Musical guest

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Young banjo player visits Good Neighbors camp

By John Barnhart

Johnathan Dillon, lead singer for the bluegrass band Johnathan Dillon and Phantom Grass, paid a visit to the Good Neighbors day camp being held at Trinity Ecumenical Parish recently.

    Good Neighbors is an ecumenical program that brings seven Lake area churches and Lake Christian Ministries together to help elementary school children of the portions of Bedford and Franklin counties that border the lake. One of its efforts are two four-week day camps for children from first grade through fourth. Each accommodates 50 children.

    The day camps run from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. with volunteers providing one-on-one reading enrichment. Activities emphasize nonviolence, accepting diversity, compassion, honesty and integrity. After lunch, the children have activities such as art and music.

    Dillon brought his banjo and played bluegrass selections alternating with question and answer periods. He was just back from the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax where he came in eighth out of 300 contestants in banjo. This past spring, he came in second out of a field of 20 at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, N.C. In addition to banjo, Dillon also plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass.

    He is also only five or six years older than the oldest children in the group. Dillon, who resides in Wirtz, is 14 and starts 9th grade next year.

    Dillon kept the children’s attention during the entire session. The children, in turn asked good questions and he explained how tuning changes the sound of the strings and why he uses banjo picks that he wears on his thumb, forefinger and middle finger.

    “Earl Scruggs pretty much invented the three-finger style that I use,” he later said.

    They asked about his banjo case. Dillon said it’s a special case designed to allow him to take a banjo on an airplane without it getting damaged. He said the case is supposed to be able to fall 2,000 feet without the banjo being damaged in the process. Protecting that banjo is important as the one he uses costs $8,000.

    This didn’t stop him from taking the back off so the children could see what the inside looks like.

    “This and the head of a drum are made of the same stuff,” he told them, pointing to the taut material that forms the banjo’s top.

    He even played it with the back off, demonstrating how it sounds without its bottom. He pointed out that the bottom directs the sound back toward his audience.

    Dillon, who has been playing the banjo for four years, never had a lesson. He taught himself. He has had music lessons, however. He began learning to play the fiddle at 7 years old. The banjo is the most recent of the instruments he mastered and his experience with the others allowed him to pick it up on his own.

    “It’s always been in my family,” Dillon said, explaining his interest it bluegrass music. His grandfather, John Dalton Dillon, played bluegrass fiddle.

    He starts high school this month, but he has post high school plans.

    “I guess trying to do this as a career,” he said when asked.

    He’s serious. He carries a supply of business cards with him and has a Web site, www.johnathandillon.com.