Take a look at the photo on musician Clarke Buehling's website -- cleverly called "Buehling Banjos" -- and you'll see a distinguished photo of the man himself. Buehling stands with one of his beloved banjos and wears a suit, tie and handlebar mustache from the 19th century -- his favorite era of musical history. The look was not simply donned for the artifice of the photo -- it's pretty much how Buehling looks on any given Wednesday. The jacket might be traded for a vest and the stylized cravat for a bow or bolo tie, but Buehling perpetually -- and charmingly -- looks as though he just left the Vaudeville stage.
Buehling said his love of music struck at age 7, when he started piano lessons. It was a family tradition: Buehling was the third of four children (and the only boy), and all four children would learn to play from Mr. Popper, the family's piano teacher. Buehling took lessons until he was in junior high, then gave it up because it made him a target for teasing -- but also because piano had failed to ignite the fire of passion in him, despite the years of lessons. He liked the music, but the instrument wasn't for him. Nor was the clarinet, which he would study as a result, he said, of his dad's passion for jazz.
"There was no place for me to really use that skill," he said, chuckling. "You don't really sit around and play the clarinet with a group of friends, during a sing-a-long."
Buehling picked up his first stringed instrument during a family vacation to Mexico. The family would make several trips there over the years -- all six members packed into the family station wagon, luggage strapped to the top of the car, driving from their home in Glenview, Ill. to the Mexican border.
"I bought a guitar [in Mexico]," Buehling said. "And a conga drum. I was listening to African field recordings and African music at the time."
If his parents found a guitar a strange -- and difficult to pack -- tourist souvenir, they didn't mention it, although they didn't offer to pay for guitar lessons. So Buehling used the musical know-how he had accumulated over the years and taught himself to play. His shift to banjos came when noted banjo player Hobart Smith performed at his high school in Illinois.
"That inspired me to buy the banjo," Buehling said. "I also liked Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio.
"When I could play a little bit on the banjo, I would go to the local coffee house where us teenagers would gather, so that was a social way to learn to play."
Buehling was largely self-taught, although he said he learned a lot from other players along the way. "My best friend was a guitar player, and he could play a little bit on the banjo. He kind of trained me to follow chords in a song. He spent some effort to see that I could play along with him.
"I hadn't played the banjo for very long before I realized that other people play banjo as well, and sometimes they needed a fiddle player, and maybe I should be exploring that." So he picked up a fiddle and got to work.
"I could have had violin lessons, but what I heard in folk circles was that violin players really stood out like a sore thumb, and I didn't want that," he said. "I didn't want to sound like a violin player. Although there are plenty of people who overcome that violin formality."
Buehling's passion for 19th-century banjo, mandolin and fiddle music would only grow from that point forward. He moved around the country in pursuit of learning from other knowledgeable musicians. One time, he even traveled from California to Connecticut to take lessons from a musician whose expertise aligned with Buehling's interests.
"I had already been to England at that point and had seen these banjo groups where there would be a piano and five or six banjos," he said. "I really enjoyed that, and I bought some sheet music while I was there."
Those first sheet music purchases would eventually balloon to the enormous collection of rare and hard-to-find sheet music Buehling currently keeps in his small studio off the square in downtown Fayetteville, all carefully filed away in alphabetized boxes. He's working on a book that will feature a collection of the most singular examples of his collection.
Buehling isn't sure why his heart lies in the music of the 19th century, but he has some guesses.
"I remember my grandfather playing some wax cylinder recordings when I was young, and one of the artists, Vess Ossman, became an idol of mine much later," he mused. "Maybe I got into it gradually through playing a lot of music over time. My father loved Dixieland, so I heard a lot of that."
Whatever the driving force, it hasn't muted over time. Buehling's band, The Skirtlifters, "authentically recreated the music of the 19th century riverboat, stage and parlor," according to their website. It had a 30-year run before finally calling it quits. In the periodical Inside Bluegrass, noted musician and music writer Bob Bovee said of the group, "They put on a fine show and played an incredible blend of square dance tunes, bizarre old songs and early ragtime and pre-ragtime banjo pieces." The group traveled all over the south and Midwest and released two CDs.
Today, Buehling is a staple on the contra and square dance circuit in Northwest Arkansas, where he plays with his current quartet, the Ozark Highballers. The band has released a CD and travels extensively throughout the region.
But Buehling might say his most important role in the community is that of teacher. He offers banjo, ukulele and mandolin lessons out of his studio and travels to music festivals all over the country to offer workshops.
Beuhling had such a prominent national reputation that current student Kim Agee learned of the musician's abilities when Agee lived in Virginia.
"There was a banjo listserv that I followed where people talked about all kinds of banjo styles," Agee said. "Clarke was spoken of with reverence. He's very well known, nationally, in the area of traditional American music as well as banjo music in particular.
"He's a great teacher," Agee continued. "He's very strict, but he's pretty patient. He doesn't want you making a series of the same mistakes if he thinks it's within your power not to do it, or if you're doing it out of laziness. But he's very gentle."
"Teaching others to love the instruments, that's my purpose," Buehling said.
Buehling has done something rare in his lifetime: He's made a living out of doing what he loves. And most days, that makes him pretty happy.
"At least, I won't look back and say, 'Well, I didn't even give it a try,'" he said.
NAN Our Town on 11/16/2017
Print Headline: Living what he loves