Local musician Jeff Roberts is one of the hottest banjoists in the area

Jeff Roberts, or "Old Blue Eyes," as some of us call him, is still the best five-string banjo player in town. Jazz pianist Steve Schmidt drops by Roberts' regular Kaldi's gig occasionally on Tuesday

Aug 24, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Jeff Roberts, or "Old Blue Eyes," as some of us call him, is still the best five-string banjo player in town. Jazz pianist Steve Schmidt drops by Roberts' regular Kaldi's gig occasionally on Tuesday nights.

"I like to hear how he uses the supporting chords," Steve said once. Jazz guitarist Kenny Poole is an admirer, as is Cal Collins. Wayne Clyburn, who is a fine Scruggs-style banjo player himself, says, "As far as I'm concerned, Jeff is an outstanding banjo player. A lot of his ability comes from being able to sing. I'd be happy if I were as good."

You probably won't see Jeff's name in any of those ballots for "Best Instrumentalist." But everybody knows he is one.

Jeff plays with more bite these days than he did when he was younger, but he still plays intuitively; and though he's never studied music theory, for the most part he understands the subtle harmonies that make up Bluegrass as well as anyone I know.

The relationship between him and his banjo is Zen-like — his mantra is "Thumb, Index and Middle," the cornerstone for the Earl Scruggs forward roll.

If you want to play the banjo, it comes in handy if you're obsessive. J.D. Crowe, a Lexington banjo legend, used to get up at 4:30 in the morning and start practicing 'til the school bus came. The minute he was off the schoolbus in the afternoon, he went right back to the banjo.

Jeff was a lot like that. He slept with his banjo at his bedside during marathon periods of playing, working on that forward roll in jam sessions for eight hours without even looking up. He had wanted to play the banjo ever since he saw one in a book when he was three years old. One year, he got a toy guitar for Christmas.

"I tore it up," he says, with a wicked gleam in his eye, "because I knew it wasn't the real thing."

He was always shy as a young man and, in the early days, he did some of his best work as far away as he could get from the microphone: back-up work that sounded too sweet to be done by a banjo, and endings that finished the song like a cherry on a sundae. Doubtlessly, being part of a musical family helped, and Jeff came from Crab Orchard, Ky., from a family of excellent singers.

Crab Orchard is a small town like Mayberry, where Jeff's idol Andy Griffith, lived. And like Andy, Jeff doesn't drink or smoke. He jogs four miles a day and is as lean as a rail. He goes to church regularly. Sometimes on Saturday night, he'll jokingly beg off taking down the sound system. "Aw," he'll say, "it's just that it's my turn to get the snakes ready for church in the morning." In short, he seems to suffer none of the tortures of the creative person.

If you want to find Jeff's white underbelly, look in the direction of his wallet. His best friend, fiddler Buddy Griffin, who was always borrowing money from him in their salad days, dubbed him the "Pound o' Flesh Savings and Loan," and the title has stuck. Several months ago, he searched piled up leaves in the parking lot at the Ft. Mitchell's Kroger while his wife, Ginger, was inside shopping, and he found $41 and change.

"People just let money slip through their fingers," he said, outraged. "I can't believe it!" When Jeff found out that the biggs store in Northern Kentucky paid a quarter if you returned your cart to the rack he got his three stepsons, Joey, Adam and Steve, to help him, and they soon had a conga line of grocery baskets snaking through the parking lot. They made upwards of $9 for a couple hours' work.

One night I rode to a job with Bill LeWarre, accomplished mandolin player and advertising hot-shot in his black BMW, sunk into the rich leather, listening to Bluegrass on the world's greatest automobile sound system. The conversation turned to one of Jeff's latest outrageous money capers — checking phone booths for returned quarters or feeling in the crevices of upholstered furniture for change that might have dropped out of someone's pockets. Bill said to me, "Jeff's got every penny he ever earned," and he looked at me sideways with his gray eyes, full of rings of wisdom, like a tree. "He'll probably die when he's about 95 in a Wal-Mart parking lot."

Jeff's dad has a lot of old sayings from the mountains, like "I could listen to that song with my toe in the fire" or "I could eat that with my toe in the fire." Luckily you don't have to singe your pinkies these days. Kaldi's Coffee House at 1204 Main St. has added Thursday night to their Bluegrass roster, so you can catch Jeff with the Lazy Boys on Tuesday and the first Thursday night of each month. You can hear Wayne Clyburn play with the Cynical Mountain Boys the last Thursday night of August, and you can also hear a fine woman banjo player, Trina Emig (who plays with Ma Crow) on the second Thursday night of August.

As the tee shirt says, "So Little Time, So Many Banjo Players." ©