“This is where I feel like I belong; this is where my heart is,” says multi-talented, John Peterson of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina. John fell in love with the mountain folk music, storytelling, dance calling, and instrument building traditions as a student and young professional in the museum and education fields, and today he continues these traditions full-time from his home in Todd, NC, primarily as a mountain-style banjo builder.
John moved to Watauga County as a 10-year-old, when his father got a job at Appalachian State University. Ten years later, when John was a student at Appalachian studying computer science, he received his first guitar for a birthday gift. “I realized I didn’t want to spend my career sitting behind a computer,” John recalls. He moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he started learning to play the guitar. He was also listening to Doc Watson recordings and missing home in the North Carolina mountains. John returned to Appalachian to study Cultural Anthropology and Appalachian Studies.
During this time, John discovered an unfinished dulcimer kit in his father’s garage. After putting the instrument together, John sought out lessons and found both Mary Greene and the Appalachian Cultural Museum. Mary would become a close friend and musical mentor, and the museum became John’s calling. He spent time volunteering, then interning, then working as the Education Director for the Appalachian Cultural Museum and later the Hickory Ridge Homestead Living History Museum. During this time, John spent a lot of time with local storytellers, musicians, and craftsmen, like Orville Hicks, Ray Hicks, Frank Proffitt Jr., Leonard and Clifford Glenn, Stanley Hicks, and Ed Presnell.
After a decade working in the museums in Boone, John and his wife moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue her teaching career. In Fargo, John continued his museum work and also developed his performing career. “There was a lot of bluegrass music, but I was about the only one playing old-time and mountain folk music,” John says. “And, I always made it a point to play instruments made from people I knew, so I could talk about them.” John would banjos made by Stanley Hicks and Clifford Glenn, and one time an audience member asked John if he could make him a banjo. “I said sure and gave it a try,” he recalls. “The first one was pretty rough, but I made a website with a picture of it, and a few weeks later got a call for another order.” The second banjo was much improved, and the buyer posted a video of himself playing a tune on the banjo. Soon, John was getting orders rolling in for more mountain-style fretless banjos.
John moved back to Watauga County in 2012, and he has continued honing his banjo building skills. In the spring of 2017, John was nearing his 600th banjo. John sells banjos, and information is available on his website. He is also happy and willing to share knowledge with interested mountain-style banjo makers. John also continues performing as a solo artist and with various string band combinations. John plays guitar, banjo, dulcimer, and harmonica, and his repertoire is largely comprised of local and regional music from the Blue Ridge area. John is an experienced storyteller, mostly performing Jack Tales, which he primarily learned from Orville and Ray Hicks. John also calls square dances, circle dances, and some simple contradances. John enjoys performing when he has an opportunity to blend music and storytelling.