Reality TV’s ‘Banjo Man’ Neal James, friend of ‘Turtleman,’ dies in Kentucky

Neal James
Neal James Animal Planet/David Yellen

Neal James, better known as “The Banjo Man” and friend of “The Turtleman” on Animal Planet’s “The Call of the Wildman” died Friday, according to the Washington County coroner.

James, 55, died at the Isaiah House in Willisburg, where he had been helping people battling substance abuse, according to Coroner Len Benedict. Prior to his death, James has been in and out of the hospital with cardiac issues, Benedict said.

Originally from Stanford, James died from natural causes, according to the coroner.

A Facebook page for James said,With great sorrow, we announce the passing of a great one today. Neal James passed away peacefully this morning. A while back he said he’s seen the other side and “It’s Beautiful”? Today, he was not afraid ... he was ready and he was welcomed. You folks have no idea what you meant to him. Thank you for putting a smile on Neal’s face, he loved you all.”

“In his spirit, be kind, loving and genuine,” the post said.

Spurlin Funeral Home in Stanford is in charge of funeral arrangements.

“The Call of the Wildman” aired from 2011 to 2014. The show followed animal wrangler Ernie Brown Jr., who was aided by James.

The show spawned a USDA investigation and the producer was fined multiple times for repeatedly violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.

As his nickname indicated, James could play the banjo and posted videos on Facebook to teach others how to play.

“That was my part, my contribution to the world. I want to take what I call a 30-second lesson that I’ve had on Facebook, and show everybody. ‘Cause there is nothing like the good times I’ve had with music and being able to share it. Music is a language of its own, and when you can share that feeling—that emotion—there’s nothing like a good campfire and having somebody playing banjo or guitar,” James told the Banjo newsletter.

Ernie Brown, Jr., known as the Turtle Man, entertains crowds by catching snapping turtles with his bare hands in farm ponds around Lincoln and Marion Counties. Originally published Dec. 24, 2008.