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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, April 30, 2015

E.C. Ball

View from the top of Quillen Ridge.
Springtime is one of my favorite seasons, everything looks new and full of hope. The trees are dotted with bright green buds that always bring an image of Bob Ross grinning into his paint palette declaring, "Let's put some happy little leaves on those happy trees!" And when I am in Rugby, spring is my favorite time to run up Quillen Ridge. The first mile and a half of the gravel road, popping out a short ways from the Rugby sign, is a bit of a climb, but after that the harsh grade gives way to rolling hills with peeks of incredible views.  The road winds between the trees, providing glimpses of sparsely habited property.  Harper and I trot past several old houses that were abandoned long ago; one tired tattered house in particular brings thoughts of my heritage, and the incredible folks who have lived in this tiny corner of the world.

My dad talks a lot about E.C. Ball. He was a musician who played guitar in a band called the Rugby Gully Jumpers with my grandfather, sang gospel songs with his wife Orna, drove the school bus, and lived up the holler on Quillen Ridge in Rugby, VA. I never gave him significant thought until I really started to listen to the stories my dad tells.

EC Ball's home today.
The first and most important thing you need to know about E.C. is that he had a 1949 Martin D-28. No one else in the community could afford anything of that caliber and my dad wanted nothing more than to make a guitar just like it so that he could have one too. E.C. was incredibly proud and protective of his guitar and no matter how many times my dad asked, he was never allowed to remove the strings and peek inside to see how it was made. E.C. would sometimes let him play the guitar, only sitting on a box in the middle of the Rugby store, with anything that had the potential to scratch moved away so the guitar had no chance of getting dinged.  He was allowed to play the guitar for a few minutes, and E.C. would only occasionally teach him a new lick. "He was kind of crotchety, and not a very patient teacher, so I learned my own style just like he learned his own style from listening to records of Riley Tuckett of the Skillet Lickers,"  my dad told me.

I asked what E.C.'s job was,  curious if he was just a musician or if he did something else for income as well. My dad told me that he was the bus driver for his high school. My dad never took the bus so he didn't have anything much to add about that aspect of the job, but he said the bus drivers would drive in the mornings then stay near the school all day, walking down the hill to the store to loaf a while, then walking back up the hill to play horse shoes at the school, then driving the kids back home in the afternoon. My dad told me, "I was really good at horseshoes, they would let me play with them sometimes, but I would whoop them." He said the old men took their game of horseshoes very seriously and would never let kids play with them so the fact that my dad was invited to play was a big deal.

Like my dad and I, E.C. also enjoyed working with his hands. The agriculture teacher at the high school was also assigned to be the shop teacher, but he never stepped foot in the shop and never taught the kids anything therefore the shop was left empty most of the time. Of course the exception being for the occasional curious student, one of whom shoved a broom handle into the jointer to see what would happen and now lives without a pointer finger. The local men would dabble in woodworking in the unoccupied shop, and E.C. would be a regular visitor, making small furniture, gun racks (one of which he made for my dad), and little accents to hang on his home. I knew which house was his because of the two diamond shaped decorations adorning each side of the door of his now dilapidated house. While the current state of the house brought some sadness, I felt special that I knew E.C. made those in my dad's high school wood shop.

EC, his fingerboard and my dad's first inlay job.
E.C. was also interested in guitar work. Every time I walk down the hall to the kitchen in my dad's house, I pass a display of EC Ball's fingerboard from that old Martin. (My dad has the rest of the guitar in his collection, but the fingerboard was removed at some point and he was able to get it back from the repair shop where it was taken off.) I have always looked at the display with apathy, but now I appreciate the significance. E.C. redid the inlay on his guitar himself, sanding down mother-of-pearl buttons from his wife's church coat and filing them to the shape of those typically found in prewar 45-style Martins and inlaying them in place of the typical 28-style inlay markers. I also noticed a little ECB inlaid in the space between the 18th and 19th frets. "I did that," my dad told me, "it was a huge deal that he trusted me enough to finally be allowed to take the strings off and inlay that for him."

Since I enjoy inlay work, I like to think of E.C. as a bit of kindred spirit in that respect. He had a preacher friend who saved and saved and eventually was able to buy himself a brand new D-28. He asked E.C. to custom inlay the fingerboard to match the '49 Martin, and E.C. happily accepted. Halfway through the job, he accidentally inlayed one of the large pearl pieces between the wrong two frets. In a panic, E.C. took the guitar to my dad's shop and asked if there was anything to do to fix it; was there anything to fill the hole in the fingerboard that wouldn't be noticed. My dad said, "No, I don't think there is anything in the world that would hide a mistake like that, but leave it here. I will look at it and see if I can get it fixed by tomorrow morning." The fingerboard had binding on it, so my dad simply removed the ebony from between the frets and replaced the whole piece, covering the seams with the binding on the sides and the frets above and below the piece. He then put the inlay in the correct spot. "I've never seen a grouchy old man as happy as he was then," my dad said when E.C. came in and saw the repair job my dad did. He looked at it a while, then asked if my dad wouldn't mind just going ahead and doing the rest of the inlay job. I keep that little anecdote in my back pocket just in case I ever need to do a similar repair.

There's so much more about E.C. and Orna Ball that I haven't touched on and even more that I don't even know, but these are the memories and stories I want to tell.  I'm sure I could scare up a follow-up post in the future. The songs and biography you can probably find online somewhere; acestry.com will tell you that E.C's wife Orna and my Granny were first cousins. The stories I like to know are ones of mundane daily experiences. I love that in this tiny place that is so insignificant in the grand scheme of the world, there have lived so many talented, incredible people to share their immense gifts. I am so proud to be part of and inspired by this community and I don't take one step up Quillen Ridge for granted.

E.C.'s house today, featuring the diamond shaped decorations he made himself.

Detail of E.C.'s home decorations.

Downtown Rugby featuring the old store my dad played E.C.'s Martin.
Check out this video of one of EC's original songs! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Working From Home

There's a magnetic type of energy that seems to surround my dad's shop, attracting swarms of curious visitors each week. They bring treats for my dad, ask questions about production, and always want to help with some aspect of guitar building. While I typically enjoy the excitement that visitors tend to bring, it is nice just to have some time to have the shop to myself to focus solely on my work. Most of you know that my dad works until well past midnight every day, so when I am there I make sure to get up early enough in the morning to have several hours to work on my own. I always take time to enjoy the silence before the storm, as I like to think of it. I like that it is quiet, unless I am the one making noise, I feel productive and am not stopping production to chat, or move pie and a barrel of cheezy poofs from my workspace.

Working at my house in Asheville is somewhat similar to the silent shop mornings. The only visitors I get are Harper coming to remind me she is bored, maybe a bee wandering up from the woods beyond my deck to see what is happening, or an occasional neighbor. I have been home for the past few weeks and have been cutting pearl, putting together ukuleles, and inlaying fingerboards. Oh and writing blogs :-)

Last week, on my deck, I shaped braces, shaved kerfing, and fitted the top and back onto a soprano ukulele. I am really excited about this particular ukulele because I am making it for a good friend. When it is possible, I like to take time to get to know someone I make an instrument for, at least little bit, because I think that makes the instrument more of a collaboration, and less something I just make. I have found that the best partnerships are when I am given artistic license to make what I know the person will love, adding little touches for them, but keeping the artistry for myself. This mutual trust is sometimes difficult to achieve, so when it happens, as in this case, it is a truly positive and exciting experience.

Signed uderside of soprano top for my friend Kyler.

The koa for this ukulele is a piece left over from my #16 guitar. I am so glad I was able to use it because that piece of wood is more special than most, with curls radiating out like sun rays through the grain. I am a firm believer in wasting as little materials as possible, this incredible wood especially, and sopranos allow for that more willingly than larger instruments which I enjoy.

Kyler's initials, inlaid in the
headstock of his ukulele.
While I miss working with my dad, and having his vast guitar knowledge and building expertise just feet away, it has been great to get to work on my instruments on my own time, then go for a run with Harper at the Biltmore Estate every day. Once we run past the lines of people on Segways winding their way down the paths surrounding the winery, we are generally alone to enjoy the scenery and history of the property. The only thing missing is a visitor or two to perk up a lonely afternoon. Will you come visit me in Asheville when (someday) I have my very own shop here? I sure hope you will.