County 701



from “Making Round Peak Music,” by James Randolph Ruchala:

“Clawhammer Banjo,” County 701, opened with Wade Ward’s “June Apple” and “John Lover’s Gone,” two Virginia favorites. Then, a bold contrast, comes Kyle Creed’s “Darlin’ Nellie Grey,” a banjo solo based on a popular song written by one Benjamin Hanby in 1856. Wade Ward’s banjo performances are driving, rhythmic powerhouses, with a twangy, echoing timbre.  Ward plays the main notes of his melody, and brushes across multiple strings to play chords in between the melodic phrases.

Creed’s performance displayed all the hallmarks of his style—melodic more than rhythmic, with a frequent use of the fifth string as both a drone and a melody string, many slides and open strings, very few chords. Creed brushes across multiple strings, too, but does so more slowly than Ward, creating the effect not of a chord, but of a melodic grace note.

But what really stands out after Wade Ward is Kyle Creed’s mellow timbre, reminiscent, perhaps of a xylophone or some other percussion instrument. This full and round timbre was what he called “plunky” and it would come to be an influence on players and builders of banjos, as will be shown in chapter six.

“Darlin’ Nellie Gray” is followed by “Ducks on the Millpond,” an old dance tune popular in Virginia and North Carolina, and Kyle uses it to demonstrate the lick that would come to be known, inaccurately, as the “Galax lick.” This move involves brushing across the long strings of the banjo before plucking the fifth string squarely on the beat to play a melody note, usually the high A.

Three tracks of Fred Cockerham’s wild fretless banjo playing follow Kyle. “Pretty Little Miss,” “Long Steel Rail,” and “Little Maggie” show Fred’s bag of inventive tricks: bluesy slides, wild intonation, very low drone strings for some tunings, strange noises and “clucks” that defy notation, and Fred’s low-pitched and expressive singing. If Kyle was the precise and
plunky side of what would come to be called Round Peak banjo, Fred was the bluesy and inventive side.


3 Responses to “County 701”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    For the banjo historians out there……
    Many, many years ago I stopped by Kyle’s store. His workshop was in the back – so when things were slow, he would slip into the shop area and crank out fingerpicks,…. or his famous banjos / which he would sell for $100. apiece at the next fiddler’s convention. He would always laugh at how easy that hundred dollars was to make compared to doing anything else to earn a hundred bucks….
    Hanging on a nail was a smaller little fretless made of hickory. The skin head was missing – so it was just a round hoop with maybe eight brackets, and a neck. Kyle told me that when he was eight years old, the man across the road from his folks place had boiled the strip of hickory and then nailed it to a telegraph pole. In a day or two, it was dry, so the man pulled it off and stretched a home-tanned calfskin head over it, carved a fretless neck, and handed it to Kyle. It was Kyle’s first banjo.
    I showed an interest in the banjo parts, so Kyle took it off the nail, handed me a piece of calfskin which HE had tanned, took my $3.00, and was a happy man. I was also a happy fellow, and once back in Bloomington, Indiana, I wet the skin, stretched it over the banjo shell, and tightened those eight brackets. As Wade used to say, “I couldn’t run my instrument very hard” but it did have a nice tone and I realized even then, that in the increasing interest in early banjos and those who played them – it was important.
    Along came leaner times and I sold it for $100. at a flea market.
    A lovely lady bought it and they both quietly disappeared.
    The banjo should be easy to recognize…..Dark brown fretless neck with a pretty pronounced “V” in the shape of the neck. A little piece of ivory was dovetailed into the side of the neck as the 5th string nut. If you wanted to play up the neck with your right hand, you could slide the 5th string nut out from neck, enabling you to still catch the string with your thumb as you moved your right hand up the neck. When last seen, the calfskin head / which Kyle tanned / had very distinct white stripes sort of diagonally across it.
    Please email if this banjo happens to be hanging on your wall. I do not need to own it again, but I do think that you should know that it once had a very special previous owner named Kyle Creed, and it was THE banjo which got him started……

    Reed Martin / Cabin John, Maryland 6/18/2013

  2. Rosemarie Nielsen Says:

    Thanks for this post! County 701 is still right at the top of my list of favorites–I have a copy framed in my living room! The cover art is just right for the fantastic music within.

  3. Paul Mitchell Says:

    Cool story by Reed! One thing James didn’t mention is the duet numbers with Fred fiddling and Kyle playing banjo. Fred’s John Henry is the version! (IMHO, unless you’re glued to Joe Thompsons). Step Back Cindy and Big Eyed Rabbit are also there. I own several versions of this LP, the first of which was like an old Folkways LP, heavy cardboard with the cover pasted on. It also included a separate set of liner notes (a’ la Folkways). You can see a copy of them at

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