Derek Vaden

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The Krako Banjo

Derek Vaden and The Larry Stephenson Band

by Susan Marquez

Derek Vaden recalls when the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inducted Bill Emerson in 2019; Sonny Osborne did the introduction.
“Sonny called Larry Stephenson, and we all rode to the IMBA together,” says Derek. “That was the first time I ever met Sonny. We ended up texting almost every day for two years until he had the stroke that killed him.” Derek says he and Sonny talked about banjos, bluegrass, and life. “Sonny was an interesting person. He could read people instantly. If he had the slightest hint that someone was dishonest, he would respond in a very negative way. But I could ask him anything, and he would always tell the truth, and he was always free with his opinion.”

Krako #2

Folks who follow bluegrass music, particularly those who followed Sonny Osborne, know about the mythical “Krako” demon Sonny blamed for any broken strings or mistakes he made on stage. It was only natural that Sonny named a hybrid banjo he constructed using spare banjo parts in his garage after the annoying demon. Lincoln Hensley, who became Sonny’s banjo-making business partner, has the first Krako banjo. “I met Sonny when number two was being made,” says Derek.

Sonny asked if Derek would like to test the banjo, and Derek was delighted to say yes. “Unbeknownst to me, they had started working on the banjos as a production model. I played number two for a month, and he wanted to know if I’d like to purchase number three.” Derek has played every show since October 2020 with that banjo. “Mine has a few things that number four and those going forward do not have.”

The Larry Stephenson Band

Derek plays with The Larry Stephenson Band, which Larry started in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1989. He moved to Nashville in 1992. “I never studied music,” Larry says. “I learned by backing the needle up on records by artists like the Country Gentlemen and Louvin Brothers. Larry has recently come out with a retrospective album. “I made use of my quarantine time,” he laughs. “I listened to all my old shows. Many were collected from sound guys who gave me tapes after a show. They’ve been stacked up since the mid-1990s. The new album features thirteen songs from shows over the years.”

Larry says Sonny was a good friend and that Sonny took a liking to Derek. “Derek has been with us for a little over five years,” he says.

Lending his three-finger style of picking on the banjo and harmonizing with his strong baritones, Derek plays his Krako banjo with Larry’s band. “My Krako banjo is the best banjo I have ever played,” he says. “Tim Davis makes all the wooden parts. Both the resonator and tailpiece were things Sonny had lying around in his garage. I really do like it. Sonny and I had a handshake agreement, and I’ve been proud to play this banjo on stage.”

Becoming a Professional

Derek says he has been playing banjo for twenty years this July. “I’m from Kansas, and my family played music for fun. We had a family band of sorts. I started playing violin when I was in the school orchestra in the sixth grade, but everyone wanted me to play fiddle, and I couldn’t get my bow hand to do what it was supposed to do. I got a mandolin, and later I started to play the guitar. But my uncle had a banjo in the closet that I started playing around with. My grandmother didn’t want me to play the banjo. She said she didn’t like any of the banjo players she had met.”

Determined to be a professional musician, Derek studied music at Glenville State in West Virginia for a semester before moving back to Kansas City and earning an associate degree in music. He got his first professional job when Bobby Clark called him to audition in August 2011. “I played for Jerry Butler and the Blue Jays, based in Knoxville. I was commuting, and it became very difficult. I have been playing with the Larry Stephenson band since March 2018.”