ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. — When Brent Weber walked through the door with his long-neck Vega banjo, his passion for the stringed instrument was obvious. Decked out in a T-shirt that reads “Love one woman, many banjos” and a baseball cap with the words “Banjo hangout” above the brim, Weber was a walking advertisement.
Listening to him talk about his instrument of choice left no doubt about his love for the banjo.
“It’s God’s favorite instrument,” he said. “When you hear it, it always makes you smile.”
FROM THE START
Weber, 70, has had a continuing love affair with the banjo since his mom subscribed him to the Capitol Record Club in 1959. His favorite group was the Kingston Trio, which played a unique brand of folk music. Weber found he could play along on his sister’s ukulele. He said he learned to play by listening and playing along.
When he was 14, a friend got him a Montgomery Ward banjo for $40.
“He had an employee discount,” Weber noted.
With the banjo came fingering instructions — a three-finger and thumb method called the Melbe method — which Weber struggled with until someone told him to try the two-finger method. Called the Scruggs method, Weber said this is the method used by most banjo players.
Now he is learning the claw method, popularized by Grandpa Jones on the popular television show “Hee Haw,” he added.
In 1966, Weber lost the index finger of his left hand when he was working for the Union Pacific Railroad. Two weeks after surgery, a new banjo showed up, and he said there was “no other option” but to relearn how to play the instrument, improvising along the way.
“You fake people out,” Weber said about people’s surprise when they see him play.
He thought about purchasing a fake finger and pretend to lose on the strings when he’s playing, “just for laughs,” he said and chuckled.
SUPPORTING HIS HABIT
Weber’s love for the banjo naturally led to purchasing and owning many instruments. After he retired in 2013 from a building maintenance job with the local Latter-days Saints church, he found another way to support his musical habit — delivering newspapers for the Rocket-Miner.
Weber got started in the newspaper carrier gig when his son had a route in the 1980s. When his son grew up and gave up his route, Weber took it over along with several other routes.
Weber has racked up close to 20 years delivering papers and currently has five routes. This helped him pay for the restoration of the old long-neck Vega banjo.
Weber said the restoration took five years, and he finally got the banjo back in 2013. He calls it “a beauty” with a pot from the 1930s.
“It’s older than I am,” he said.
He cut a deal with Wyatt Fawley of Greensboro, Pennsylvania, to get the banjo restored. Fawley talked Weber into buying two banjos — the Vega and another banjo that had ivory tuning pegs.
“That’s what he was after,” Weber recalled. “He wanted the ivory tuning pegs. I guess they’re worth a lot of money.”
The Vega’s neck needed to be fixed. Weber paid $2,500, “a good deal” in his estimation. He said he could have enhanced the neck a bit more, but then price would have gone up. He’s happy with the simple ivory star on the peghead and the maple and walnut strip down the back of the neck.
“The neck’s straight, stays straight, plays good,” he said, the glow in his face belying this simple description.
Along with the five-string Vega, Weber owns a 12-string banjo, a six-string and a four-string Plectrum banjo.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Weber retired from his paper route on March 31. He said he wants to retire “in style” while he’s still on top of the health game.
“Things sometime have to come to an end,” he added.
Now he wants to enjoy his family and grandchildren — and play his banjos.
Weber hadn’t played in a while, since the death of his son. He said the death really “took it out of me” and he just could not bring himself to play the instrument he has loved for so many years.
Now he thinks he’s ready to pick it up again, he said. And he did, playing bits and pieces of songs during the course of this interview.
Weber said he used to play at Deer Trail Assisted Living. It will be one of the first groups he plans to play for once he is retired.
In the meantime he will continue playing along with Kingston Trio tunes and listening to Bela Fleck and Woods Tea Company play “God’s favorite instrument.” His favorite tune is Paul Stookey’s rendition of “The Wedding Song.”
It seems fitting when he pulls out his cellphone and graces the office with the flowing notes of Bach’s “Partita No. 3” played by Fleck, adding a few parting words.
“That’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
Information from: Rock Springs (Wyo.) Rocket-Miner, http://www.rocketminer.com