If you’ve watched Animal Planet at all for the last 5 years, you’re probably familiar with a show called, “Call of the Wildman.” It features Ernie Brown, Jr. (aka the Turtleman) and his best friend, Neal James, better known as Banjo Neal. On the show each week, Turtleman receives calls from dozens of businesses and home owners stuck with unwanted and potentially deadly pests. No job is too tough or dangerous for Turtleman, and his years of bonding with wild animals allow him to use his animal instincts to save them.
According to Animal Planet, Banjo Neal James is Ernie’s right-hand man whose long-distance telephone service also qualifies him as Turtleman’s secretary. A bona fide native Kentuckian and expert banjo player, Neal takes calls from dozens of businesses and homeowners each week in need of Ernie’s help. The duo has known each other for years and without Neal, Turtleman wouldn’t be able to assist people with their critter problems. Some might say it was fate that brought Neal and Ernie together, and they’ve been best friends ever since.
We caught up with Neal while he was signing autographs and taking pictures in the showroom at Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville, TN. He was promoting the knives and products that he and Ernie partnered with SMKW to create.
“Smoky Mountain Knife Works is just filled with everything I stand for,” Neal tells us. “I’m live action. I’m outdoors. I love the outdoors, especially when the leaves change in the Fall, makes me think about hunting and getting out in the outdoors. What better place to go and find product than SMKW, which now has guns? I just love this store.”
Neal worked closely with SMKW co-founder and president, Kevin Pipes and designer, Brian Wilhoite to create some incredible “Team Turtle” knives and products. “It was a dream come true,” says Neal. “Kevin and Brian, they took my image and my signature and put it on product and that’s just really a humbling experience to know that those guys thought enough of us to do that and then the public wants to buy something like that. They want to have a part of us in their own lives and that’s really humbling.”
“Banjo Neal is a prince in his own right,” Kevin says, “He’s one of those kind, gentle souls that wants it his way but at the same time is willing to listen to your way. I remember when we showed him the Mud Snapper. He was like wow, that knife’s fantastic and it opens just as fast as a mud snapper’s head jumps out of its shell, so that told me he liked the knife. And we loved the blade ending [of the Mud Snapper], because it has that slant that some other people are now copying, but it does look like a turtle snout and that’s what we were going for to fit the theme of the whole Turtleman line.”
“They say that plagiarism is the epitome of flattery I think. Brian [Wilhoite] designed that thing himself and we had no idea, but now people are trying to copy that, so we’re thrilled about that to know that they liked it as well,” said Banjo Neal.
Mud Snapper designer, Brian Wilhoite tells us, “I wanted it to look animalistic and look a little like a turtle, and now we’ve seen that design in several different places. They’ve changed it just a little bit, but enough for us to know.”
“Neal was just a real treat to get to work with. Very humble – down to earth, and knew kinda what he wanted before he even stepped in the door and we just kinda worked together and got it to lookin’ pretty good,” Wilhoite tells us.
Neal says he’s got some things brewing in the future, but would love for Animal Planet to bring back new episodes of Call of the Wildman. “I’m working on a banjo infomercial teaching the claw hammer banjo, and also I’ve created a sizzler reel with Banjo Neal’s Back Yard. That’s me interacting with kids. It may launch. It may not,” Neal says. He hopes they can go back and do Call of the Wild Man again for Animal Planet. “Ernie (Turtle Man) and myself would love to do that, but we’re just in a waiting game in that process,” Neal says.
There is an array of Team Turtle products on sale at Smoky Mountain Knife Works, including these two Banjo Neal knives.
Follow this link to see all the Banjo Neal products at SMKW.
Follow this link to see all the Team Turtle products at SMKW.
*Photographs courtesy of Smoky Mountain Knife Works photographer, John Stewart.