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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)

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