By Melanie Crownover
Jeremy Rushing knew what he wanted to do when he returned to Tupelo at age 24. After years following the Grateful Dead and Phish, hopping freight trains and communing with hippies all over the country, Rushing settled into the auto body work program at Itawamba Community College with visions of restoring vintage hot rods and Harleys.
Twelve years later, a handful of motorcycle tanks and helmets waiting to be pinstriped still crowd the tables of his two 20-by-20-foot backyard workshops in Eupora. But it’s the handmade instruments in various states of construction on which he is now focused.
Rushing, a self-taught banjo player and guitarist, bought his first band saw, Dremel tool and drill press to make a banjo for himself five years ago.
“Someone wanted to buy it from me for a decent amount, so I sold it and used the money to buy more tools and supplies to build another.” Rushing said. “When I sold that one just as quick, I decided maybe I should build instruments instead of working at a body shop.”
Rushing began buying any instrument he could find to tear apart, inspect and rebuild.
“In lutherie [stringed instrument making], not a lot of people will help you and hand out those secrets. You hit a closed door. Some will even tell you the wrong thing to do just to throw you, so I had to figure it out the hard way,” he said.
He found that most instrument makers do wrapped rims or steam-bent slat rims using more glue, which affects sound. They use routers and computer-operated machines to shape instrument necks with ease and efficiency.
But Rushing doesn’t take shortcuts in his craft. He builds his banjos differently, starting with raw chunks of maple, mahogany, walnut, ash or swamp cypress wood. Small angular pieces are glued together in the shape of a stop sign to make a preliminary block rim. He then spins the rim on a wood lathe and shaves it with a chisel to shape it into a circular banjo body.
Necks are roughly cut and hand-shaved with spokeshaves, rasps and chisels. On each instrument, the inlay, pearl fretwork and any engraving is handcrafted.
Rushing has no back stock cluttering his shop, just the few instruments he’s made for himself and whatever he’s building. And style reproductions or repeats are off-limits.
“When things are no longer one of a kind and you start making just one thing you’re no longer an artist; you’re a manufacturer,” he said. “People come to me because they can customize their instrument like a tattoo. I even get them to send me music they play and examples of the artists they love before I start.”
Rushing usually spends two weeks in his workshop on each project, clad in overalls and blaring outlaw country music. The craft comes so innately to him now that he can tap the body of the instrument while it’s on the lathe and tell what it will sound like from the timbre of the “knock note.”
His instruments are favorites of artists such as Joey Fortner from Soldier’s Heart on Discovery Channel’s “Hillbilly Blood,” folk musician Dylan Valvo and Frankie Revell with the Lickety Split Banjo Boys. Rushing offers his banjos to musicians at a folk school in New York and Tweed Recording in Oxford.
“He’s a phenomenal luthier who makes quality instruments,” Tweed owner Andrew Ratcliffe said. “Several people have tracked on the banjo we keep at the studio for different records, and they always are impressed by the craftsmanship and how easy it is to play.”
Now that he’s in tune with banjos, Rushing is also building acoustic, electric and lap steel guitars.
Rushing posts shots of his latest creations on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr to keep in touch with his growing band of followers. “Every day is a learning day here,” he said. “I thought this would give me more time to pick when I started, but it’s the opposite. I do more building and less jamming. But that’s OK. I think I’m a better builder than a picker.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the February issue of the magazine Invitation Tupelo.