Born in 1945 in Watauga County’s Bethel community, Charlie Glenn learned how to make banjos and dulcimers from Stanley Hicks, a well-known instrument builder and humorous character who was the uncle of Charlie’s wife Shirley. Charlie first became fascinated with building instruments when he visited a community barber, Willie Glenn, who made instruments in his basement. His grandfather had also made a banjo, which Charlie often admired as it hung on his grandmother’s wall.
Around 1968 Charlie made his first banjo with Stanley Hicks‘ help. The “fretless mountain banjo” that Stanley taught Charlie to make is a particular style of banjo that has been a tradition in Watauga County. After a few years, Charlie also began to make mountain lap dulcimers, an instrument that was quite popular during the folk revival. Years later, with the help of local luthier, Alfred Michels, Charlie made his first fiddle. “Without Alfred,” says Charlie, “I never would have finished my first fiddle.”
Over the years Charlie has adapted his instruments adding frets to most of the banjos he makes, refining the banjo neck to use less wood, and changing the angle between the banjo’s neck and head to increase the pressure from the strings helping to keep the bridge from moving around while the banjo is played. “I don’t make them with the patterns that I first started,” he says. “We left a lot more wood in the necks than necessary. Everybody I know that kept building kept refining their instruments.”
In addition to making instruments, Charlie also builds wooden coffin cases for his fiddles and dulcimers. He has lined a few of the instrument cases with old Sears and Roebuck catalog pages, adding to the old-timey feel. Charlie was a plumber for thirty years, but now spends his free time making instruments and working on old cars. Charlie lives in the Beech Creek Community where his wife Shirley was raised. Charlie and Shirley are very knowledgeable about Watauga County music and dance traditions, particularly those of the Beech Mountain Community where Shirley’s family lived. “Her whole family was involved with old-time music,” Charlie says. “Of course, they didn’t know it was old-time music; it was just music.”
Charlie has taught a course for Caldwell Tech Community College’s Watauga County campus on how to build mountain style fretless banjos. He would consider teaching a class or hosting workshops on building instruments. He is also available to display his instruments at festivals, craft shows, and other events.