Video Interview Arthur Hatfield

Kentucky Historical Society


Transcript Index
Search This Index
Go X

BG: What are you making?

AH: I'm making a nut out of bone.

BG: Ok.

BG: So Arthur, do you think of yourself as an artist?

AH: Well, not really. I've never really given it any thought. Probably just

somebody crazy enough to do this, that's the way I think about it. Slow as it

is, as much as I do by hand.

BG: Do you see a lot of beauty in what you are doing?

AH: Yeah I do.

BG: Are you proud of yourself when it's done?

AH: Yeah. Sure. And especially to see that, that many professional banjo players

like it well enough to use it.

BG: Mhm. Have you ever tried experimenting, you know, like Homer Ledford tried

these different crazy things he made?

AH: No, I'm not much of an experimenter, I've always tried to just use what's

always been proven and known to be good.

BG: Yeah.

AH: I'm not saying, if you've got the time, I don't think Homer did that for a

living. Maybe he did, I don't know, but maybe he did something else he could

retire on, or did he?

BG: Well yeah, yeah he worked in the schools for a while and he did that kind of

stuff for a while, and he played like you did.

AH: I don't really have the experimental time. There are a few things that I'd

like to try, but I don't have time.

BG: Like what?

AH: Well I don't really know right off, but I'll think of something once in a

while, like how I'd like to try that, but when I'm doing something else, but I

just really don't have the time.

BG: But you have kind of experimented a little bit as you've been going along.

AH: With different pieces of wood, you know, having different sounds, and I

don't like to make my necks out of hard heavy pieces of wood. I usually come a

lot nearer to getting a sound I want by using a lighter weight, softer piece of

wood. Because I like a lot of depth in my banjos and that really don't come from

a hard and heavy piece of wood.

BG: But right now you are taking a piece of bone and you are making a nut out of it.

AH: Mhm.

BG: What are you looking for here, a certain height?

AH: Height, and then I've got to make it exactly the right length so it doesn't

stick out past.

BG: And you can do that while your talking with me.

AH: Yeah, pretty good. This doesn't require a lot of thinking, just feeling.

BG: Just feeling?

AH: I can tell more anymore by feeling a lot of things than I can looking.

BG: Really?

AH: Yeah.

BG: Do you remember Raymond Hicks, the boat builder we had at the Festival

[Kentucky Folklife Festival] a couple of times?

AH: Yeah I do.

BG: He used to talk about how he could measure the boat without a tape measure.

He would just use his fingers and the angle of his thumb and his fingers that

was the angle of his thing. Is that kind of what you are talking about?

AH: Well actually, when something, when the nut is actually the exact same

length, you can see what I want to feel when I rub over it, you are not feeling

either one not being the same.

BG: Exactly, and that's your sense of touch.

AH: Mhm. It's hard. If something is sticking out, say a 1/64th of an inch, it's

hard to see just a few 1000ths or something like that, but it's not hard to feel

at all.

BG: Really?

AH: Yeah.

BG: You go by your feel?

AH: If this is sticking out 3000ths past that, you'll feel it.

BG: Really?

AH: Yeah, if you rub over it, because you'll feel that little sharp corner.

BG: Have you given much thought to somebody following you?

AH: Building?

BG: Yeah.

AH: Not really. No. I may, when I get to where I'm not able to work anymore if

someone wants to buy it I may sell it to them. I don't know. Probably.

BG: But you don't have anyone in your family who wants to learn?

AH: Not that I know of.

BG: What do they all think of you?

AH: They probably think I'm crazy. See, feel of that. It's not much, but you can

feel it.

BG: Yeah, I can feel a little bit of it there. You have any grandchildren or children?

AH: Grandchildren. I don't think any of them would ever be interested in doing

something like this.

BG: Earlier, before we had the camera on, you talked about the fact that you

don't like to hire people to work with you.

AH: I don't.

BG: Why is that?

AH: Well, one of the things, if I don't have room for two people to work anyway,

just walking room for one. And, plus, a lot of people don't want to do good

work. You can't pay them enough to take interest. If I had anybody and paid them

anything at all I'd have to raise my prices. That's one of the things for sure.

BG: And your prices are again? What are your prices?

AH: They range from $2600.00 to $4500.00. But I don't sell hardly any, that's

just a few and you've seen that, the one with the painting on the back?

BG: Yeah.

AH: That's $4500.00, that's the only one that high. That's a limited edition.

BG: What painting was on the back? I forget.

AH: Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy.

BG: Who?

AH: Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield.

BG: Oh, the Hatfields and McCoys.

AH: Yeah, it was a Hatfields and McCoys thing.

BG: Oh ok. Are you any relation to the Hatfields and McCoys?

AH: Yeah.

BG: How so?

AH: Well, I always heard my grandfather say that we were related, but he never

said how and I never asked. And then Beverly got interested in it three, four,

or five years ago.

BG: Your wife?

AH: Yeah. And she finally found it. Anse's brother Valentine was my so many

generations grandfather. So Anse would have been my uncle. That many generations

back. Probably about four or five generations.

BG: And he was one of the ones involved in the feud?

AH: Anse was a leader.

BG: Oh, and he's related to you?

AH: Yeah. Mhm. A great uncle.

BG: So how did you move out this way? Because it was up in Ashland area, right?

AH: My grandfather came from Jamestown, Tennessee. That's where he was from and

he bought this place right here about seventy-three years ago.

BG: Oh ok. So you feel--

AH: This is the old homeplace right here.

BG: But the Hatfields and the McCoys, you feel a part of that too? That's why

you put it on your banjo?

AH: Yeah, it's just a limited edition, you know, it's actually the same banjo

except for the decorations as the Celebrity.

BG: Who paints the thing on the back?

AH: Jackie Shepherd. She used to work over at Custom Inlay for Brian. Her

husband still does, Larry. He comes up with Brian. Remember, he's been up to Frankfort.

BG: Oh ok.

AH: With Brian.

BG: Yeah, yeah.

AH: He's the mandolin maker, Larry.

BG: Mhm, Larry.

AH: His wife.

BG: Sure are a lot of talented people in Kentucky.

AH: Yeah, she actually paints the picture of Ralph on the Stanley Tone that

Frank builds.

BG: Oh, ok.

AH: And she paints the picture on the $50,000.00 Earl Scruggs model Gibson built.

BG: So she does that in her spare time? Is that part of what she does?

AH: I don't know if-- She used to work putting inlays in, gluing inlays in to

banjos and stuff over at Custom Inlay but, with the economy got bad about 2010,

I think she got laid off maybe over there, so I don't know really if painting is

a full-time thing for her, or just kindly a hobby, I don't really know. It's

probably more than a hobby as good as she paints; I'm sure she probably does

quite a bit of it.

BG: So if somebody wants that special one from you, with the Hatfields on it,

the Hatfields and the McCoys, are they fighting on it or something, or what?

AH: No, we've just got their picture and the Tug River painted between them.

BG: Oh ok. So you get her to paint it for you?

AH: Mhm.

BG: You take her the resonator up there and she does it?

AH: Right. I have to stop and paint it whatever color is going to be outside

around the painting. I stain it and put a couple of coats of sealer on it before

she does the painting. That makes her a smooth surface, it doesn't soak up her

paint. Then I have to bring it back and finish over it with lacquer.

BG: So part of the finishing is another part of the art of it, isn't it?

AH: Yeah.

BG: What do you use?

AH: Nitrous cellulose lacquer.

BG: Nitrous cellulose lacquer.

AH: Mhm.

BG: Why that? Why do you use that?

AH: Its, actually, what I get from Mohawk, it's classic instrument lacquer, but

that's what kind it is. It's supposed to be, have some kind of little fibers in

it, I don't know, they say it does, it helps keep it from cracking, that makes

the instrument lacquer different from just regular cabinet lacquer.

BG: Is that the cellulose part of it?

AH: I think so.

BG: Micro-cellulose lacquer. Do you have that up here, in here?

AH: Mhm. I've got it over here in a five-gallon bucket.

BG: So I'm seeing all of this wipe on poly stuff, that's not what you use.

AH: No, that's not what I use. Once in a while I get a used banjo or something

that's got a little nick knocked out of it or something like that, I'll use

something like that only to keep from having to spray a big surface, but no,

that's not anything I use polyurethane except for some little touchup case once

in a while or something.

BG: Micro-cellulose, what?

AH: Lacquer.

BG: Lacquer. Why is lacquer so good? Everyone has told me that.

AH: I don't really know, that's just customarily what people use. I thin Frank

uses, or he was, Lawrence McFaddin brand instead of Mohawk, I've been using

Mohawk, but basically it's the same type stuff. Both of them make an instrument lacquer.

BG: So do you have a paint room where you do this?

AH: No, I do it right about where you are setting, between there and the stand.

BG: With all the dust here?

AH: I use a high volume, low-pressure gun. I spray with about eighteen pounds.

Once the dust has settled down, it doesn't bother. I can't be sanding while I'm spraying.

BG: Sure, sure. And you said you use a lot of air pressure tools in this place.

AH: I do.

BG: And that helps to?

AH: Mhm.

BG: The air pressure is what you use for the paint?

AH: Yeah. But it doesn't take very much. If those other guns where it's siphoned

out you know, where the cup is underneath, you have to spray with seventy pounds

or something like that with them and they'll blow up a lot of the stuff. The gun

I use I spray with eighteen pounds because it comes down from the top up, the

one I use comes over the top.

BG: Ok. What do you do, your wife said you get up and start working around 9,

and you work till about 2 o'clock.

AH: It just depends on how late I worked the night before. Sometimes I'm out

here by 7. If I worked until midnight then I'm not here until 9 or something. I

work a lot of times until 11 or 12 o'clock at night.

BG: Just straight through?

AH: Well, other than going in to eat and maybe sit around 30 minutes or something.

BG: Why?

AH: I've got that much to do. I've got to.

BG: Do you enjoy it?

AH: Not anymore. I did when first started. Just like anything else, it's a job.

When we were talking about playing, I don't play much anymore, but you know, by

the time you look at these all day, the last thing you want to do at night is

play, or on the weekend either. Frank told me that years ago. I don't care about

playing after I look at them and fool with them all day.

BG: Well it sounds like you are kind of in a bind then. You have to make a lot

to make a living, but making a lot has become work for you.

AH: Well, one of the things too is you have to kind of, when people order things

you have to roughly give them a date, a month at least, what month it will be

done. They want that, and I've always tried to stay within a couple of weeks or

something of what I tell them. I don't like to be six months later than what I

tell them. I know of people who are talking on Banjo Hangout

[] about ordering something in June and here it is September

and I haven't gotten it yet and they're upset you know, and they've already paid

a deposit.

BG: Where do you hear this?

AH: On Banjo Hangout.

BG: What's Banjo Hangout?

AH: It's a forum where you can get on and post and talk. That's probably done

more for me than anything. Banjo Hangout.

BG: Online?

AH: Yeah. They've got thousands and thousands of members all over the world.

BG: And it's done more for your business, and learning about what other people

are doing too?

AH: Well, yeah, people learning about me and stuff. Word of mouth goes farther

than anything, and it helps more than anything if it's good. If it's bad, it

hurts more than anything.

BG: Yeah.

AH: So that's, I try my best to keep it good.

BG: Do you see them talking about you on there every once in a while?

AH: All the time, but it's not bad.

BG: It's not bad?

AH: it's not bad.

BG: Do you get on there and answer them when they say something?

AH: Occasionally. I don't post very often, but I look at it almost every day,

just to see if anybody is talking bad about me. Because there is a lot of bad

talk about things.

BG: Do they say that somebody's banjo is bad, or that they aren't good to work

with or something?

AH: More so than saying the instrument's not good are people not doing what they

say they will or the time frame say they will. A lot of people are impatient you

know, if something is a week later than what it's promised then they are upset.

BG: What's it called? Banjo--?

AH: Banjo It's free. It's really a good thing because they've got,

you can advertise something to sell on there. Back several years ago it had

28,000 members, so I'm sure that it's a lot bigger than that now.

BG: Well that should give you a lot of business, huh?

AH: It does.

BG: I bet they get thrilled when you answer one of their emails.

AH: Well they don't, most of the time they don't actually direct anything, but

if they come and buy something then they'll say something about it being good,

and that the service was good, and sometimes I get on there and thank them.

BG: Do they talk about your beard and things?

AH: Sometimes! And people that know how, we don't know how, you can post

pictures on there and stuff. Sometimes they'll post a picture of what they've got.

BG: Yeah, well that's neat.

AH: It's called

BG: I might write a blog about this visit. Maybe you can put that on there.

AH: On Banjo Hangout?

BG: Yeah, a little link to it or something, if I write it I'll send a link to you.

AH: Ok.

BG: If I say something nice, right?

BG: So do you belong to a luthier group or anything like that?

AH: Nah, never even thought about nothing like that. I just work. Try to make a living.

BG: I've heard some jokes about banjo players.

AH: I've heard the ones about banjo players.

BG: Why do you think they get--?

AH: I don't know. They get more jokes than any other instrument, don't they?

BG: Yeah.

AH: For some reason. But you know way back in the old days, if you think about

it, before Earl Scruggs, almost everybody that played the banjo was a comedian.

BG: Grandpa Jones and Pappy Taylor, did you know him?

AH: Yeah, I know of him, and uncle Dave Macon.

BG: Yeah.

AH: You know, all those guys were comedians and I remember Earl saying somewhere

in an interview, I've heard him say it, that uncle Dave said, "You played the

banjo well son, but you're not one bit funny." See, they thought way back.

String Bean.

BG: Yeah, String Bean.

AH: All of those older people that played banjo before Earl were comedians that

I knew of, so I guess it was just thought you know, even after Earl started,

that you should be a comedian if you were going to play the banjo.

BG: And be made fun of.

AH: Yeah.

BG: Part of it is being made fun of.

AH: Of course, Earl was a very serious type guy. There wasn't anything funny at

all about Earl, but he'd say that uncle Dave told him that. When he did the Opry

with Bill Monroe he said, "You play the banjo well son, but you're not one bit

funny." It was automatically thought of that you ought to be funny if you played

the banjo.

BG: I hear jokes about the banjo players, but do you have jokes about the banjo itself?

AH: Well I've heard people say, "Why does, something about an onion makes you

cry when you cut up an onion, but when you cut up a banjo nobody cries" or

something like that.

BG: That's good. Does that bother you?

AH: No, it doesn't bother me.

BG: Do you think of banjos as a good instrument?

AH: Yeah, I love them.

BG: So you still love them, even though--

AH: Oh yeah, yeah. You just get tired of seeing them all the time. You know, you

get up and start that first thing in the morning, and that will be the last

thing before you go to bed, they get pretty old.

BG: Do you think making banjos has made you a better banjo player?

AH: Made me a worse banjo player.

BG: Why?

AH: Because, I have less desire to play them than I did. A lot. I'm a lot worse

banjo player after I started this.

BG: Well, I know a lot of people think you are pretty good.

AH: But age is not improving playing either. It just doesn't go well with fast

banjo playing, old age.

BG: I saw you a couple of years ago down in Hyden at a Bluegrass festival, the

Osborne Brother's festival I guess it was, and you had a tent there and you were

selling instruments out of there I guess. Do you do that often?

AH: I go to two or three a year. I go to Spigman, Nashville in February, and I

go to the Osborne Brother's festival, and I've been going to the Salt Lick

Bluegrass Festival up in Shepherdsville in February. It's inside. Tommy Brown

hosts that.

BG: And what's the idea of you going?

AH: Actually, I like to take two or three banjos you know, and a lot of times I

don't sell one there on the spot, but I'll sell one later because of being

there. But you just need to be out and be seen occasionally at places like that

because it kind of keeps you in peoples minds. I would go more if I had time,

but I really don't have time.

BG: I was just wondering if it cuts into your time.

AH: Oh it does, definitely.

BG: When we had you at the folk festival [Kentucky Folklife Festival] it was

kind of a different thing. We were actually paying you to demonstrate too, and

talk to people about the art of it. Did you find that fun to do or was it kind

of bothersome?

AH: After long enough it gets to where everything is just a job. You know?

BG: Yeah.

AH: Playing and then building and the whole deal. When you're young, I think

playing is kind of fun. When you get older, it becomes work because you don't

feel the same.

BG: You don't feel the same. What do you mean?

AH: Well, you get tired easily. It doesn't take very much to wear me out anymore

and going places like that and toting banjos and stuff wears me out a lot worse

than working in here.

BG: Aren't there moments when you're on stage when you feel really good about

being there?

AH: Yeah. Probably.

BG: That's what we all think when we are in the audience. We all want to be up

there being you. Don't tell me that you think it's just a job.

AH: I think everybody, after they do it a long time, it's just becomes a job.

BG: Yeah.

AH: Just like working. It is work, and very hard work for a length of time.

BG: But, if you had to do this versus another job, you wouldn't want to do it, right?

AH: No, I wouldn't want to go back to cabinetmaking. No way. There's no harder

physical work. This isn't hard physical work. It's hard mentally.

BG: It is? Why?

AH: Well, one little bobble can cost you a whole bunch of money. It's the

hardest thing mentally I've ever done, but physically it's easy. It's harder to

go to sleep doing this than it is out in a tobacco patch or hay field. You know,

if you go out and cut tobacco all day or haul hay, you are going to sleep come

night. And if you get to think about something that doesn't suit you on this, or

something, you are likely to stay awake and study on it all night. If you've got

some little problem with something, that you haven't gotten figured out exactly

what you are going to do about, then you'll get to studying about that and the

main time you'll study about it mostly is when you try to go to sleep seems

like, because you've got idle time.

BG: Yeah. I do that too. I gotta read something, or talk to my wife or something

about it.

AH: Same deal here. As long as everything is going good and smooth and you are

meeting schedule on everything you are supposed to do it's not that bad, but

when you see you are behind and wondering how you are going to get three banjos by--

BG: What do you think like, when you had your banjo in our exhibit, and now many

in Horse Cave, and some little kid comes up and looks at it and just gets amazed

and wants to do something like that, do you feel good about that?

AH: Yeah. Yeah I do.

BG: Because that happened a lot at the exhibit. People would come up and say,

"Wow." Kids would just look at it, adults would to, but I think that's pretty neat.

AH: So many people say, "I couldn't do that," but you know, they don't know they

couldn't because they've never tried. It's not anything I don't think that about

anybody couldn't learn. Most people don't have enough interest in it. It's easy

to say I wish I could do that, but actually doing that. That's just like

playing. A lot of people say, "Well I tried to play the guitar, or the banjo,

and I never could learn anything on it," and I'll say, "Well how long did you

try?" Well, a few hours-- You aren't going to learn how to play anything in a

few hours, are you?

BG: No. But you have to have that deep interest in it to stay with it.

AH: Yeah. With this, just like playing, you know.

BG: Why do you have a deep interest in this? Do you know?

AH: I always just liked, I like the woodworking part. Now I hate finish work. I

hate spraying and sanding between coats, I fairly hate finishing. I always did

in cabinets even. I like the way things look once they are finished, but I hate

getting it there. But I actually like woodwork. Not just setting for hours

sanding on a neck, but I like shaping the neck, like I can pretty much enjoy

doing this when I get started on that. That doesn't bother me because I know

just what I'm going to do and that it's going to turn out ok. Like, when you

spray a finish on it's mercy; you don't know if it's going to blister, you don't

know if a gnat is going to come and jump in it, and that you'll have to sand

that out, you know.

BG: Or if the temperature is right.

AH: Yeah, and the humidity. Of course, I've got a dehumidifier in here and if

the humidity in here gets over 70 percent you can figure it's going to look like milk.

BG: Really?

AH: Instead of shiny. It will look, turn kind of white. They call it blushing,

but that's what it will look like. I've got a little barometer over there that I

can check the humidity when I get ready to spray and I've got a dehumidifier. Of

course, the air conditioner in the summer time when I run that pretty much takes care--

BG: Of the humidity? Yeah. Are you getting close to being done with that?

AH: Yeah, I don't like very much.

BG: I'd like to record the finish of it, but how far are you from that?

AH: Well, probably-- Well, I've got one little place right here that, I don't

think it would ever show, but I want to put some filler in that and lay it up to dry.

BG: Oh, ok.

AH: It won't show once the banjo is put together, but I'd still rather have it

not there.

BG: Well, I think we got enough. Is there anything else you want to say?

AH: Thank you all for doing the interview. It was good to see you again.

BG: Yeah.

AH: It was nice meeting you.

SA: Yeah.

AH: I guess that's about all.

BG: All right, thank you.

SA: I just need to get some room tone.