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I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Goodbye, Doc

It's funny, I feel like I am supposed to think people like my dad, Eddie Pennington, and Doc Watson are super talented and be in awe of their musical talent, but I am mostly just in awe of them as folks who have been good to me my whole life.

Last week, my dad and I were working alone in the shop. I was painstakingly shaping the braces I had just glued onto the top of the guitar I was working on. I tapped, listened for a C note, shaved a little more wood off with my chisel, tapped again and listened again. After several tries I was feeling satisfied, thinking ahead to the day when Doc Watson would play it and say that it had a lovely clear tone. Then the phone rang. I saw that it was Gerald, one of my dad's good friends, so I answered it. "I guess you heard about Doc, right?" He asked after a few seconds of small talk. I felt that spurt of adrenaline that shoots through you when something exciting or scary is on the horizon and you know it is coming. "...No." I said, pretty sure I didn't want to know what he was going to say next. And I was correct, I didn't. After a lengthy surgery he is still in critical condition after an impacted colon threatened his life.

My heart sank as the shop phone kept ringing with updates on Doc's condition. We became apprehensive to answer the phone, worried that worse news would be shared after we did. He has hung on for days and days, but as I sat writing this entry I got the news that he has passed away. This just reminds me of the person he is, the person I grew up knowing. I know people are going to miss his music, and his talent, and what he has meant to the bluegrass community, but I am most sad to lose his honesty and genuine kindness.

When I was about six years old, I remember my dad played a show with Doc. I don't remember the venue, but I remember the floors-they were vast and wooden. Lots of dancing space, and running-wild space. Those things are very important to a six year old the likes of me. Anyway, after the show that I am sure I didn't listen to, I remember my dad asking, "Jayne? Do you remember Doc? He is my friend." I remember him being kind of intimidating, because he couldn't see me and I wasn't sure where to stand so his face was tilted my way. He was very nice to me though, and gave me a hug before we left. As we were walking away, my dad said, "Do you know how lucky you are? Doc doesn't give hugs to just anybody." I didn't know. I just knew he was important, because there were a lot of folks around him all the time, and that he smiled at me and hugged me.

I remember moments like that, where he showed kindness to a rowdy young'un (borrowed from my dad's vocabulary) or when I handed him the body of my second guitar and he praised it highly, running his hands over the unfinished wood and saying that it "looks just beautiful". I love that when I handed him my finished fourth guitar to be tested, he said, "Well, you know I'll tell you the truth!" But the comments he provided were all ones that I probably don't really deserve. He is just my friend. He can play beautifully and I will miss that, but the stories he shared when it was jus the two of us sitting alone in the shop are what I will cherish most.
My favorite picture I took of Doc.

Daddy, Doc, and me

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Welcome Summer!

I pulled into the shop driveway after almost 3 weeks away and was very strongly reminded of my summertime visits when I was younger. The deciduous trees are a lush green, the fields are full of wildflowers peeking over the tall grass, and thunderheads pass in the distance threatening an afternoon shower. It is summer here and that is the season with which I am most familiar. It is that time where things aren't as scheduled, my cousin Leah and I (and Harper) will go for hikes and runs in the evenings, and lots and lots of visitors will descend upon 388 Tucker Road.

I cherish the tranquility and the extra alone time that I spend with my dad that comes with the winter months, but summer is so beautiful and full of excitement. There is also a smell surrounding this place that I can't really explain but it just smells like home; kind of a damp, leafy outside smell that I have only experienced here. (And, well, maybe a few walks in the woods I have taken in various locations but who's counting.)

I never really accomplished very much during my summer trips to Rugby, often just reading outside or hanging out with Lauren and Leah on their trampoline in the front yard but wouldn't you know it, the days we were most bored are the days I love to remember. (Right now I am thinking about that time we bounced on their trampoline and called Granny and Katherine, and in our best English accents, offering them seamstress positions at Buckingham Palace).

Of all of our shenanigans throughout the years, my favorite summer by far was one not too long ago. I was working at Grayson Highlands State Park the summer before I left for Vermont Law School, and every day after work Lauren and Leah came over to watch a DVD of The Office. I had been getting the discs from Netflix all summer and we watched each and sent it back as quickly as possible. I will never forget the first time I watched Andy fall into the lake wearing his summo suit. My favorite episode of all time and it happened while sitting here in this room I am in right now...

Anyway, another exciting event of the summer: Leah had bought herself a second hand moped; a shining purple number that came with a glittery sticker of Peter Griffin with his two thumbs thrust skyward declaring "Freakin Sweet!". She loved that thing, driving to her summer job at Oak Hill Academy and the one mile over to my house in the evenings. She was exceptionally proud one afternoon after she filled it up with gas. "Two dollars!" she proclaimed. (Those were the days that a gallon of gas was a little more than a dollar.)

One evening during our Office screening we heard a strange noise outside. It was a repeated whooshing noise that seemed to come from across the street in the field packed with neat rows of Christmas trees. Kind of like the huffing of a bull that's about to charge a matador's red cape. The flashlight I shined into the yard didn't shed any light on the mystery. (Pun intended.) It was late though and Lauren and Leah had drive home soon. Of course Leah had driven the moped over, so we were pretty worried that some sort of rabid dog or something similar would chase after my two cousins and assail their vehicle as it buzzed into the darkness. And what about me!? Once (if) they got home they had parents to comfort them; I was then left alone with the beast! My dad was teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop at the time so he was a few miles down the road...He is a good shot but even this would have been a difficult save. I had that 3 foot long nightstick-type flashlight for protection though, I figured it would suffice. Anyway, while my cousins crept to the moped I kept the flashlight honed on them, while keeping a lookout just in case I saw any animals poised for attack. They piled onto the small seat together and started down the driveway. Nothing got them. The next morning I asked my aunt Shirleen what in the world could have made such a horrific noise and she asked, "you mean a deer? Deer make that noise..." So we were petrified by a deer and it took about 3 seconds of description for Shirleen to know exactly who the culprit was...

Another super fun memory I have of that summer was when Leah and I were having 'Fancy Dinner Night' where we dressed up in our fancy attire and I seared salmon and blanched some aspargus. The phone rang interrupting our screening of Sleepless In Seattle. A fellow sounding about my age asked if my dad was around, and I said no, he was out of town till the next day. The fellow, who called himself Kenny, said, "Well we met your dad out in Seattle at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop and we thought he was so cool we wanted to come out and visit him. We ran out of money around Boone though. If we play some bluegrass on the street do you think we could make enough gas money to make it up to your house?" I guessed that he and his friend Josh must be pretty good musicians as they showed up the next morning as planned. After they visited with my dad and got the shop tour,  Leah and I took Kenny and Josh up to the pinnacle (my favorite spot in the park) at sunset and we had a grand time. It was one of the first times I remember meeting any of my dad's admirers who were interested in hanging out with the likes of me as well. It was pretty neat.

Even though my best buddy Lauren won't be here as much as I would like, I still have faith that this summer will be as memorable as summers passed. Leah will be here, I will be here, and guess who else? Josh and Kenny will be making their way back out this way as well, as my prediction of them being great musicians turned out to be correct. My dad asked them to play at this year's festival. I am so excited to see them again, and listen to their take on bluegrass music; traditional but steeped in their outgoing, fun personalities. My friend Dori is also playing, as is Doc Watson who, hopefully, will be debuting a new EJ Henderson guitar if I can get it done in time. This is for sure going to be a festival not to be missed so start planning your visit now!

So I am sad to leave Asheville, and that Nick's and my awesome trip to Ocean Isle had to end, but I am happy to be back in Rugby working with my dad for a while and making a guitar for a legend.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Happy Birthday!

Tomorrow is my Daddy's birthday. He is worried that he is officially going to be welcomed into senior citizenship, as he is turning 65, but it just reminds me of how much he has accomplished in that time. It is pretty amazing how many people love him and admire his talents. I mean, most of you probably wouldn't be reading this if it weren't for his ability to make awesome guitars, which I am now attempting to glean as much as possible so maybe when I am 65 people will still remember him and appreciate his work.

I asked my dad about what he did for birthdays growing up and he said he mostly remembers the dinners. Granny would always make him a chocolate cake and her famous potato salad, among other Rugby delights. He also said that many birthdays he would get a knife, because he was always wearing them out. When he was young he would bring his pocket knife to school (naturally...) and whittle during class. He would pass the time his teacher stood lecturing by making chain links from a branch of maple, a solid round ball trapped within four long posts with a solid block at either end, all out of one chunk of wood. The ball would be perfectly circular, the posts perfectly symmetrical. I guess, now that I think about it, his whittling is his calming activity, like mine is drawing or painting.
When I carve things it has quite the opposite effect on my mood, as I am pretty sure I am about to cut my finger off. Since I have had the misfortune of experiencing such a mistake, complete with surgery, casts, splints, and rehab, I am in no mood to repeat it therefore wielding a knife isn't particularly calming for me. Maybe in 60 years I will be as adept as my dad is with a knife. Probably not.

I spent most of today carving a neck for a ukulele. That is the only aspect of ukulele building that I would prefer to do for a guitar instead. Most everything else is more fun, and cuter, and is more wieldy when making a ukulele, but shaping a neck is just annoying. The belt sander's rollers are too large to fit nicely into the crook that sits on the guitar body so that has to be caved by hand, and the peghead is too small to use anything other than a knife or rasp to lower it to the correct thickness. Therefore, I carved and carved and carved, all the while wondering if I might not be attached to the tip of my index finger in a few seconds.

You should come to the shop and watch my dad whittle sometime-it is kind of amazing. I sat for 3 hours carving the valute, the tiny point on the back of the peghead where it joins the neck, attempting to shape it into a straight even point, and I show it to my dad and 3 seconds later his lap is full of shavings and it is lovely. Bah! Someday I'll get it!

Happy 65th birthday, Daddy!