John Bullard Brings Classical Banjo to Highland County

Most classical music was written in Europe between 1750 and 1830. The banjo, on the other hand, came to this country from Africa and is central to the sound of bluegrass. Now, a Virginia man brings those two traditions together, as Virginia Public Radio’s Sandy Hausman reports.  

John Bullard traces his love of the banjo to a drive with his dad in 1972. He was 12 or 13.

“This thing came on the radio, and my dad pulled over on the side of the road and turned up the volume and said, ‘Man you’ve got to listen to this!’ He knew I was just going to be blown away by it, and I was.” 

Bullard took lessons for three years — working from the Earl Scruggs instruction book. Rock and Roll was the rage, so Bullard kept his passion for bluegrass a secret.

“I didn’t tell anybody that I was doing it. I didn’t tell my friends, because I was sort of embarrassed because it wasn’t cool, and I didn’t know anybody that played the banjo.” 

After high school he enrolled at a small college with only one music class – a course in music theory.

“The teacher asked me what instrument I played, and I said, ‘Well I play the banjo,’ and he literally looked at me, eyes got really big, turned on his heel and threw up his hands and said, ‘Oh no, no, no. That simply won’t do,’ and he wouldn’t let me take the class. I was just like aghast. It’s what I refer to now as the banjo shame.”   

Undaunted, he taught himself theory, learned to play piano and read music. He did graduate work at VCU where one of his professors heard him and asked if he had tried playing baroque music – from the Renaissance – on his banjo.

“I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Well you know to me the banjo, it really sounded a lot like a lute or a harpsichord, so that was the whole lightbulb moment for me.”  

Then, he made his first trip to Galax for the annual celebration of bluegrass and old timey music.

“I was in the middle of the night in the campground wandering around with my handheld tape recorder, listening to all this different acoustic music, and I was about to head back and try to go to sleep and I heard, (plays) … I heard Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring being played on a banjo, and I was stopped in my tracks!” 

He followed the sound and found Fred Boyce – a native of North Carolina who would move to Charlottesville in 1990 to manage the Prism Coffee House – a popular venue for bluegrass and folk musicians. 

“I just stuck to him like glue for the rest of the weekend, and another thing he did was this: (demonstrates).”   

He would take lessons from Boyce and begin turning classical compositions into music for the banjo – changing keys to accommodate the instrument’s limited range.

Today, his banjo shame has turned to pride. He’s recorded four CDs, is working on three commissioned compositions and performs from coast to coast.

“People that hear it, when I play somewhere, they’re just like – ‘Wow, that sounds great.  I’ve never thought of that!’” 

This month he’ll play at the California Banjo Extravaganza and in Richmond, Monterey and Purcellville, Virginia.

John Bullard performs in Highland County on Saturday, November 14, at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Old Oak on Meadowdale Road.  Tickets are $10 per person.  Audience seating is limited to 30 people.  To reserve a space, contact Caroline Smith at 540-499-2879 or check the Highland County Arts Council’s Facebook page.  The Highland County Arts Council is a supporter of Allegheny Mountain Radio.

Story By

Bonnie Ralston

Bonnie Ralston is the Assistant Station Coordinator at WVLS and a Highland County news reporter. She began volunteering at Allegheny Mountain Radio in the fall of 2005. In 2006 she became an AMR employee and worked in Bath County for eight years as the WCHG Station Coordinator and then as the news reporter there. She began working in radio while in college and has stayed connected to radio, in one way or another, for more than thirty years. She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, while spending a lot of time on her family’s farm in Deerfield, Virginia. She enjoys spending time outside, watching old TV shows and movies and tending to her chickens.

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