By Craig J. Orosz
Along the scenic rolling foothills of central Kentucky, surrounded by Amish farms where children are playing in the nearby fields at the dead-end of Burton Ridge Road, sits Arthur Hatfield’s homestead in Rocky Hill. On his mailbox is a logo of two banjos that reads “Hatfield Banjos.”
Hatfield, 66, has lived on the 90-acre family farm his entire life, which had no electricity or running water while he was growing up. A descendent of the Hatfield clan of West Virginia, his famous uncle is William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, of the Hatfield and McCoy legacy.
Hatfield, a cabinetmaker by trade and self-taught musician, learned to play the five-string banjo when he was 12 years old.
“I got interested in the banjo because my dad played claw hammer style banjo. Then, a friend in the family gave me an old banjo which was somewhat egg-shaped and didn’t have frets on it,” Hatfield said.
After Hatfield mastered his banjo skills, he started playing in a band called the New Sounds of Bluegrass that he and his friends Larry Lawrence and Jimmy Dickerson had formed. Then, Hatfield caught the attention of Karl Story, a bluegrass musician, and traveled and performed all across the United States and Canada as a group member of Karl Story and Rambling Mountaineers.
After playing in that group, Hatfield started his own band called Buck Creek.
“I started building five-string banjos full time in the fall of 2001. The first few years I hardly sold any banjos,” Hatfield said, “and I barely made enough money to keep food on the table. So, I decided to build custom banjo necks, which has turned into seven styles of Hatfield banjos.”
The banjos start with the Buck Creek banjo, which costs $2,700. It has attracted a lot of attention at Park Street Music & Mercantile in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Owner Brad Lambert calls the Hatfield banjos “among the best out there.”
“The workmanship and tone quality are second to none. That’s why I play one myself,” said Lambert, noting he’s had the opportunity to try many banjos over the years.
Hatfield said he builds banjos a little bit differently than other banjo makers.
“I start by gluing the banjo neck together, shaping it and building the fret board. Then, I have an outside company do the laser inlay work. The majority of the necks are made out of mahogany, but I also use walnut and maple,” Hatfield said.
It takes about one month to build a single banjo, but “I can build at least seven a month while other banjo necks are being set with inlays,” he said.
His intricate craftsmanship is evident in each banjo he makes.
“When I receive the necks back with the inlays, I start to shape the neck. This is done with various tools and then sanded by hand. After the neck is shaped, I set the metal frets into the neck fret board and then prepare the resonator and banjo neck to be finished by an outside company. Once the finished neck and the resonator arrive, I begin to assemble the banjo. All the hardware for the banjo, like the tone rings, are made of bronze,” he said, adding that some of the high-end banjo parts come from Europe.
Hatfield also creates handmade compensating banjo bridges.
“I fit my tone rings a bit looser than normal, which gives the banjo more depth and a sweeter tone,” explains Hatfield. “This way, I have complete control over each and every banjo that I build.”
The most expensive banjo he makes is the Feud at $4,500. He’s only sold 25 thus far, and it is destined to be a collector’s item. It has all of the same components as his other banjo models, but it is hand-painted from the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of the 1800s, and all the inlays on the neck represent a part of it. The resonator has a hand-painted picture of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randell McCoy with the Tug River between them.
“This banjo displays a time in our history. I will not build one unless someone orders it,” said Hatfield.
Hatfield’s banjos are labeled on the inside of the rim along with the serial number, banjo model and his signature, and, on custom-ordered banjos, they will have his signature and the signature of the owner. He has sold about 345 five-string banjos since he started in 2001.
“I don’t care to get any bigger than I am right now,” Hatfield said. “There are no family members crazy enough to take over the business, which is very time-consuming. So, when I call it quits, that will be the end of Hatfield banjos.”
CRAIG J. OROSZ
Craig has been photo editor at The Lima News for 19 years. He has worked at several daily metro newspapers in St. Louis, New Jersey and Detroit. Reach him at 567-242-0415 or [email protected]