I was born June 29, 1936 to Furches and Zena Douglas Taylor. We lived in the very rural community of McGrady, NC. My family of brothers and sisters were Clive (oldest), Lydia, Junior, me, and Mary Sue. We were all born at home with a midwife. I was born during the Big Depression and it was tough in order to make it. We all had to pull together. The Lord said he would make a way and He did. We have really been blessed down through the years.
But, let us go back to 1951. In the month of March my Dad died on the 17th day of that month. That was the saddest day of my life. I cried so much that I could cry no more. I was so close to my Dad. I was only 14 when my Dad passed away.
Early Years with Music
I became interested in music at the age of 7 or 8 years old. My Dad had an old battery powered radio, and sometimes he would let us listen to it, but not very often, it would run the battery down. Sometimes when Dad was out of the house, my little sister and I would slip and turn on the radio and if we could find any music, I would get one of Mom’s pots and turn it upside down and keep time on it.
I guess I was around 9 or 10 when I heard that my Uncle Walter had bought a brand new Gibson banjo. So one day I had a chance to go over to his house and see the new banjo. I asked him if I could hold it, he said “yes, but don’t drop it.” I said I would take care of it. I guess I had the banjo in my hands no more than 30 to 45 minutes when I was already playing Cripple Creek. I knew then that I was born to play music. Sometime after that I was able to make a trade with a man for a homemade banjo. It had no frets on the neck and the head was made out of groundhog hide, but it had a good sound.
I messed around with this little banjo for awhile. So one day my brother-in-law Charlie gave me a better one. It was a claw hammer type banjo with an open back. I loved playing so much it was hard for me to lay it down. It got so bad that my Mom would run me out of the house and I would get me a chair and go to the woods. I would sit there for hours and play… I hope the animals liked it, because my Mom didn’t.
I guess it was around 1952 or 1953 when I got my first real banjo, a RB100 Gibson. That was the banjo that I played out in Knoxville with Red Speaks and also with Mac Wiseman in Richmond, Virginia. I had the same banjo when I went into the US Army.
When I was about 11 or 12 years old I started going to the old WKBC Radio Station in North Wilkesboro, NC. I would go barefooted and in my overalls to hear the live music programs that went out. LW. Lambert was the first banjo player that I remember hearing. He helped me on the banjo when no one else would. He was as close to me as a dad. This would have been sometime in the late ’40s. I kept going there until I was about 17.
When I turned 16, I went to Knoxville, Tennessee to play with Red Speaks. I was out there for a while, but we finally got to where we could get no show dates. I was out of money and the people I was staying with said I had to get out. So I had no choice. I packed up what few things I had and hit the road. I started hitchhiking and caught several rides between Knoxville and McGrady. The only thing I had to eat for three days was a pack of cheese crackers and a RC Cola, nothing else for three days. I can tell you something… the music business is not all that people think it is. You are on the road just about all the time, traveling all over the country, and sometimes you are out all times of the night. You do not eat right or sleep enough. But, if music is your life, that’s what you gotta do. In this business, there are hard times and good times.
Later, one day in Wilkes, L.W. Lambert told me he had received a telegram from Mac Wiseman to come to Richmond and join his band, that he was in a bad need of a banjo player. L.W. said he could not go because he had a small child and wanted to stay with his wife and child. He asked me if I would be interested in the job. I said “Yes” so he gave me the information and I contacted Mac and got the job.
A few days after that I left for Richmond. Mac was then playing on the Old Dominion Barn Dance at WRVA Radio in Richmond. Josh Graves was playing the dobro with us at that time. We traveled in a station wagon and played lots of drive-in theaters and quite a few outside parks and stage shows. I was paid around $75.00 per week, and that was good money back then. I guess I worked with Mac about six months and decided to go back home. I was not a big man when I left home and when I returned, I was 30 pounds lighter. The lifestyle really took a toll on me.
I was working at the American Drew plant, just over the street from this library. I volunteered before the draft came up. After I turned 18 in 1954, I went in Uncle Sam’s Army and served two years. I rode the bus to Charlotte with lots more men. We went through all that rigmarole down there… in my birthday suit! They cut ALL of our hair off, but one sprig left on the back of my head. A boy took a knife and cut it off.
Basic training took place at Fort Jackson, just outside of Columbia, SC. That was 8 weeks. I had a Black, mean drill sergeant. He would scream loud right in front of boys’ faces. That was tough, boy. He was tough. He had to be! We did the infiltration course: crawling with bullets flying over our heads, going by holes with bombs and made by bombs, by barbed wire, and many obstacles. Better not stand up!
From there we went to Fort Bliss, Texas for 8 weeks. We were out on the field a lot, especially to White Sands proving grounds in New Mexico. One storm came up, one like I’d never seen before. It was all sand. It blew our pup tents away. Sand burned our skin and got into our eyes and ears.
Next was Fort Stewart in Georgia. When I got there, it was a camp, but they made it a fort while we were there. That’s where I spent the rest of my military service time. There were BIG guns there.
There was this one time I got a weekend pass and decided to go home. I rode the bus into Statesville, but we didn’t get there until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning! I went to hitchhiking. This one car stopped and it was full of girls, 5 or 6 of ’em. I decided not to get in the car with them. A little while later, along came a car full of boys. They asked me if I’d seen a carful of girls. I said yes. They didn’t even offer me a ride, but that’s okay. I was scared of both those cars! I ended up getting a ride from another man headed to North Wilkesboro.
While I was in service, I was with a military bluegrass band. We had GOOD band in Georgia and did a lot of shows. Our band leader was Billy Mitchell from Tennessee. Billy was a good musician and a good leader with it. He’s an evangelist now. The other boys, 7 or 8 of ’em, were from all different states, from Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and North Carolina to Kentucky. The fiddle player was from Texas. Our bass player had been playing with Faron Young. All those boys I played with were good musicians. Most often we played the NCO clubs and PX. Darn good bluegrass band!
While in service I received a telegram from Wilma lee and Stoney Cooper offering me a joy playing the banjo with them. At that time, they were on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, but I was tied up with Uncle Sam’s Army, so I could not make it.
Once I got another weekend pass in 1956 and met Charlie Monroe’s booking agent at a bus stop in Winston-Salem. Charlie was Bill’s brother and pretty popular. He told me Charlie needed a banjo player. I said I would be glad to take the job. For awhile, Charlie was telling me where to go and what to do, but I was in the Army and couldn’t do it all. I wasn’t on TV a couple of times.
I started dating a girl down there in Georgia. She “supposed” we were going to get married on the day I was discharged. She came from a prominent family in the area. When the day came, I had changed my mind and skedaddled my way home!
Musical Life Resumes
So in 1957 I was working with Charlie. He was based in Mt. Airy and was working with WPAQ Radio, and he was also doing a TV show at WSJS in Winston-Salem and another show at Channel 7 in Roanoke, Virginia.
In the late 1960s I played and recorded with the Easter Brothers from Mt. Airy, NC. We played shows all over the country and I have never worked with a better group than the Easter Brothers. We also recorded video tapes.
I met my wife, Avelene, in 1960. We were riding on the Parkway bus that ran from North Wilkesboro to McGrady. Back then you could ride to town and back for $1, now you can’t buy a soda pop for that price. We started talking and I asked her if I could come over and see her sometime. She said I don’t care much about boys, but I guess that will be alright. So we set a date and I went to see her. After the first date, we were together a lot. So in June 1960 we got married. After a while, our kids came along. The first was a boy, Jimmy Darien. He was born early, at 6 months, and weighed only 1½ pounds. He was the first baby to use the new isolet at Wilkes General Hospital. Everything worked out fine. The next one was another boy, Johnny Baron. He too was born early, but he did not make it. He only lived a few hours. I didn’t think we would have any more kids, but 12 years later another one came along, this time a girl, Sandy. My children are grown now with children of their own, and I even have a great-grandson, Bobby Aubree Rae. Luckily my children can play music too.
My Life as a Minister
After I gave my life to Jesus Christ, my whole life changed. I wasn’t the same any more. I wanted to be an evangelist and travel. I wanted to see people I had never seen and do things I had never done. Jesus said go unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. So with the banjo around my neck and a Bible in my hand I hit the road big time.
One night we were in this little church in Mt. Airy, and I was supposed to minister that night. When I stood up before the people, I didn’t have anything on my mind, and all at once it came up a bad thunderstorm. There was one light over my head, hanging from a cord, and hooked to another light beside it. All of a sudden all the lights in the church went out except for the one over my head, it was still burning. God gave me a message like I had never had before. After the service was over the Pastor checked the fuses (they were the screw in type) and every one of them was blowed. There was no way the light should have been burning. I could go on and on telling you what God has done. His miracles never stop!
The Bible and The Banjo
Johnnie and friends and family put together a wonderful book entitled The Bible and the Banjo published in 2015. You can check out a copy at Wilkes County Public Library, where Johnnie’s CDs can also be checked out to enjoy. Parts of this archive for Johnnie came from his book.
The book contains many moving and also funny stories that bring Johnnie’s personality to light. I met him because he brought a copy by for the library. He came one evening to talk about it and sign copies.
I was privileged to interview him for this Veterans History Project. When we visited at the library, no fewer than four folks came in with a resounding, “Hey, Johnnie! I haven’t seen you in forever!” In other words, he’s a well-known and special local celebrity. One gentleman referred to Johnnie’s work in the local prison ministry. Another talked about his radio commercial for a local supermarket. Another asked if he still had a certain banjo. Another once showed Johnnie how to lay stone properly and he used that skill on homes around Wilkes County.
Great stories just come to light from Johnnie. Here’s a quick one. His brother Junior was called “June” and he would run off from the house playing. The family had a dog that was particularly fond of June and was always by his side… sometimes very close to Highway 18. But everyone walked back then. If Mom Zena wanted June to come on home, she hollered for the dog.
His voice resonates in many ways. It’s a special man who has walked in all the “uniforms” of this one — from overalls, to US Army, to string tie — and ALWAYS with a banjo strapped around his shoulder.
Bless the big heart of Johnnie Taylor! — Mara Lynn Tugman, Librarian