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.


3 comments:

  1. Wayne and George are top notch people in my book. I'm proud to know both of them.

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  3. great story and very well written

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