. Even if he did get hopelessly lost and end up in Norfolk, I dare say he’d just throw yours back…

  7. MrWheeliebin says:

    Clawhammer or bluegrass?

  8. Sonny Smith says:

    HI there Someone forwarded this to me . I was flattered .I have played banjo all of my life. I have always loved banjo music.It was a pleasure to meet you at my work place Dollywood the greatest live music theme park ever. I am so lucky to be apart of their music there . Check out my website if you get the chance and thanks again for the kind words . Happy holidays ! Sonny Smith National Banjo Champion .

  9. Linda says:

    I ran into Paul McCartney here in Paris. I was so shocked that I just said, “Hi!” He looked puzzled and then said Hi back. I put my hand on my heart and said, “I’m just so surprised to see you here!” And he nicely said, “I like surprising people”. I had so much more I wanted to say and I wanted to give him a tour of that part of Paris but somehow I restrained myself and walked off relieved that I didn’t gush all over him. He didn’t ask me if I sang too.

  10. guyana gyal says:

    Oh look, it’s Sonny Smith. So now he knows and you don’t have to worry, and he’s quite nice about it.

    Now that’s a good “I met a famous person” story – Linda met Paul McCartney in Paris.

    I have a speech ready in case I meet a musician / writer / actor I like, though heaven knows who would come here…but I’ve heard that Mick Jagger’s been around town.

  11. JonnyB says:

    I am utterly delighted that Sonny Smith has commented. Hullo Sonny, and welcome!!! Please stay and become a regular – we need more banjo players here.

    (The problem, Mr Wheeliebin, is that I would love to play bluegrass. But my fingers are not with me on that)

  12. Cliff says:

    Oh my god. And you’re two handshakes away from Earl Scruggs.

    Cliff (Open back, 1930’s Windsor 5-string, clawhammer)

  13. I’m with you JonnyB. Frailing is so much simpler (and much, much quieter which keeps Mrs Wheeliebin happy).

    Time you posted a Cripple creek YouToob video.

  14. Jayne says:

    Sonny Smith is being surprisingly nice to you, considering you are a big, fat lying liar who lies. Tut.

  15. We had a banjo player in a cardboard boat at our wedding (not as a guest, as entertainment). Sadly, I only have a photograph of him with a guitar, so you will just have to believe me.

  16. Tee hee.

    Oh dear, I have nothing of worth to add, I just wanted you to know that this post made me laugh out loud, and therefore nrightened my day a little. Thank you.

  17. brightened.




  18. Debster says:

    It’ll all end in tears …

  19. Pat says:

    Everything comes to he who waits. I’m happy you’re happy. Are you ever coming back?
    I suppose if you had said ‘best in Britain’ Billy Connolly would have been on you like a ton of bricks.

  20. Z says:

    I once wrote an enthusiastic post about an orchestra and two members of it found it and wrote comments. I was ever so pleased.

    I rather want to listen to Sonny’s music myself now. Can you recommend an album?

  21. JonnyB says:

    I should just write nice things about real people – then they’d find it and comment, then my comments count would go up. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THE INTERNET IS LIKE…

    Z – I have added in a link to Sonny’s website – do drop him an email and he will equip you with all your desires.

  22. Z says:

    All of them? Gosh. Hardly anyone ever has done that. Thank you for the link.

  23. Z says:

    Not that the link actually strictly speaking works, but it gave me a hint of how to get there.

  24. JonnyB says:

    How bizarre- all the links have stopped working. I shall investigate. Thanks Z!

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