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‘It’s about the music:’ Local man passes on passion for music with his handmade instrument inspired by 1800s Appalachia
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Jimmy Loudermilk, owner of Coal Mountain Panjo, plays one of the instruments he made. - photo by Jeremy Coleman

This article appears in the February edition of 400 Life Magazine.


Jimmy Loudermilk first started playing music when he was only 8 years old, picking up the guitar before moving on to every stringed instrument he could get his hands on.

He loved the way music could bring him and his friends and family together while also giving him a brief escape from his worries as he paid close attention to making his music come to life.

After years of playing music, he saw an etching from the Civil War era of two men sitting at a campsite, one of them holding an instrument made from a cigar box — the likes of which Loudermilk said he had never seen before.

The man in the etching holds the stringed instrument under his chin and plays it with a bow much like a violin.

This inspired Loudermilk to start thinking outside of the box when it came to music, and he eventually found his way to the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, where he learned about instruments made by everyday people in that area in the 1800s.

“People used to make instruments out of whatever they had at home, and I like that spirit,” Loudermilk said. “They couldn’t afford instruments, so they would make stuff out of what they had.”

This idea eventually inspired the Forsyth County resident to create Coal Mountain Panjo, a traveling business where he sells the instruments he makes out of thrifted or recycled household items.

Story continues below.

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Loudermilk sells his panjos at shows and festivals in the area. - photo by Jeremy Coleman

Loudermilk made his first instrument from a pan, an item found in most everyone’s kitchen, using the circular part of the pan to create the main base of the instrument and the handle to create the neck where he placed each of the three strings.

After he was finished, he aptly named it a panjo, a play on the word banjo also inspired by canjos, instruments made from soda or oil cans.

He said the first few instruments he made didn’t quite sound how he wanted them to, but eventually, he got the hang of crafting the panjos. Now, he’s been making them for 10 years and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

“I’ve made probably thousands of them by now, and when I make it, still, I get that feeling of, ‘Wow,’” Loudermilk said. “It makes me feel like if I was on a deserted island somewhere that somehow, no matter what the circumstance, I could make something to play music.”

Although he began making panjos about 10 years ago, Loudermilk said Coal Mountain Panjo came later. He actually started to make the instrument for students during a vacation Bible school.

He was helping with the class and thought it would be fun for the students to learn an instrument and a song to perform for their parents after class. So he made each student their own panjo to play and take home.

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From there, the idea of the panjo started to snowball. Loudermilk said he started getting calls from other churches to help them make their own panjos for students, and the instrument’s popularity continued to grow.

This led Loudermilk to visit music and craft shows in the area where he could sell the instrument and show people how to play. He fell in love with the experience.

He said he loves seeing kids stop by and pick up a panjo and learn to play music. He said they are always so excited to create a tune and learn something new.

“Especially when I play their first song with them, they’re just hooked,” he said.

He also shows their parents the different panjos he’s made and shows them how to play their own song.

Being a three-string instrument, Loudermilk said anyone can pick up the panjo and play it. For him, it makes it more than just an instrument — it’s an experience to share with family and friends.

“If they were just for looks, I don’t think they would do quite as well,” Loudermilk said. “But when someone gets one, they’re thinking, ‘I want to play it.’ They’re buying more than a panjo, they’re buying it thinking they’ll be a musician.”

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Loudermilk works on one of the panjos. - photo by Jeremy Coleman
When not making panjos, Loudermilk gives guitar and banjo lessons to students. He has been teaching music for nearly 30 years, but as Coal Mountain Panjo grows more popular, he has started spending about half of his time at shows and festivals throughout Georgia.

While he loves teaching, he said he has a passion not only for going to the shows, but also for creating the panjos.

Most of the panjos he sells are made from pans, license plates and cigar boxes, but in his spare time, he makes the instruments out of all sorts of thrifted and recycled items.

“I like to go into thrift shops and flea markets,” Loudermilk said. “When I turn, I see different things and think ... that seems like something I could make an instrument out of.”

He enjoys pouring his creativity and time into making instruments out of these random items that look beautiful while still being able to create music. This is what he said makes panjos truly special. It’s an art and a pastime.

“Music itself is so powerful,” Loudermilk said. “When I’m playing a song, I’m really not worried about anything else. I’m that song as I play it. That’s what I’m thinking about.

“Music gives you kind of an outlet or escape. If you ever notice a bunch of guys playing music or a band playing, they’re not worried about anything else at that moment. It’s about the music right then.”

He said it’s even more rewarding to see what people can be inspired to create or play after they buy a panjo. Some go on to create their own instruments or write their own songs to play.

He especially loves seeing kids dedicate themselves to learning more about it and becoming musicians themselves, believing everyone needs some sort of creative outlet.

“It’s amazing what people can do,” Loudermilk said.

To find out more about Coal Mountain Panjo and stay updated on which shows and festivals Loudermilk will be attending, visit the Coal Mountain Panjo Facebook page. See more of his panjos on his website, www.coalmountainpanjo.ecrater.com.