Bluegrass musician and instrument builder
West Jefferson, NC (Ashe County)
Jim Brooks played bluegrass music for more than sixty years, and he continued to perform with a group of local musicians from Ashe County in his later years. Jim started playing bluegrass banjo with his brother Harold when he was just ten years old. "We used to listen to Lester [Flatt] and Earl [Scruggs] on the Farm and Fun Time radio program out of Bristol," he recalled. "We would go to schools and hear them perform, learning a little each time." Harold played guitar, and the two played as the Brooks Brothers, with other musicians from Ashe County including Herb Hooven, who later played fiddle with Jimmy Martin, and Raymond Pennington, a relative of Ashe County banjo player Larry Pennington.
"We played around the county until we got old enough to get a job," Jim said. With few jobs available then in Ashe County, Jim and Harold moved to Maryland, an area that had attracted many job seekers from Northwest North Carolina. The brothers found work driving trucks, and they played a lot of music on the side. After performing at Ola Belle Reed's music venue, Sunset Park, the brothers were invited to join Reed's band, and they performed with her for six years.
Jim returned to Ashe County in 1960. Over the years he worked for a power company, the local copper mine, and later with an electronics company. He continued to play bluegrass music with various groups, including the Tar Heel Travelers out of Winston-Salem, with whom he played for fifteen years. The band played at parties, dances, and festivals all over the region. Jim competed at many fiddlers' conventions, and had a wall full of ribbons to show for his efforts.
In addition to banjo, Jim learned to play mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. After suffering a stroke in the late 1990s, he stopped playing banjo and mandolin. "I got to fooling with the fiddle some," Jim said, and he began concentrating on the fiddle. In his later year, Jim led a band called Jim Brooks and Mountain Drive with fellow Ashe County musicians J. C. Kemp, Steve Lewis, Mark Hodgeson, and Harold Dean Miller. The group performed regularly at the Clifton Fish Fry and other area events.
In addition to playing music, Jim built instruments, including about a dozen banjos and mandolins and several guitars and fiddles. "I don't advertise them, but if someone comes by and wants to trade or buy one, that is okay," Jim said. Mostly self-taught, Jim had some help from luthiers Wayne Henderson and Dean Clawson. He enjoyed building instruments, even though it was an arduous and time-consuming task. "It's a job making them by hand," he said. "You just have to work until you get nervous, then pick it up again later."
Jim Brooks passed away on October 21, 2009.
Note: "Historic Artist" designates one who is deceased but whose legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations.