In recent years, he has benefited from a surge of interest in banjo music, thanks in part to the 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and its infectious roots music.
PENDLETON — Vern Marr attaches a carved maple neck to the body of a clawhammer banjo he's building in his cluttered Pendleton studio.
This rodeo town might be better known for custom saddle makers and silversmiths, but Marr's banjos fit right in as period Western art. They are nearly identical to the open-backed banjos strummed by the cowpokes, mule skinners and riverboat men of the frontier.
"These are old-time banjos," says Marr, 59. "Old-time music is not like rock 'n' roll."
Marr began making banjos 20 years ago, launching an unlikely second career; he's also a field biologist and an engineer. In recent years, he has benefited from a surge of interest in banjo music, thanks in part to the 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and its infectious roots music.
Now he builds 12 banjos a year and sells them as far away as Europe for $1,150 to $2,500.
"He is a master frailer," says Carl Scheeler, another Pendleton biologist and banjo picker, referring to the picking style rooted in the Appalachian Mountains. "He does the old-time, clawhammer, drop-thumb frailing, and he knows a million songs."
Marr describes his passion for banjos while working in his hard-to-find, windowless studio in downtown Pendleton. It's crammed floor to ceiling with tools, saws, 130-year-old rawhide-faced banjos, dog-eared books, piles of "pots" or banjo bodies, wire tuners, steel strings, hooks, frets, bracket shoes and hardwood.
As a boy, he played in a third-grade jug band and was "pretty good as a kid at taking things apart and leaving them that way," he says with a laugh.
He attended his first bluegrass concert in the 1980s and was instantly captivated by the banjo pickers. "I couldn't afford a decent one, so I got clunkers and started fixing them," he says.
Though banjos are sometimes viewed as lowbrow relics of the Old South and Western frontier, Marr points out their complexities.
Clawhammer banjos like his have a mellow "woody" tone that doesn't overwhelm other instruments, he says. That makes them perfect for old-time tunes such as "June Apple," "Shady Grove," "Hangman's Reel," and "Lonesome Linda" — staples at the Saturday night jams he's joined for 11 years at Pendleton's Great Pacific Wine and Coffee Co.
Bluegrass banjos, on the other hand, are famous for their ringing, bright tones that showcase a professional picker's talents.
In his other life, Marr did much of the Oregon plateau research on the Washington ground squirrel, listed as endangered in Oregon and proposed for endangered status in the western U.S.
He also does bird surveys for Oregon State University, the Washington and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and other organizations.
It may seem like a curious combination, but Marr's worlds intersect.
"He makes these really nice inlays with animals," says Pat "Doc" Huff, 60, of Dallas, Ore., a custom banjo maker and retired physician.
Marr's inlays include finely detailed wrens, hummingbirds, flowers, acorns and a wild boar, for a client in a band called the Wild Hogs in the Woods. Typically, he etches red abalone shells or gold- or black-lipped oyster shells and sets the designs into the fingerboards.
Marr says the first banjos may have been the three-string akonting brought from West Africa during the slave trade. They evolved to five strings in the 1830s and rode west with mountain men and in covered wagons. Their durability made them part of frontier life.
"If you punched a hole in the top of your banjo, you could get a piece of rawhide and fix it," he says.
From the Civil War to the ragtime era, banjos and fiddles were enormously popular, then all but vanished during the Jazz Age. They made a comeback during the folk music craze of the 1960s and again in the past decade.
Marc Miller, who manages Zepp Country Music in Wendell, N.C., says he ships banjos to every continent but Antarctica and that even punk rockers have joined the fold. It's not uncommon, he says, to see wizened musicians onstage with banjo pickers sporting pink hair, tattoos and body piercings.
"What they feel in old-time is the same thing they felt in punk — it's authentic," says Miller, 38.
Marr says each banjo, especially the hardwood neck, is a work of colossal creativity.
"It's pretty much like sculpture," he says. "You start out with a block of wood and remove everything but the end product."