Eli Miller’s Fender Banjo
Eli Miller was born in Ohio to an Amish family of thirteen children. In 1951, when Eli was ten, the family moved to the town of Catlett, Virginia. Catlett is a small town not too far from Warrenton. Eli didn’t listen to bluegrass music as a child because, being Amish, he didn’t have access to the radio or recorded music.
When Eli was about twenty-years-old he left home and started to work as a laborer carrying brick for a brick layer. He purchased a transistor radio and would listen to radio station WKCW out of Warrenton, Virginia as he worked. It was through the programs on that station that Eli discovered bluegrass and gospel music and now he says, “If there is a bigger bluegrass music fan than me, I’d like to meet them.”
Evidently, Eli’s enthusiasm for bluegrass music spilled over to a few of his siblings. He said that two of his brothers, Vernon and Bill, drove the bus for the Country Gentlemen at different times. His brother Bill became good friends with the Country Gentlemen’s bassist Bill Yates.
In about 1975 Eli moved back to Ohio and continued listening to bluegrass music and attending performances of his favorite bands. In 1984 Eli bought a new Fender Leo Deluxe banjo. In 1990 he thought about getting his favorite bluegrass performers to sign the inside of his banjo’s resonator. Eli frequently attended bluegrass shows at the OJ Work Auditorium in Wadsworth, Ohio—about 40 miles from his home in Sugarcreek, OH.
The first autograph he got was from Little Roy Lewis. He had formed a friendship with Little Roy after talking with him after a show. At that show Roy gave Eli his phone number and they still keep in touch to this day.
Between 1990 and 2017 Eli collected a very impressive list of twenty signatures on the inside of his banjo’s resonator. The signatures include: Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Sonny Osborne, Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe, John Hartford, Roy Clark, Little Roy Lewis, Raymond Fairchild, Jim Mills, Charlie Waller, Bill Emerson, Blake Williams, Tom Ewing, Cia Cherry Holmes, Doyle Lawson, Mike Snider, and Steve Martin.
The majority of the autographs were collected in person by Eli after artist performances at the OJ Work Auditorium or the Frontier Ranch in Columbus, Ohio. For the Earl Scruggs and John Hartford autographs, Eli sent the banjo resonator to his friend Little Roy Lewis and Roy obtained those signatures for him. To obtain Roy Clark’s autograph, Eli sent the resonator to Roy’s secretary and she had Roy sign it for him.
The last signature to be added to the banjo resonator was that of Steve Martin. Eli and his friend Michael Schario worked pretty hard to get that one. The two had attended a Steve Martin show in Cleveland. After the show they had heard that Martin had left for a small private airport. They went to the airport, but could not find him. Thinking that Martin might still be at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, they went there. They asked about Martin at the desk and the attendant said that Martin had just gone to his room, but his manager was still in the lobby. They talked with the manager who told them that Steve had to leave early in the morning, but the next time Steve came to Ohio, he would make sure to have Steve sign the banjo. They left a phone number with the manager.
Disappointed, Eli and Michael headed back home. Eli said, “We were driving home. Just as we saw the sign for 77-south, the phone rang. It was Steve Martin’s manager saying ‘I just talked to Steve and he was wondering if you were still around?’” Eli and Michael took the resonator back to the Ritz Carlton and Steve Martin signed it. Eli said, “Steve said that he was honored to add his name and he took a picture of all of the signatures with his phone so that he could show it to his friends.”
Eli’s encounter with Steve Martin didn’t end there. Eli said, “On Tuesday Steve’s manager called and said that Steve wanted to send me something. This was in September of 2017. In June of that next year I got a package in the mail from Steve that included a framed photo of Steve Martin and Martin Short and a book about Leo Fender that was signed by Leo Fender’s widow.”
Although Eli took banjo lessons for a short time, he does not play the banjo. But he states, “The banjo has always been my favorite instrument. To me, it isn’t bluegrass without the banjo.”
When asked what he is going to do with his unique instrument, Eli said, “There was a museum in Tennessee that wanted to display it. But I think that I will eventually sell it if someone offers the right price.”
Bob Landry and the Camper Door
Bob Landry is a bluegrass fan—and the bass player in a bluegrass band—from Stuart, Florida. In the early 1980s, a scene of people skiing on a snow covered mountain was painted on the top half of the inside of the door to his camper. On the bottom half of the door Bob painted the layout of a campground that was near his home. If you look at the photos of Bill Monroe and Rhonda Vincent that accompany this article, you can see these paintings on the camper’s door. The top half is the snow scene, the bottom half the campground layout.
Long about 1984, Bob decided to start asking bluegrass professional players—who had reached a high level of status in the bluegrass world—to sign the door. In 1985 Bob sold the camper, but before he did, he cut off the lower panel of the door and saved it so that he could continue collecting autographs. He put the panel in a heavy frame and attached a handle to the frame so that the panel would be easy to carry.
To date, Bob has collected about 140 signatures on the door. He has a photograph of every person who has signed the door panel standing next to it so that he can prove that the autographs are authentic. In many of the photos the person is either in the process of signing or is pointing at their signature. He keeps a photo album that documents the photos and next to each photo there is a label that states the person’s (or band’s) name, the date they signed and the location where they signed it. He also maintains a printed list of everyone who has signed. On this list, next to their name, there is a grid number that identifies the location of their signature on the panel.
A few of the most noteworthy names that can be found on the door include Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Kenny Baker, Bobby and Sonny Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Rhonda Vincent, Eddie and Martha Adcock, Ricky Skaggs, Bill Harrell, Chubby Wise, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Roni and Donna Stoneman, Peter Rowan, Raymond Fairchild, Sierra Hull, and many, many more.
Today Bob’s autograph panel is getting so full that when he approaches a whole band he will have the band leader sign the panel, but he takes a photo of the whole band with the framed door panel. Some of the noteworthy bands that are represented on the panel include: Dry Branch Fire Squad, McLain Family Band, The Grascals, The Cox Family, Balsom Range, Flatt Lonesome, The Isaacs, Po Ramblin Boys, Boys from Indiana, The Gibson Brothers, Grasstowne, Kody Norris Show, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Lonesome River Band, and others.
All of the signatures that are on the door have been collected at various bluegrass festivals. Most of the festivals Bob attends are in his home state of Florida, but he has traveled as far north as Cherokee, North Carolina. He said that he has obtained a large number of signatures at the festival in Palatka, Florida. The Bill Monroe autograph was obtained at a festival in Okeechobee, Florida.
When working to obtain the Monroe signature, Bob approached Bill at his record sales table, where a crowd had gathered to buy recordings and ask for autographs. He approached Monroe and asked if Bill wouldn’t mind walking a short distance to his camper and putting his signature on the door. Monroe was happy to oblige. Bob said, “He was like the pied piper. When he walked over to my trailer, everyone who was at his record table followed and watch him sign.”
When asked if there were any other interesting stories regarding his requesting people sign the door panel, Bob said, “At first Elaine Roy of The Roys was hesitant to sign. When I showed her the panel she started reading the names of the other people who had signed it and said, ‘I’m not worthy!’ But she did gladly sign it.” Bob continued, “No one has refused to sign the panel. I find that all of the bluegrass bands are friendly to the audience and love to talk, shake hands, and sign autographs.”
Bob has played in the bluegrass band Skeeter Creek for 30 years. Although band members have changed over time, Bob and one other member remain from the original lineup.