Dan Isaacs, a Watauga County native, grew up hearing the sounds of mountain music in his family and community. He became interested in the banjo when he was a boy, listening to his grandfather, Shields Christian. “He played an old-time lick called the frail on his 1926 Gretsch five-string banjo,” says Dan, who inherited and still plays the instrument on occasion. “Grandad Christian would sit on the porch and play ‘Cripple Creek,’ ‘Johnson Boys,’ and all those old-timey tunes, and just frail the daylights out of that banjo,” Dan says. “It is still today an unforgettable, memorable, beautiful sound.”
When Dan decided he needed a banjo, he and his grandmother Isaacs cut a load of spearmint from the nearby creek bank, and sold two hemp sacks full of the dried herb to a local merchant. Dan’s take was around three dollars. His relative Ora Isaacs Payne (Watson) mentioned that her father, Arthur Isaacs, had an old-time groundhog-head, homemade banjo constructed by Smith Johnson, and Dan bought it for a dollar and a half. Dan’s great uncle Dock Isaacs made tuning pegs and helped him get the instrument strung and set up for playing. On that day, with several relatives gathered on Uncle Dock’s porch, Dan tried mimicking the styles he had heard his older relatives play, including Great-Uncle Dock (who was present). “That’s when one of my relatives told me ‘You’ll never learn to play that thing,'” Dan remembers. The comment was just the motivation Dan needed to learn. With time and practice, Dan learned the drop-thumb clawhammer lick on the banjo. Dan was encouraged by many family members, aunts, uncles, both grandfathers, and most of all by his cousin Ora Watson.
During his military service in the 1960s, he bought a new Gibson RB 500 gold-plated banjo. He studied Earl Scruggs‘ Foggy Mountain Banjo album and three-finger style. Dan had the opportunity to hear Thursday-night performances at the Shamrock Inn in Washington, DC, where the Country Gentlemen played regularly. It was there that Bill Emerson played a set on stage using Dan’s new banjo.
After military service, Dan returned to Watauga County where he worked at his old school, Cove Creek, as a physical education instructor and coach for thirty-two years. Dan played mostly banjo, both bluegrass and old-time, and some fiddle, over the next three decades with such groups as the Dog Skin Ramblers, the Valley Mountain Travelers, Clint and Clarence Howard and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, and Naomi and the Home Folks. While playing with Clint and Clarence Howard, Dan had the opportunity to record several albums, including one with Doc Watson. At present, Dan plays the banjo (both in bluegrass and clawhammer styles), fiddle, and harmonica with Watauga and Ashe County groups. He also participates in many local jam sessions.
Dan Isaacs is available for performances and demonstrations, and can fill in on banjo, fiddle, and harmonica with local groups. He will also consider requests for elementary school programs.