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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)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

I suppose I will begin this post with the same sentiment I have used to preface the past few: apologizing for my lax writing schedule, or lack of schedule all together. It has been a busy couple of months for me.  My time has been taken by working on guitars, finishing ukuleles on a deadline, and mopping melted freezer water from my dad's floor. Oh, and on Thanksgiving, with only several hours warning, I was tasked with making the turkey...

For several months now I have been working on a copy of a Gibson Nick Lucas guitar. There are several reasons it has taken significantly longer than any other guitar I have made, but the most significant one is because everything is different from how I had been making Martin inspired guitars. "Well, the only thing that is consistent about Gibson is that they are inconsistent," Herb told me as I struggled to find correct measurements and patterns for this guitar.  My dad has made them before, but despite being the borderline hoarder he is, he somehow didn't save patterns for this kind of guitar. Luckily I have a pretty awesome friend, Mike, who made me this neat label, helped me find great measurements, and shared a little back story on ol' Nick Lucas and his guitar shape of choice.

 I felt more alone on this build than I ever have, figuring things out on my own and working by myself while my dad was traveling abroad. In school I would always check my understanding of class material by making myself quizzes and see how much I could do without consulting my notes. In this situation, I was curious how much I leaned on my dad as necessity versus availability, and while working totally on my own was stressful, I found I knew a lot more than I thought I did. Still, when he returned, it was really nice to have his encouragement and knowledge just a worktable away. As I sat in the spray room, perched on an upturned finish bucket, my dad held the Gibson book open for me to the page that displayed the correct sunburst. I sat for hours working to make each side look exactly like the picture, and he stood right there, despite having work of his own he could do, encouraging me with each squeeze of the spray gun.

Another thing that has kept me busy is that I have been commissioned by Santa to make some ukuleles in time for Christmas. It was kind of fun being an elf, I mean I already have the height for the job, but it was a bit stressful knowing I absolutely had to get things finished by a specific date. I enjoyed trying out new techniques and ideas, trying out a double pearl soundhole and playing with stain colors on maple. Here is a picture of a little soprano, and as I don't even know the recipient so no surprises should be ruined.

Finally, on Thanksgiving, my dad's refrigerator broke leaking water all over the floor, melting everything in the freezer, and causing near catastrophe. Nick and I drove up on Wednesday, but because the forecast predicted snow, my aunt Shirleen asked me to take the turkey on with me in case she couldn't get out early enough in the morning. And then it snowed and I had to make it. Luckily it needed to thaw, but the rest of the fridge and freezer contents did not fare as well. We ended up piling everything in a cooler and letting it freeze outside in the 25 degree snowy weather hoping no varmints would pillage it while we mopped up puddles every now and again.

Not to toot my own horn, but I am a pretty good cook. However, turkeys have always been the job of a parent or Shirleen while I busy myself with lesser things like sides or desserts. Like guitar making when I was younger, only coming into the shop and seeing the process in pieces, I have only seen bits of the turkey prepping process. I remember something gross we don't eat coming in a bag where the stuffing goes, and lots and lots of salt and pepper being sprinkled on everything but that is about it. When I cut away the plastic covering the turkey, I had only vague ideas on what needed to be done. I put the phone on speaker, and Shirleen instructed me on preparing the turkey. Our conversation went something like this: "Make sure you season the inside too." "What is a gizzard?" "There is a neck, and it is where?!"

It turned out surprisingly better than I thought, but really, as much as I hate to admit it, I know that butter is usually the secret to making things taste good, so when it doubt, just add more butter. My aunt Pat says that I should be prepared because since I did such a good job it will be my responsibility for all future Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. I am not sure I am quite ready for the responsibility, but I guess it is good to know I can do it. Kind of like putting a Nick Lucas together. With enough concentration and attention to detail, I can do things (mostly) by myself.

I hope you all have an excellent holiday filled with family and love and I wish you the very best and happiest 2015.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Trick or Treat

This past month I have been so busy making instruments that I haven't been able to write you any stories! (Kind of) seriously though, I have made 3 ukuleles and finished a couple of guitar bodies! All while my dad left me in charge of his shop while he galavanted through France. Hm, I typed that because it sounded like fun, but imagining my dad doing anything resembling galavanting doesn't seem quite right....so in the spirit of honesty, let me rephrase per his recounting of the events: My dad reluctantly flew to France to attend a friend's birthday party, and while there, he played music at multiple venues and as usual ended up having a fun time, though all the high quality wine and unprocessed food hurt his stomach. I am going to go ahead and assume that France did not provide for him the culinary delights offered by a KFC or Cracker Barrel, much to his strong dismay.

Anyway, back to me. I received a request for another story about my Granny, and with Halloween coming up I had hoped to incorporate something honoring the holiday. I don't usually do anything particularly special other than making Halloween inspired pizza because our neighborhood is inhabited mostly by retirees, but I like to spend the day (and days leading up to Halloween) watching scary movies while I cut inlays. Or perhaps while I write you a story. (I am currently watching a documentary detailing the true story of the Amityville Horror if you were wondering.)

Fall in Rugby is incredibly beautiful. By October the leaves are proudly waving a final goodbye from their high branches, shrouded in brilliant color, making the hills behind my Granny's house look as though a forest fire is fast approaching. My favorite years are the rare ones when the red and orange leaves prevail and overtake the slightly less beautiful brown and yellow. This year was one of those years. On her birthday, Harper and I walked back in those hills of my Granny's property, exploring the old wood granary, graying with age, where I used to sneak in and teeter across the grain and corn cobs used for animal feed. I would pretend that the large open room next to the drying bin where, years before my existence, tobacco had been hung from the rafters, was my house on the prairie, complete with a lean-to that braved harsh winters. (Laura Inglalls Wilder was one of my favorite authors at the time.) The thick branches of the apple trees nearby were heavy with fruit, and reminded me of when I walked into the house, the rooms would be filled with the warm and welcoming smell of baked apples. When I was tall enough to reach I would sneak one (or twenty) of the dried apple chips my Granny had placed on the rack above the stove.
My Granny's backyard, the granary is on the left.

Several times during these fall visits I remember I was able to help choose the pumpkin for the Jack-o-Lantern that would sit on the front steps. As we gingerly stepped through my Granny's garden, trying to avoid the vegetables growing in rows, my dad instructed me to check each side of the pumpkin I chose, making sure there were no flat or discolored spots other than on the bottom. A lot of times we would discover that there were no perfect, non flattened, non discolored pumpkins, so my dad would change his tune and say that these spots were ok because we really just needed the sides of the pumpkin facing outward to look presentable.  We would then take the pumpkin into the small room off the kitchen, sitting it on newspapers covering the little black and white speckled table under the window. It was always my job to scrape the insides out, and pick the seeds from the gooey orange guts. I remember always complaining about my job. My dad's job was to carve the pumpkin, as he is much more of an expert with a knife than I will ever be (though I am proud to announce that I have been preferring to use a pocket knife for more and more of the guitar making process these days). Plus I was maybe 4 years old or somewhere around there, so it was probably not most responsible option to give me a knife. Maybe someday I will tell you what happened when I was eight and tried to remove brownies from a pan with a knife. But maybe you can just imagine. It was always my decision where to place the triangle eyes, nose, and snaggletoothed mouth, and to decide how many teeth the Jack-o-Lantern had. I would decide depending on how many teeth I had lost recently. I never questioned why we only carved the traditional face until my dad noted it when I called to ask for some good Halloween stories. He said that was just always how he carved it, and how his dad carved it; that is just what a Jack-o-Lantern looks like. Good enough reason for me, though I am currently considering using Leah's idea of wielding a dremel to make the coolest looking Jack-o-Lantern ever, but that is a story for another time.

I only spent a few actual Halloween weekends at my Granny's house, but as I recall, nothing too special happened as people lived so far away from each other that trick-or-treaters would typically assemble at their elementary school or somewhere similar to fill pillowcases and orange plastic Jack-o-Lanterns with candy instead of driving door to door. The only evening visitors to my Granny's house each year would be Lauren and Leah. These days, every year my dad buys a bag of candy in the guise of providing for Halloween visitors, but I know he secretly wants it for himself because he never sounds all that dismayed when he tells me that no one came by and now he has all of these fun-size Snickers bars sitting in the shop.

When I called to chat the other day, my dad told me that when he was younger the kids were more into the tricks than the treats. I imagined knocking over mail boxes, toilet papering someone's house, but these were country tricks I had never heard of. He told me he participated in placing hay bales in the middle of streets so cars couldn't pass. Dirt roads, he assured me, where cars were already going slow. He said the serious kids would chop down a tree to cross the road to school so no one would be able to attend the next day. But that trick rare as it was hard work since you couldn't use a chainsaw for fear of being heard and were left to hack away all night with an axe running to hide each time a car passed. He also told me of a trick he knew of but of course had not participated in, where kids took to placing a fresh cow pie on the seat of a neighbor's tractor, then waited for them to come help one of those poor folks who got stuck behind a tree or in a hay bale. You can probably imagine what happened next. He also said turning over outhouses was a popular trick. My dad absolutely loves practical jokes so I have trouble believing that he has not been the culprit for some of these antics, but sure, let's just remember the fun, safe, happy Halloween times I had in Rugby because you know I can't even make the mongoose work in the shop.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Meeting with George Gruhn

Sometimes I worry that the folks in the guitar world won't be too quick to accept me without my dad behind me showing me the way. Lately I have been taking more steps on my own to find out. When Nick and I visited Nashville earlier this summer, I met with George Gruhn, one of the most knowledgeable folks around when it comes to guitars. After everything I had heard; good from my dad, somewhat mixed to downright scary from most everyone else, I had no idea how I would be received walking in to his shop all by my lonesome, with only a big fiberglass guitar case to shield me from whatever I happened to encounter.

Walking in to the large white building, I was a little bit nervous, but the two employees helping patrons on the first floor were incredibly friendly and quickly buzzed up to George's office that I was waiting for him. I had called George a few days prior to ask if he had time to check out a couple of my guitars and he was very friendly and seemed excited to visit with me even though my dad wouldn't be joining me.

I brought my #18, a 12-fret Brazilian Rosewood Dreadnought, because as I was working on it, my dad said as I glued the top together, "This is the one you need to show George. He loves 12-fret D guitars and I have a feeling this one is going to sound really good." I also brought my #19 curly maple 000 because it is more what I like to do, so I could talk to him about marketing local wood, smaller body guitars as well.

In George's office, located on the second floor of his shop, I sat in an antique, hand-carved chair wedged between several terrariums that housed large, wary looking snakes that could probably constrict the life out of me were they so inclined. I watched as George lifted my guitar from its case. "Very nice, I love 12-fret dreadnoughts. Don't worry about the snakes, they are all very docile," he assured me. After plucking out a few tunes he told me that the only problem he could find with my #18 was that it wasn't his. I decided to take that as a compliment. He and one of his guitar buyers played each guitar in turn and seemed to enjoy them both. After a while George asked if I wanted to go to lunch. I said sure.

"Good, because Freddie needs some lunch too," George declared as I raced to follow him stalking out of the room. Freddie, a bearded dragon, lives in another terrarium in George's office situated front and center so you can't miss it as you walk through the door. As I mentioned in a prevous post, I have met Freddie before, and remembered George plopping him in my lap and promptly leaving the room for what I could guess was almost forever. I wasn't sure what to do with him sitting there, he isn't really a creature to be petted, and after a while my dad commented that he was smiling despite my stiff unwelcoming posture. I couldn't decide whether Freddie was enjoying our visit or if he was preparing to eat me.

George drove me to a greek diner across the street from his shop, the sign out front boasting that it has been featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. As we sat down, George asked the waitress to bring him some left-over greens, "not a salad, no dressing!", but just some veggies in a to-go box for his bearded dragon. Upon seeing the girl's confused look, he pulled his phone from his pocket and proceeded to swipe through photos of Freddie, as a proud grandfather might when presenting his grandchildren to an appeasing stranger. I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I studied the menu items furiously. The waitress returned soon after with a styrofoam box filled with greens. "Oh excellent! Freddie can eat for a week on this!" George exclaimed happily.

After our food arrived it was back to guitar talk, and I appreciate very much all of the kind words and advice George offered. One of my favorite things he said about my instruments is that my instruments have a soul within them. I see that my dad is able to do that with his instruments, and if I have learned to do that from him, I am exceptionally proud. To me, each of my instruments is a living breathing thing, and if you consider external elements such as humidity expanding and contracting the wood, it is essentially doing just that. To have someone who has seen and played many amazing guitars be able to find a soul within my guitars was a big deal for me.

All in all, I enjoyed my visit, making another small tentative step into this world of guitars that seems so daunting to me. I think the main reason for that is because I care so much more about the construction, the journey of each instrument, and what I get from doing that work than I do from actually having the finished product in front of me. Each time I finish a guitar I am very proud to see it and have it and share it with people, but there is always a sadness to knowing that the journey is finished. I guess if I look at my job as a whole, the journey will never be finished and it is comforting to know that my guitars are enjoyed and that the love I put into each will continue even when the work is finished.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Gone Fishin' (part 2)

Summer in Rugby is one of my most favorite times. Perhaps it is because during my childhood that is when I spent the majority of my time there, filling my summer breaks from school with country shenanigans. Or maybe just because that is when nature is at its most content. Everything is colorful and blooming, gardens are filled with fat, nutrient rich produce, leaves are proud to display their bright green surfaces, animals enjoy their time in the sun, and Wilson Creek runs full and strong.

It is difficult to get my dad to do much of anything with me if it doesn't take place in his shop, or at least has a guitar involved. Last summer though, I got him to take me fishing up in the mountain behind our house, telling me stories of when he went with his dad when he was younger.

I was reminded of this story when on Friday evening my husband and I went to a fancy restaurant, even nicer than my dad's go-to gourmet haunt, The Cracker Barrel, if you can believe it, and I was deciding between two entrees. After consulting with Stewart, our server, he warned me that the trout entree for the evening had its head and tail still intact, in case that would be a problem for me. In my typical, endearing (maybe?), unfiltered fashion, I proceeded to tell him about the time Leah and I caught a trout from the creek and bludgeoned it to death with a stick, then attempted to fillet it following directions we found on Youtube. We then proceeded to bake it intact because the flimsy knife and large plastic plate adorned with Christmas scenes proved to be inadequate for successfully butchering a whole fish. (You can read a more indepth account in a past blog entry titled Gone Fishing, if you really want to.) He went away, probably filled with pity/concern for my poor husband, assuming I am definitely insane, but also hopefully with the understanding that I a head-on trout for dinner is the least of my worries. If you were wondering, I decided to order the grouper entree because I am obviously already an expert on catching and preparing trout.

Anyway, I asked my dad to go fishing with me, and he heartily agreed, much to my surprise. We dug out the fishing rods Leah and I had been using earlier in the summer, and set about finding bait. My dad said he always dug worms from a special spot in Granny's yard, right next to the branch. (That is Rugby talk for a small stream, not the appendage of a tree.) We loaded up a shovel and went to digging holes in her yard near the bank. I am not sure how many earthworms we actually found, but they filled a styrofoam coffee cup pretty sufficiently. After gathering our worms we headed out to the creek (the bit of a water network that is a step bigger than a branch). My dad told me he used to catch minnows in the branch and use them in lieu of worms, but it takes significant patience to do that, and neither of us felt it would behoove us to work all day to catch little fish in order to catch more fish. We just wanted to go straight for the big prize.

As I plunked my line into the water and proceeded to wait on the bank, my dad told me that his dad showed him how to fish long ago. It isn't just throwing a line into the water and hoping for something to bite, there is actually skill and strategy to it. (I thought my strategy of plunking was right, but apparently not.) Apparently, using a method works though, as my grandfather could catch ten fish when everyone else would be lucky to catch one. The game warden, John Emerson, lived just up the street from my grandparent's house, and apparently, he wasn't the best hunter. He knew my Grandfather Walt was, so he would always invite him to fish or hunt with him every chance he could. He would 'confiscate' any game over the limit that my grandfather had procured, citing official game warden rules of course. My grandfather would happily oblige since Mr. Emerson would often fail to ticket him while hunting or fishing alone, and my grandfather brought home anything over the imposed limit. Mr. Emerson would be sure to take two or three fish from my grandfather's catch though, just to teach him a lesson.

My dad instructed me to crouch behind rocks, and, "don't let the fish know you are there." I didn't really understand because how is a fish going to see me when I am perched quietly, albeit precariously, on a rock above white rushing bubbly water? "I don't know how, but hey can," he assured me. I don't typically associate my dad with acts of stealth, except maybe when he is unleashing the mongoose on some poor gullible victim in his shop, so I was impressed to see him slither between the boulders lining the creek with surprising ease and expertise. I followed his advice, slipping behind a mossy rock and tossing my line into the water. After a while lo and behold, I caught one! When I triumphantly looked up to show my dad, he had already caught two fish, and was proceeding to clean them on bank. That was where Leah and I went wrong, you are supposed to bust out your trusty pocket knife and dig out the fish guts right there on a rock, not take the whole fish home in an emptied salt and pepper kettle chip bag. After he cleaned my little fish for me, we caught a few more and headed home, deciding we had a sufficient amount for dinner.

I baked the trout, heads and tails and all, in a pan filled with fresh onions, zucchini and squash from Herb's garden. Aside from my other trout catching-to-eating adventure, it was my favorite dinner I have ever made. And those who know me, know I can make a pretty delicious dinner. So maybe the main reason I love summer in Rugby so much is because I am surrounded by amazing fresh produce, and if I want, I can pluck my dinner straight from the creek with (hopefully) only a bit of struggle. The extra work of preparing my own food is worth so much more to me than having the money to purchase similar ingredients from a store. I know it hasn't always seemed like a luxury for my family to have to tend to a garden and take care of livestock while living on a farm, but I am so thankful my Granny, Aunt Shirleen, and my dad have taught me how to do that so I am able to fully appreciate where my food comes from.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


"Did you see that car that just went down the road?" my Granny asked her friend Lola. "I haven't seen it before, wonder who they are visiting." Every morning when I stayed with my Granny I would hear one side of this conversation, only varying in type of vehicle and the driver's assumed business in Rugby.

There were two phones in Granny's house. One hung on the wall in the living room, just within reach of the large scratchy floral print chair that faced the TV, its cord curling to the floor and back up to the receiver. The other was an old black rotary model that sat on a small antique table facing the one window in my grandmother's room. There was a small chair tucked underneath the table.  The window looked out over the front porch, yard, and the road beyond the garden. I used to love playing with this phone because you could put your finger in a hole, pull it around in a circle and let go, where it would make a delightful ringing sound. From this phone my Granny made her important morning calls.

Every day she had a rotation of female friends whom she called, or who called her, detailing the community gossip of the day. A lot of the time the topics would include gardening and trips to town along with the curiosity over a new vehicle on the road. Also, obituaries were a pretty big deal.

I mentioned in my last post that my dad's Granny would never miss the Grand Ole Opry or the obituaries on the radio. The same can be said of my Granny, about the obituaries anyway. Every day at noon, right before her 'stories' she would sit and listen to a little black radio, roughly the shape of a loaf of French bread; not a baguette, but those smaller fatter ones typically used for garlic bread, adjusting the antenna to be sure she heard every syllable. I remember the radio well, it sat in the living room also within reach of the large scratchy chair. Every day gloomy organ music wavered from the speakers before the announcer would read through the list of community members who had passed on. I knew never to disturb Granny during the obituaries because it seemed of dire importance that she hear each name read off. My aunt told me the other day that once when I was very small I accidentally knocked the radio off the table, and worried I had broken it, ran to tell Granny, "I'm sorry, I think I broke your obituary."

My dad told me that Granny Ollie (his granny) would also listen to the obituaries religiously. He said that sometimes the radio would happily announce that, "Today we are blessed with no deaths." She would look disconcertingly at the radio and grunt, "Huh." and switch the program off. I suppose that just meant there was less fodder for conversation with her friends later, not that she was particularly upset that no one died that day. My dad also joked that maybe she felt the need to listen to be sure she wasn't on it.

It seems kind of ridiculous that these ladies would pay so much attention to the deaths of their neighbors, or if a foreign car drives through their tiny pocket of the world. I think though that it is an incredible display of community that isn't often seen this day in age. I remember someone not from here complaining to me that they attended a fundraiser at the rescue squad and were not received as highly as they expected to be, given the amount they donated to the cause. My reply was that this tight knit community is not driven by money, so it is not necessarily possible to buy your way in. You have to be a respectful neighbor, take notice of the odd visitor, and maybe even listen to the obituaries.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Dad's Story

Typically I prefer to tell my own stories rather than someone else's, but I feel that this story is leading up to my own experiences so I will let it slide. It seems everyone in the guitar community has something to say about George Gruhn. Usually it isn't terribly positive or kind. Because of this, I have always been a little bit scared of him, but after hearing my dad tell me about his experiences with George, I found a respect and friendship I hadn't gleaned from anyone else's accounts.

My dad met George at the Galax Fiddler's Convention many years ago, probably around 1965. He told me that what initially caught his eye was a "hippy-looking" man walking through the crowd with a Martin D-45. Of course he would notice the guitar before the person, but that is just how my dad works. I think guitars speak to him more clearly than people do. He told me he had never seen a D-45 in person before, so nothing was going to stand in his way of seeing that guitar. After that initial meeting, my dad said he saw George at Galax and Fiddler's Grove each year. One thing that stood out to him was that George started wearing a lot of diamond rings. That probably made George stand out to everyone in a crowd of old time and bluegrass pickers. But, that was the point, my dad said. He guessed that by donning diamonds, George established himself as a real "wheeler-dealer" when it came to buying, selling, and trading valuable instruments. It must have worked, since he now is one of the most well known guitar dealers in the world.

Not too long after my dad and George met, George invited my dad to work in the little shop he was starting in Nashville. Not wanting to stray too far from his family's farm in Rugby, my dad reluctantly agreed to come help out for a few days at a time every month or so. He also told me that since he worked on the farm, he was able to avoid being drafted so he didn't want to leave the farm permanently.

The first night he went to work in Nashville, he stayed with George. When he walked into his house, my dad noticed two glass terrariums on the floor housing several large snakes. The terrariums only had a meagre covering, if any, much to my dad's concern. "Don't worry about those snakes, they don't get out that often," George told my dad. My dad closed the door to his room, hoping to keep the snakes out, but then noticed there was a crack between the floor and the door large enough for the snakes to slither through if they so desired. He stuffed his flannel shirt into the crack in case one of the snakes decided that night was a good time to go exploring the guest room.

George stayed with my dad in Rugby once too. Instead of driving back to Chicago following the Galax Fiddler's Convention one year, my dad invited George to stay at my Granny's house. My dad and George pulled up to the house, and my dad told him if he needed to go to the bathroom, the outhouse is just up that hill, pointing into a pitch black night. George stuck his head out of his car and said, "Wheeere?" (My dad, imitating George, says it with two syllables. I encourage you to do the same.) When I met with George a couple of weeks ago I asked him what he thought of my Granny's house and he said, "It was very nice, except they didn't have indoor plumbing! Your dad just peed off the front porch!"

After my dad's visit to George's house, he decided to stay with his cousin Peggy from then on when he drove to Nashville to work for George. If you read the post about the corn cob baseball, Peggy is my dad's cousin Tex's sister. She is also Lauren and Leah's aunt. When I asked my dad why she was never mentioned in stories about his adventures with Tex he replied, "Because she's a girl! We didn't associate with girls."

Every Saturday night in Rugby, my dad and his parents would gather around their radio and tune into the Grand Ole Opry. My dad said listening to the Opry was his favorite thing to do, and often he would walk up to his Granny's house and listen with her because she had a nicer radio. "Granny Ollie's favorite things to listen to were the Opry and the obituary program," he told me. I remember that my granny also would listen to the obituaries every day without fail. I guess that was just the thing to do.

Back alley between the Ryman and Tootsies
After my dad had been working for him a while, George took my dad to the Ryman Theater, where the Grand Ole Opry was recorded. Without a second glance, Mr. Bell, the back door security guard, let George and my dad right through, as George supplied most of the Opry members with instruments. along with other Opry greats, my dad was introduced to Sam and Kirk McGee. Sam was the oldest member of the Opry at the time. My dad told me that being able to meet him and his brother was the biggest deal to him because Sam especially was a great guitar player, and my dad had learned guitar tunes from listening to him on the radio each Saturday night. The next time my dad wanted to go back to the Opry, George told him to just go on, but my dad was concerned Mr. Bell wouldn't remember him, so George scribbled a note vouching for my dad on the back one of his business cards and sent him along. Mr. Bell let him right in.

My dad got to be pretty good friends with Sam McGee, who would pick with him backstage every time he came to visit. He taught my dad the tune "Wheels", which I remember him playing at a concert with one of my guitars once. I find it really amazing that music can bring such history with it. At the time, I just listened to and enjoyed the song, but now knowing my dad's story wound within the notes, I feel so so much more connected to it, and honored that he chose that song, and played it on something I made.

Sam invited my dad to play a tune on the show with him, but my dad chickened out. He told me that might be his biggest regret in life. He was also invited to join Sam's band, but the $52 that the members earned from playing on the Opry every two weeks wasn't much of a paycheck, and my dad again insisted on heading back to Rugby to help his parents with their farm work.

I asked my dad if he worked on any cool guitars while he was helping George. "Yeah, Neil Young, Steven Stills, Elvis.." he said nonchalantly. He told me that Neil Young's D-28 herringbone guitar came into the shop with a bullet hole just to the right of the end pin. Apparently it had been shot through the bottom and when exiting, the bullet blew the top and pickguard to pieces. That had already been fixed, but my dad fitted a patch of ebony to cover the "entry wound". He added an inlay of a broken arrow within the ebony patch. He told me that a few months ago he watched a TV special with Neil Young, who was playing that guitar, the little ebony patch visible from the stage.

So, George might have a bit of an odd personality, but so does my dad. While they go about interacting with people in a different way, I think that they understand each other on a level that us normal folks can't totally comprehend. From listening to each of them talk to me about the other, I hear such a mutual respect that makes me proud to know them both, and to have given a little bit of access to their secret club.

Monday, May 19, 2014


I will begin this entry by apologizing for my several month hiatus from the blog world. In my defense, I have several entries written, but have not felt satisfied with the writing or content enough to share them with you. For that I am also sorry. I want to tell you something really great, and this long, cold winter has left me sticking it out with my head down, just plugging along working on guitars, waiting for the amount of daylight and warm temperatures to lengthen.

Last December, I traveled to Nashville with my dad, and during the drive, he regaled me with great stories of his time working for the legendary guitar expert George Gruhn, experiencing downtown Nashville when he was younger, and odd adventures regarding George’s other interest, reptiles. (These stories will be shared in an entry soon to come.) After hearing those stories, I had been so excited to experience this same energy and see the places he spoke of.

Unfortunately, the trip did not quite live up to my expectations, so I left feeling a bit frustrated with the situation and the trip in general, despite the incredible hospitality and kindness from Christie and Walter Carter, owners of Carter Vintage Guitars, their employees, and of course my best good friend Mac Wiggins. Ask me about it sometime, I will try to explain what upset me in a bit more detail. But after that trip, I vowed to come back to Nashville and have an absolutely amazing time. Last week I did exactly that, and I absolutely cannot wait to tell you about it.

Nick and I loaded up my Subaru with ukulele and guitar cases and headed west on I-40 with Nick Offerman's book Paddle Your Own Canoe blaring from the speakers. Come on, everyone needs a little advice from Ron Swanson, no?  I was a bit apprehensive heading to Country Music Central without my dad this time, but during that last visit I hadn’t been able to show my work to George, and when we visited his shop in December George had requested that I do so. The day before Nick and I left Asheville,  I had apprehensively called George to ask if he would like to see a couple of guitars if I brought them. The anxiety was there because with the exception of my dad, no one I know has had particularly positive things to say about George Gruhn. Luckily, he was very friendly and at least seemed excited for me to bring my guitars by, so I made an appointment for the next day. The story of how that meeting went can wait for another entry as well since I don’t want to overwhelm you with a ridiculously long post right out of the gate.

The evening we arrived in Nashville Nick and I went to dinner with Clay Cook. Clay, if you don't know already, is an incredible guitar player whom I had met few weeks prior to our trip. He randomly walked into the shop saying, “Zac Brown sent me with a gun for you dad. Where should I put it?” Since this was the Friday during Merlefest, I was alone in the shop, trying to glue a neck into a 0-41 sunburst guitar, which is a tedious and important maneuver that I hadn't yet done by myself. I was a bit nervous to be completely unsupervised during the process, but as my dad left that morning he called over his shoulder, “You’ll be fine, just remember to measure twice, cut once.”

I recognized Clay from pictures Christie Carter posted via her facebook page, as when he comes to check out the amazing guitars at her shop, it is definitely an event worth documenting. If you hadn't already deduced, Clay plays guitar in the Zac Brown Band, and is seriously one of the most amazing musicians I have heard in a while. He is also good friends with John Mayer, and was the catalyst behind my opportunity to meet him, which as you know, was a super huge deal for me. I tried so hard not to sound crazy and ask him a thousand questions about John Mayer...tried and failed maybe. He might think I am insane.  

Anyway, I am so glad I got to meet Clay that quiet afternoon in my dad’s shop, because I had the opportunity to find out that he is a super friendly, great guy, who says nice things about my guitars. He happened to be in Nashville the week I was visiting, so we planned to meet up for dinner when Nick and I arrived. 

After we went to dinner at an awesome sushi restaurant Clay recommended, we stopped to see Zac Brown’s new Southern Ground Studios. Now, I will try not to bore you with what interested me the most during that visit, but I will tell you, the floors in that place are insane. Every square foot of that recording studio is covered with the most beautiful flamed koa, maple, and mahogany planks I have ever seen. Apparently Bob Taylor provided boards that were too small to make guitars, so they were used as flooring. I kind of cried a little bit with each step I took. The pristine equipment and the cozy wood-paneled sound booths, smelling faintly similar to my dad’s shop, were all incredible, but I had a difficult time getting over that floor. Think of the beautiful ukuleles that will never come to fruition….Luckily, the events that followed were a tiny bit cooler than the floor. 

As we were concluding our tour, we ended up in the kitchen having a beer with Rebecca Wood, the wife of Oliver Wood (of the awesome band, The Wood Brothers) and a film crew who were following Dave Grohl, the drummer for Nirvana and lead singer and guitar player for The Foo Fighters. "Hey! You guys want to come hang out a while? Dave is coming by with some chicken," Rebecca said to us as we walked into the kitchen. "Dave who?" we wondered...After a few minutes of chatting with the other folks in the room, Dave Grohl walks into the small space with several huge bags filled to the brim with Hattie B's fried chicken. After everybody started passing around the styrofoam meal packages, he mentioned feeling a little bad for buying so much because there was no line when he arrived, but as he took the chicken, he noticed a line forming as the kitchen tried to catch back up to their demand. I am not much for fried chicken, but I guess when Dave Grohl brings it to you, you can’t really say no. I will admit it was some of the best chicken I have had in quite some time.

The next evening, Dave told us, he was playing an unadvertised show at the Blue Bird CafĂ© and Clay graciously invited us to join him. Now, just so you know, Dave Grohl is Nick’s John Mayer, so I think he was just too excited to say much to him. I understand the feeling of meeting someone you think is so talented you don’t really know what to do in their presence, but I am really excited for Nick that he got to shake Dave's hand and hang out with him a little bit. I personally don’t know too much about Dave’s music, but apparently Nick had to replace his Nirvana CDs several times due to wear. The significance of Dave’s kind invitation really hit me when Nick said he could get out of a work gathering to attend the next night’s show and Dave replied, “Well, as we used to say in Nirvana, you can always work later.” Oh right, he is kind of a big deal...

The show at the Blue Bird was better than I expected, seeing as I had no idea what to expect really. The cozy atmosphere of the tiny cafe, set in a strip mall between a massage therapist office and a dry cleaner, that really set the mood for a great, no frills, real show. It was an amazing balance of Dave’s music with my affinity for acoustic guitar. I enjoyed the humanity he brought with his performance, it felt as though he was speaking to each of the audience members individually, as his tone and manner was just the same as when we were eating chicken with him the previous evening. I found it kind of odd but exhilarating to hear songs I had heard on the radio, such as Learn to Fly, Everlong, and Times Like These. My favorite song he did though was called Friend of a Friend, which Dave wrote for Kurt Cobain. The story that led to the song was sad, but so endearing. Also, I very much appreciate his talent and dexterity as he learned that song on Kurt’s left-handed guitar.

I would say those first few days really highlighted our trip, but we also explored downtown, experienced a show at the Ryman Theater, found some beautiful historic buildings, walked down Broadway with its multitude of retina-burning neon signs, and judged the unappealing outfit of choice for young ladies: super short denim shorts with cowboy boots. It became a game for us to find evidence of this unfortunate fashion statement, typically preferred by girls running in hoards trailing a tiara-veiled bachelorette. All in all, we had a great time, Nashville was a kind place, full of super folks. Can't wait to go back and hang out with my new friends! 

Me with Clay Cook at the Blue Bird Cafe