In collaboration with award-winning banjo picker Alison Brown, and inspired by the music and art of the late John Hartford, Deering Banjos has announced the debut of their latest model.
The Julia Belle, named for Hartford’s song Julia Belle Swain from his 1976 album, Mark Twang, recalls John’s use of a low-tuned banjo in most of his recordings. He initially favored a banjo tuned to open E to suit his deep voice, but the sound of the growly, low-tuned banjo eventually came to define his sound as much as his on-stage dancing while he played.
Deering had created a John Hartford model while he was alive, which he used for live performances, and is still available from the company. Like the original Hartford model, this new one uses a 24 fret neck, two more than has become standard on Mastertone-style instruments.
Alison actually owns the prototype model that had been John’s, as she had been a close friend of his during his life, and remains close with his family to this day. So when her idea for a special banjo for herself became clear in her mind, she knew that she wanted Deering to do it. Her vision involved the elongated fret scale, and the low tuning, with the radiused fingerboard that she prefers. But she wanted it to be a mahogany banjo instead of maple, with inlays based on Hartford’s original artwork.
She reached out to his family and requested access to his collection of sketches, which they happily granted. There she encountered his drawing of a woman dancing, which she chose for the headstock overlay, and which she says inspired her to give it the name Julia Belle.