Jaroslav Prucha has faith that the notoriously tradition-bound bluegrass field will continue to accept his Czech-made instruments, setting aside their general insistence for vintage instruments or others made to look and sound like those played by the music’s founders.
“Everything is moving,” he said. “The sound of banjos is different.”
Prucha makes banjos and mandolins in Prague with his girlfriend and son. He was in Raleigh at the World of Bluegrass trade show this week. It’s one of two or three trips to bring instruments to the United States each year, complete with negotiations with customs officials.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Prucha, whose banjos go for between $2,500 and $10,000. “Everything has to be official.”
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The trade show has much more than instruments – there are booths for instrument stand makers, amplifier and tuner manufacturers, booking agents, publications, associations and performers.
Mandolinist Mike Compton, who often plays with Raleigh’s Joe Newberry, sat at the booth for his all-star Helen Highwater String Band on Thursday, playing a beautiful bluegrass waltz with bandmate Shad Cobb. How much time was Compton going to spend at the booth?
“Eternity,” he said, laughing.
On the vintage side, a visitor could drop $175,000 on a 1924 Gibson F5 mandolin, which was making its second trip to the Raleigh trade show. Its attraction to potential buyers includes its similarity to the model played by bluegrass founder Bill Monroe and the 90 years it has spent on this earth.
“There’s no substitute for time on an instrument,” said Chris Beyer, manning the booth and keeping an eye on the mandolin, for Lansing, Mich.-based Elderly Instruments.
At a booth for Asheville-based Bee 3 instruments, dealer Gary Burnett said the mountain city is on fire with people playing bluegrass, old-time and all sorts of acoustic-based styles.
“Asheville’s always been a great place for acoustic music,” Burnett said.
Bee 3 had a gaggle of vintage Martin guitars, some from the 1950s and ’60s, in the $5,000-$6,000 range. He was unwilling to have a price published for a 1939 Martin D-18 with an unusual “sunburst” finish, but conceded that it would cost more than a minimum-wage employee would make in a year.
As the tag on the guitar noted, that kind of quality is “expensive.”