In this undated photo, R.T. Williams practices playing the banjo at his house in Gladeville, Tenn. (TMP Photo/K. Beck)
When R.T. Williams spied the old banjo in his father’s closet two years ago, he found himself mesmerized.
The 11-year-old couldn’t keep his hands off the instrument even though it was off-limits.
“He kept wanting to play it, and Daddy said no, and finally he gave in,” said R.T.’s mother, Melanie, who teaches second grade at Gladeville Elementary School.
R.T., which stands for Robert Thomas, took to the banjo like a duck to a pond.
“I was messing around and playing the chords and figuring songs out,” R.T. recalled of the first few times he put his fingers to the strings. “You have to have both hands coordinated or it don’t work.”
So, his parents took their boy to Ricky Reece at Topper’s Music in Lebanon for a few lessons. Reece showed R.T. how to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“I watched what he did, and I copied it,” said R.T., who will be an eighth-grader at West Wilson Middle School in August.
When R.T. returned home from that lesson, he wanted to play the song for his mom.
“I had him play it over the phone for my sisters,” Melanie said. “I had no idea what he had in him. I thought that he’d come home and kinda’ plink it. His fingers flew into ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ and everybody was kinda shocked.”
“I just loved playing it, and it was fun,” said R.T., who three months later won the Gladeville Elementary School talent show.
The musically inclined lad’s family, including his father, Rob, who works at Nissan, and brother, Hunter, 9, lives near Gladeville on a farm with cattle, two burros, two chickens and two dogs.
In the past year, the banjo boy has played at Uncle Dave Macon Days, the Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree and Crafts Festival, the Wilson County Fair, and even made his debut on “The Grand Ole Opry.”
“When I walked out there, it was humongous. It almost made me want to stop and turn around, but it was fun,” said R.T. of his experience of performing “I’ll Fly Away” with Charlie Daniels on the hallowed stage.
“It was really great,” he added. “It’s just indescribable, really cool.”
R.T., who picks the five-string banjo with his thumb and first two fingers, played on his dad’s instrument for eight or nine months. Once his grandparents Tommy and Marilyn Williams saw he was serious, they gave him an Earl Scruggs Gibson model.
Already, the banjo bears the signatures of country-bluegrass stars Rhonda Vincent, Bobby Osborne, George Hamilton IV, Roni Stoneman and Ricky Skaggs, as well as Daniels and Scruggs.
For the past two years, R.T. has taken music lessons from David Johnson at Shiloh Music in Mount Juliet.
Johnson describes his student’s style as “Scruggs influenced three-finger style” because he’s definitely rock solid in that traditional style.
“R.T. is kind of a child prodigy really,” Johnson said. “Most people, when I teach, I write things out for them to follow. With R.T., he watches and then just imitates, and he has kind of a photographic memory. With him, it’s more of a visual thing, watching my hand movements.”
R.T. just loves to play, so it’s not like practice or work, he said.
“I think his only limitation is age: He’s got to complete school. He could be playing professionally as soon as he steps out of high school, literally,” Johnson said.
R.T. practices on his banjo about three hours a day and knows about 10 bluegrass and gospel tunes. When he performs for the public, he often wears a white hat that belonged to his late great-grandfather James Herschel Mullins, a jeweler-clock man and musician who operated Mullins Jewelers in Murfreesboro for decades.
Mullins played harmonica and guitar, and R.T. possesses his great-granddad’s Gibson guitar, while he also was bequeathed the banjo owned by his late great-grandfather Hershel Wright, of Smithville.
R.T. plans to compete at the Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree next weekend and at Uncle Dave Macon Days. He will also perform at the Wilson County Fair in August.
In the meantime, he collects toy tractors and keeps the cows and chicken fed on the farm.
“I’d like to have a career in music in some way,” R.T. said. “If I can’t be a musician, I’d like to be a mechanic. I help my daddy work on cars.”