It all started with Greg and Janet Deering’s friendship withJohn Hartford, a friendship that began over 30 years ago when Greg worked with John to design and build his first signature Hartford Model banjo. John’s Deering low banjo was an iconic part of his sound for many years and was an inspiration for many banjo players. Alison was one of those inspired by John’s unique voice on the banjo. As a proud owner of John’s prototype Deering low banjo, a long time friend of the Hartford family, as well as a fellow San Diegan, it seemed fitting for Alison to reach out to the Deerings to collaborate on an updated version of John’s original low banjo.
The new Julia Belle Banjo is a testament not only to Alison’s friendship with John, but also to his music and his art. John actually attended art school and over the course of his life made countless sketches of the things that he loved including the riverboats which fascinated him. The Hartford family graciously gave Alison permission to peruse their personal collection of his sketches, allowing her to choose the images that spoke to her. As she poured over John’s drawings, the design concept for the new banjo took shape.
When Alison discovered John’s enigmatic sketch of a woman in a flowing dress she knew the new banjo needed to be called The Julia Belle. The mysterious, faceless lady fits perfectly on the peghead and has been brought to life with with flowing copper hair and an elegant blue dress. John’s sketch of Captain Trone, the captain of the famous Mississippi riverboat The Julia Belle Swain and the man who taught John to pilot the paddlewheeler, adorns the third fret and an inlay based on an original pattern from the now famous riverboat adorns the rear of the peghead and also frames Alison’s signature. One of John’s riverboat sketches is inlaid at the 12th fret and, at the 22nd fret, the name Julia Belle is immortalized in John’s own handwriting.
Tonally, The Julia Belle is specifically designed to shine when played in lower tunings such as E or D, though she does sound wonderful when played in standard G tuning. She is made of mahogany which brings out a beautiful warmth, and also boasts a radiused fingerboard and a brand new head design by Evans that recreates the fat, full tones of the original 5 Star heads. This head is a bit thicker than a standard head and that helps to bring out the deeper tones that Alison loves in a banjo.
“I love my banjos to sound as warm and full as possible. I think that tone tends to draw people in, particularly folks who are not that familiar with the banjo or are put off by the traditional bright, poppy bluegrass banjo sound,” Brown explains.
Underneath the head, a Deering -06- Tone Ring is fitted perfectly to the rim. The banjo is capped off with Alison’s preferred string gauges for The Julia Belle (12 14 20w 24w 12) all of which help to reveal a banjo with a brilliant tone that is complimented by an underlying depth and body that is irresistible. In a twist to John’s original banjo, Alison also opted for two extra frets with an overhanging fingerboard, giving the player two octaves and a whole new playing field!
“In my opinion, there’s nothing like a low banjo to open up a player’s creativity. The low resonance gives the banjo a solo voice that is so comfortable and inspiring to play that I find myself reaching for it often to play around the house. It’s a great tool in band settings and in the studio too, especially when you need to play in D, E or F but really want to hear the open sound of a G roll.” - Allison Brown
"Alison Brown was kind enough to let me play her Julia Belle banjo on the John Hartford song 'Way Down the River Road’ on our new Compass release Rivers and Roads. I have played banjos tuned low on other recordings but the phenomenal rich and full tone of the Julia Belle, while keeping the "cut" on this up-tempo song, absolutely knocked my socks off. I couldn't put the banjo down - it is so easy to play! I played it on another song on the recording (Bought and Sold) and when I heard the final mixes I contacted Janet and Jamie to order my very own Julia Belle. It has such a wonderful unique sound and is a lasting tribute to our brilliant musical hero, John Hartford.” – Greg Cahill