About me

My photo
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 23, 2020

Uncle Max

I guess the biggest constant in our life is that people come into it and people go, around like a carousel. We welcomed a new family member into our lives on August 18th, a little girl we named Sylvia Matilda (more on that later), then a couple of weeks later my Uncle Max left us. To me that loss has been felt little by little for many years, as he suffered from a condition called Pick's Disease for the last fifteen years or so. Pick's is an affliction similar to Alzheimer's where the mind is overtaken and memories are replaced with bits gray nothing, so we have been watching Max's benevolent personality and the light in his eyes slowly fade as the disease stuffed more and more gray where he should have been. My Aunt Pat gave every second of her day and night to care for him as his condition worsened, never faltering in her devotion over all these years. He was able to live at home until his last day, for which I know my dad and all of us are extremely grateful to her for that. She told me once she never thought twice about her role as care giver because she's his partner in all things, so why wouldn't she support him when he needs it most? I remember thinking at the time that it was such a simple plain response that put a true marriage into stark perspective for me Few of us will be lucky enough to find such a partner and cultivate a relationship like theirs. Before his illness, they shared so many loving and fun times with each other, they are countless and precious so I won't try to share their special stories with you. Instead of that huge and likely impossible task, I thought I'd simply share a couple of small, perhaps insignificant seeming, stories about my uncle because to me he was never anything short of the best. And maybe more importantly for all the rest of us, without Max there wouldn't be a well known luthier and musician name Wayne Henderson. About that I am positive.  

When I think about my real Uncle Max, the one from my childhood, I simply remember kindness, protection, safety, and love. He never greeted me without the warmest, most genuine smile that made me feel sure he was truly glad to see me when I would spend time in Rugby with my dad and Granny. He often sat in the big scratchy chair in my Granny's living room, the one that stood along the wall that shared the front porch on the opposing side. His and Pat's burgundy GMC Jimmy would usually already be parked on the lawn when we all gathered for Sunday dinner, Max parked in that chair when we walked through the front door, that familiar brush against the bristly carpet as the door welcomed us into the front room. Throughout our visit, when Shirleen rolled out biscuits, Pat and Granny worked on simmering green beans in pork fat, and baking apples in cinnamon, the men talked hunting in the living room, and even when we all sat around the round oak table for dinner, the correspondence from Max's rescue squad radio was turned down, but he never turned it off. I think that is what I remember most, the crackling voices and subsequent beeps coming from his hip pocket, the chance that a community member could be in trouble. He seemed to always be watching out for someone. 

Once when I was about ten my dad and I drove up the gravel road around the corner from downtown Rugby that lead to Max's cabin. He was especially proud of his little log cabin that he and Pat built and cultivated like the grandest garden. The days they had off, they would be up there on the hill working to improve the property and little wooden house. That day, Max and driven my grandpa's old forest green 1964 Chevrolet truck to the cabin, it sat proud
ly in the driveway, the big round fenders gleaming in the sunlight. I had just watched Forrest Gump and remembered there were a gang of boys ridiculing Forrest from the bed of a truck that looked exactly like that. I jumped into the back just to see what it would be like standing up behind the cab going fast, not that I wanted to bully anyone who couldn't walk, mind you. In my haste to get up there, I disturbed a nest of yellow jackets hidden under the floorboards of the bed. I remember being stung several times and screaming in pain. My dad and Max tried to figure out what happened as Pat did her best to soothe me and my stung leg. It was Max though who was able to help me feel better. I remember that very clearly. I always had a feeling an inherent trust that he would be able to make it better when there was a crisis such as an angry yellow jacket. 

Bees or emergencies or simply being a friend, Max was always there to help in most situations. He provided a solid support and friendship for my dad since the day he was brought home from the hospital. They were buddies first, brothers second. I remember Max always called Daddy Bud I think the most important thing Max did for my dad was to give him the gift of music. He was the one who bought the old Guild from Katherine, our neighbor across the street. He was the one who taught him a few chords even though Max didn't really play himself, but he had gotten the mind to try for a while when noticed my dad's interest and excitement and instead of keeping it for himself, Max passed the guitar to him. After my dad took off and lapped him several times with pure innate ability, Max wasn't jealous or competitive, he just set out to play the mandolin instead so he could accompany my dad as he quickly and easily learned every song he could on that old guitar. As my dad grew more notable in the bluegrass community, Max quietly kept rhythm by his side, backing him up as he had done in every aspect if their lives. In fact, my favorite story Daddy has told me about his brother, whom he looked up to immensely, wasn't even about music, it was about a fish. 

There's a large fishing hole in front of my Aunt Shirleen's house. The waters swirling and tugging the rocks toward the earth on its rush to find lower ground. Old native trout spend their days ambling among the current of the cool deep water, feeding on flies and bugs that meet their fate in the bubbling depths of the creek. Five year old Wayne rests his toes as close to the edge of the steep bank as possible without risking the earth giving way underneath his weight, staring at the largest trout meandering among the folds of the water. It is opening day of fishing season and he can hardly wait to drop his lure. The warden makes the rounds ensuring no one begins a second before noon though, so he has to be patient. After what feels like an eternity, though the clock only reads about nine am, Wayne can't wait any longer and quietly drops his hook into the water. The wait time for a trout to bite is so long, and he wanted to get a head start so when noon rolled around maybe he would be close to catching something. Not five minutes pass since his bait hit the water that that largest brown trout he had ben eying in the hole clamps onto his line. He's too stunned and small to lift it himself, but seeing what has happened, Max reaches over to help Bud bring his aquatic beast onto the shore. Max was known around the community as a skilled fisherman, Wayne always wanted to fish with him. Oftentimes, instead of taking the glory of catching a large trout to bring home for dinner, Max would subtly hook a fish, then acting bored and tired, would hand the pole to his little brother to hold, just until something caught of course. After a minute or two, lo and behold, Wayne would have one hooked! Then Max would help him reel it in giving Wayne the pride and happiness of catching a fish for his family to eat. In those days, trout was some of the best food the family could have, so there was no way they were throwing that large a trout back into the water, warden be damned, but they both knew they couldn't afford to pay a citation. Once the trout laid gleaming in the light spring grass, Max, not wanting to implicate them both, slid his brother's slimy catch down into his knee high rubber boot. He walked it the half a mile back up the hill to his sister's house and snuck it to her to be cleaned and filleted for dinner. He never scolded, he never mentioned his damp, pungent sock, he never mentioned the trouble the fish could have caused. He was simply happy for his brother, and did what he could to let him have the glory and happiness of catching that trout. 

There aren't many siblings who love and care for each other like my dad's do. Of that I am certain. I have witnessed it; the evidence is everywhere. In the copper hammer that Max made, my dad hammers every fret of every guitar with that hammer no matter that he has others, better suited for the job even, but instead of grabbing one of those, he will spend precious minutes sifting through piles of junk in his shop to find where he mislaid that old copper one with the edges banged soft and the handle scratched by time. It is in the other instrument making tools Max invented long ago to help my dad further his passion. I hear it in the music they played together, Max's signature trill of the mandolin steady behind my dad's hot guitar lick. It is in the strawberry shortcake we have every year on Max's summer birthday, because wild strawberries are what grew in his mom's back yard in June. It's in the cannon Max gave my dad as a Christmas present 40 years ago that we shoot off every Thanksgiving Day. We even did this year, though it wasn't quite Thanksgiving, and it was only a fraction of our regular gathering. That love is still there even though Max physically is not. 

Max, Shirleen and Daddy on a chilly day

I am not the smartest of folks, but I have gleaned a few important things in my thirty six years. One of the main ones is this: those people who are there for you now, unfalteringly, unassuming, quietly supporting you in the shadows of those big bright dreams you are focused on are not to be taken for granted. Life is precious and delicate. It is as fragile as bringing a file to the narrowest piece of abalone, but those people who hold you up are hopefully not really gone because the lessons they impart and their love for us linger behind them like rosewood dust. It's just time we put our own fish in our boot and walk up the hill. 

My first picture with my Uncle Max

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Uncharted Territory

Things have changed, and they have changed rapidly. I assume you have also noticed these changes. In the midst of a virus that could either kill you or show no symptoms, allowing you to spread it to people you love who could perhaps die from it or show no symptoms, my husband and I are expecting a new little apprentice next month. Both of these big events, globally and personally, have altered our travel plans, the way we interact with each other as a community, and how I am working on guitars these days.

First, if you are up to date on my past blogs, you already know that I had a miscarriage about a year and a half ago. I am not shy about sharing that information because I don't want anyone else who might have dealt with a loss like that to feel how I did then; as though my body had failed me, that I should hide it away like a deep dark secret because it is inherently wrong to kill a being and that's what my body did. I wanted to talk about it then and am feeling encouraged to do so now. I feel that talking about it regularly, as though it was just a thing that happens sometimes, like rain at a picnic even though you checked the weather forecast and all was supposed to be clear, will help quell the guilt I shouldn't have to feel, as simply sometimes pregnancies aren't viable. I also mention it now because it is common enough that we, as women working to start a family, need to know it is ok for that to happen sometimes. It's not the end of our journey if we don't want it to be. We shouldn't sweep those experiences under the rug and dismiss them as a blip; they are part of our history, just like scars carved into our skin, or scratches dinged into the finish of a guitar. I am proud of every mark I may have accidentally left from loving on an instrument I play, why not acknowledge and appreciate everything we see as a flaw in life and see it for what it really is? A life we lucky enough to have lived in, loved on, experienced. My loss feels like a jagged scar set firmly within my soul that won't be erased by a healthy pregnancy, but I wouldn't want it to. I am extremely thankful for that experience because now I know I am ready, I am able, and after seeing so many friends get the babies and family they want, I also know we have just been waiting for it to be our turn.

Eight months in and I still have no plans to stop building things for you. I love what I do so much, and she has allowed me to keep working as usual, albeit sometimes a bit later in the day and new maneuvers to fit around the table saw. Having her there during each task also bring a lot more thought to how I protect myself, and her, from ingesting dust and running the louder more vibrate-y machines. My dad has been kind enough to do my finish work for me though I wish he didn't have to as he has enough on his plate. As usual, he seems ok to help us out as he does without a thought for everything else I might need.

I am trying to do what I can to help him as well while we feel our way through this uncertain time of Coronavirus. About a month and a half ago restrictions in South Carolina relaxed enough for him to be able to have his prostate removed. I drove him down, was allowed to go as far as the surgery waiting room and say goodbye, but was shooed out immediately. I then proceeded to wait for updates in my car for the next seven hours. It seems worse than it sounds, I felt safer waiting in the parking lot than a hospital waiting room, just being a pregnant person without access to a bathroom wasn't ideal. But like spraying my finish, I know he would do it for me without thinking twice.

Following a successful surgery where no cancer was found to have spread outside the prostate, my dad then recovered for a week at my house because it was closer to his doctor than his house in Virginia. I don't know about him, but Nick and I really enjoyed his stay. We played Tonk together most evenings, gambling with the same pile of ones each night until someone ran out, and waited all day to watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

Since the pandemic began in March, my dad seems to have picked up a habit of coming to the house to watch shows he likes because less folks have been visiting the shop. I know he enjoys the company, and it isn't ideal for all the people who love to come hang out all night in Wayne's shop, but for me it is literally the first time in my 35 years that I can make dinner and expect my dad to come eat it with me or play a game of Tonk during the commercials of The Naked Gun and not have to worry about each car that drives by is coming to take his attention from what ever we are doing. Also he can plan to go fishing with Nick and then actually go because he doesn't have to visit with someone else who shows up unexpectedly. Another small silver lining was the other day, as we all rocked in the chairs on his porch, he said, "You know, I've never really spent a summer here. I am always out traveling or there is the festival, and Galax and going out to play every weekend. It is really pretty here in the summer."

For the past few months we have been doing what we can to be careful and keep each of us safe while we wait for my dad to recover fully from surgery and for me to have a baby. I appreciate the folks who have called the shop to keep Daddy company instead of visiting for now, and the ones who do still come by unexpectedly, wearing a mask just in case and visiting from the driveway. I know some people, especially around our area, don't believe this virus is as scary as it feels like to me, but it matters greatly that my dad stay safe, it should to all those people who think so much of him, so wearing a little mask or just calling instead of visiting shouldn't require a second thought. I know my safety matters less to most of my dad's visitors, but please consider that I am carrying someone else in my body who didn't ask for any of this nonsense but I go keep my dad company while I have the chance to work with him. If you are one of those folks calling and wearing masks, know it is much appreciated that you understand my concerns and are accommodating for now.

When I head up to work in my dad's shop, I'd like to say that I am helping him with some of his work as well, but it isn't quite true. While we were all hanging out at my house after his surgery, someone emailed me to ask my dad what his plans were for his #800 guitar as they knew it was getting close in the serial number queue and were vying for a slot. I dutifully asked Daddy what he thought he'd do with it since he happened to be sitting on my couch watching a baseball game. He said he thought he would make #800 for his granddaughter so she would have a birth year guitar for when she was old enough to play it. My heart melted, as I had no idea he would even have thought to make her a guitar at all, especially before she arrived.

#800 is now underway. I have left all of the details of that guitar to him and what he wants to make for her, but I insisted on having hearts on the fingerboard, like the fret markers on my style 5 he made for my eighth birthday. "I wish there was some of that Truman Capote's yacht wood still around, like what mine was made from," I said one day while we were in the shop. He turned and pulled down a dusty, oxidized, and cracked side and said, this is all that's left of it. I bet I could flatten it back out and use it for the peg head. He did. My other request was that the inlay not be farmed out to a CNC machine, either he could cut hearts or I would be glad to do it. He said he would like something fancy and for me to design it, so I worked the hearts, same size and shape of his, into a little vine design. It was an odd feeling, wanting to do something so well because it wasn't just for any client (whom I always want to do my best to make them as happy as I can) but for my daughter, whom I have never met. It felt even more important that I do a good job for her.

Brazilian rosewood from the bar of Truman Capote's yacht.

Now, how will it work to fit caring for this new tiny person into my building schedule, you ask? To tell you the truth, I don't know. When I attended the Woodstock Invitational guitar show I asked several of the women builders and while a few had children, none had been building instruments while pregnant or raising babies. I have recently met a couple of women in my lady luthier group who have had kids while working as luthiers, but they live in countries where six months of maternity leave is provided by their government. Aside from feeling jealous, albeit happy for them, that they have such a great safety net in their healthcare system where ours is sorely lacking, I suppose I will just have to figure it out on my own here. Hopefully I will be able to find a balance between doing the job I absolutely love and caring for my growing family. Stay tuned, it is sure to be a fun, but perhaps bumpy, ride.

Some of us do better on the Covid diet than others...

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


I have this memory of sitting at a weathered picnic table, the sun warming my shoulders through my light t shirt. Nine dried, brown speckled beans piled together in front of me, nine sitting in front of my dad, two beans sitting in the middle of the table as though they were preparing for a duel. My dad passes five cards to me and five to himself from a deck he sits between us. I don't remember who won that game, but I remember the rough splinters of the picnic table, the smell of the cards mingling with freshly cut grass, the soft click as one card was laid on top of a pile of other discards, the excitement of risking and perhaps winning a bean. I remember we played with beans because my dad proclaimed that my Granny wouldn't allow gambling of any kind, but she was willing to sacrifice twenty of her baking beans for our game. I remember absolutely loving having something my dad enjoyed doing with me. Something he enjoyed doing with other people, like playing guitar, but I got to be part of it, only a little bit less skilled as he. The memory flooded my senses as Nick and I looked for things to pass the time while we have been at home waiting for the coronavirus currently wreaking havoc on our world to ease. I spotted the deck of cards sitting on our little shelf crammed with board games and thought, didn't I used to play a fun game with my dad? What was it called? Didn't he tell me about how he learned to play?

A favorite of my dad's guitar aficionado friends has always been a guy named John Cephas. He has since passed away, but he was such a bright character highlighting my childhood when he would occasionally pop into the gray everyday goings on of little me. He was an incredible blues musician, but that part was less exciting to me when I was young than was his fiery, no nonsense personality. He was always kind, but didn't shy from voicing his strong opinions and always preferred to be in charge. Hm, sort of like me, now that I'm thinking about it.

One of the strongest memories I have of John was that he insisted on driving the windy back roads of Rugby, rather than simply ride with my dad who knew the area well, as we set off in search of a restaurant for dinner one evening. I am told he always preferred to drive, even in huge unfamiliar cities, such as Boston, where the drivers are unapologetically aggressive. But even those drivers were no match for John, he cut people off and wound in and out of traffic with the best of them, shouting insults as he went.

That one evening though, my dad and several other not especially small guys stuffed themselves into the back of John's minivan while I was presented with the seat of honor next to him, up front. We all clung to our armrests as John swung that minivan around the curves of 58 chatting away as he drove. He asked my dad if he had ever seen any bears wandering around these parts. My dad answered that no, he hadn't seen many bears in his fifty-some years of living in the area, though evidence that they existed was prevalent, especially in the summer. Not five minutes after that exchange, John proclaims, "Well what's that then?!" as we came upon a large black bear trundling up the double yellow lines ahead of us. John increased his speed until the minivan hovered right behind the bear, and we followed, staring in bewildered silence, until the bear finally turned left and headed down the bank and into the dark woods. While there are many bears hanging out near my house in Asheville on any given day, I believe that was the first bear I had ever seen in real life. And I have John Cephas to thank for letting me have the best view in the house.

My dad told me that John taught him to play Tonk, an old card game favored by blues musicians from the deep south, consisting of each player being dealt five cards with the end goal of having the lowest value on the cards in your hand. Players throw money (or whatever is available) into the pot and take turns working toward reducing the value of the cards in their hand by making spreads or playing on other's spreads. Whoever thinks they have the lowest value at any given time is at liberty to say Tonk, and present their cards, thus winning the pot, unless someone else has a lower hand. There area few other rules, some of which my dad accused John of making up as we went, but that is the basic gist.

I learned that my dad was taught to play Tonk on his first tour with the Masters of Steel String Guitar. Some pretty heavy hitters in the guitar world pulled up a chair to also play the game during down time. The likes of John's good pal Phil Wiggins, Jerry Douglas, Albert Lee, Cal Farlow and Ledward Kaapana were among the players from that first tour. John took the game very seriously, holding his five cards close to his chest so no one would try to peek over at them. He also would only play for a nickel a hand. When my dad asked him why not play for a dollar, John was adamantly against it, saying that's simply too much money, a dollar leads to fights. My dad told me that John would never willingly give up his nickels, though he also said, "I am sure he'd give you anything you ever needed or asked for as long as you weren't trying to win it." As we chatted, I asked why (another absolute favorite) Eddie Pennington hadn't been mentioned in any of these stories, as I knew he was also a Master of the steel string guitar. My dad replied that Eddie wasn't on that first tour, but he also didn't remember him playing much in the subsequent games that occurred on the following tours of which he had been a part.

Because having an excuse to chat with Eddie Pennington is never something I will pass up, I decided to ask him what he remembers of playing Tonk and he told me that he only participated in one game while he was out on tour with John. He said that my dad always sat quietly with his hand, unreadable as he played. I remember that about playing with him as well, but I also recall that he would comment if I discarded something low, "A three?! Who ever heard of such a thing?! Wheeew!" Eddie told me that his sole Tonk game was the only time he drank scotch. John insisted that he partake while he was at the table so Eddie reluctantly obliged, as you don't say no to John Cephas. He said he regretted it later that evening when the headache bloomed, but not as much as some of the other folks who may have indulged a bit too much in John's scotch.

Following the tour, my dad brought the game back to Rugby, teaching his friends and me to play. Most Monday evenings, my dad would ceremoniously make a large pot of spaghetti, simmering a little packet of seasoning, butter and tomato paste together to make his signature sauce. I remember him being especially proud of it, though I didn't really understand why. (Don't tell him I said that.) Gerald, Jimmy Edmonds, Tommy Sells, were the regulars, though sometimes a few other local guys would stroll in for a game of Tonk and a bowl of spaghetti at the dining room table.  Daddy would hand me a stack of dollar bills from a coffee can he kept under the placemats in the buffet, insisting I not to mention it to Granny as he counted each one out. Gerald has always taken gambling seriously, as has the used car salesman Tommy, so it was no surprise that I very rarely won a hand when I joined the game. I feel like Tommy never felt much remorse about winning money from a twelve year old girl, but Gerald would oftentimes slip a couple dollars back to me when I inevitably lost all of my dollars. One big regret I harbor is that Gerald mentioned wanting to get the old game and spaghetti night back running the last few times we were together. I sure wish we had.

I thought of those spaghetti nights as Nick and I got into our rounds of Tonk on our couch here in Asheville, gambling with left over Valentine candy hearts I have yet to throw out since their hayday in February. Dealing the cards, I got to thinking about how much of my luthier work is also heavily based on gambling. Setting a guitar neck for instance. So much guess work goes into it; I am pretty sure it is going to work, I should win the endgame if I set everything up just how I have been taught, but sometimes the wood simply has other plans. Occasionally the neck material is very stiff and will back bow even after you perfectly measure and prepare the neck blank, once you glue the fingerboard to it and install frets. Conversely, sometimes the neck will pull too much with the tension that comes with stringing the instrument, causing the perfect measurement I calculated to end up being lower. Sometimes, the humidity surrounding the guitar causes changes to the wood that pull my perfect measurements out of alignment as well. There really is just no way to be sure in the end, I just have to take a gamble. In my job I take the best risk and measure as precisely as possible, and prepare for the unknowns as best I can. Worst case scenario something is pulled out of alignment after the neck is glued into the body and I have to reset a neck. It isn't my favorite task, but sometimes, like pretty much always in Tonk, my best gamble simply doesn't pay off.

In order to get a neck to set correctly and comfortably, I have to consider three angles when I cut a dovetail joint. First, how evenly the joint sits into the angled slot cut in the block of the body, using shims if necessary to make the fingerboard and string height even across the plane of the board. Second, how evenly the fingerboard fits on the neck and over the soundhole rings, making the strings align evenly into the bridge pins. Third, and most importantly, how backward or forward the neck is tipped when it sits onto the sides of the guitar. This angle affects the height of the string action, avoiding making the strings buzz from hitting the frets, or sit too high off of the fingerboard making playing difficult. This important measurement is also the biggest gamble, as so much depends on how the wood moves after pressure from strings is applied, where the other measurements are able to be made more secure with the addition of shims along the dovetail joint. Does that make sense? If not, you're not alone. It has taken me ten years to get consistently competent at neck setting, though I am not, and probably never will be, immune to the gamble that comes from estimating those angles. Below are the steps I take to get a solid neck angle in pictures. Everyone does things differently, but if you were ever curious how I make your guitar easy to play, this is the behind the scenes work necessary to make that happen! I figure if even an expert like Wayne Henderson has to do neck sets sometimes, this job is done only as well as it can be in the moment, and hopefully our gamble pays off. Stay safe and healthy as we all weather this storm of uncertainty!

First, to get the neck angle, measure how far off square the body is. Usually the back is a little higher. 

Cut the neck blank to tip a bit further back than the body angle. Then cut the dovetail using that measurement.

Check the height at where the saddle will be. It shouldn't be flush with the top, but a low angle is ok for now.

Because I set the angle of the blade cutting the sides of the dovetail past square so it matches the angle of the body, the string height angle will temporarily be too forward due to the excess wood on each side. See the gap in the middle? After the heel is cut to size, the angle should be correct
It is important that the joint is snug against the body.
I like to have about 1/8" between the straight edge and my guitar body.

The fingerboard has to be even with the soundhole too! 

Ideally, if you cut your dovetail correctly and the angles are set for the fit of the neck, the fingerboard should be even with the nut/headstock end of your neck blank too! 

Hopefully this angle will allow for a low action with a playable neck when all is said and done! 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


The other day it snowed. Pretty steadily throughout the afternoon; little compact flakes fell and gathered among the hibernating blades of grass. I love to see the midwinter landscape transform from dingy beige to glistening white, providing a sparkly purpose for the cold. Snow hasn't occurred much where I live this year (I won't go into my thoughts on climate change but you should know that it is a thing we need to work on) but the other day the snow fell. One downside of the icy downpour was that I couldn't just fill a mug with scalding water and warm my hands with my tea while tucking myself under a fluffy blanket on the couch to stare at it out the window. I had to layer up and drive with my dad across the mountain to Abingdon because I had agreed to join him for a Tour of the Crooked Road show at the Barter Theater. We were to do a set of storytelling and weave some music in among our stories. That is the only reason I agreed, because if I had had to go and play my ukulele for fifty minutes, first I wold run out of material I can play in about 4 minutes, and also I am sure people would have asked for their money back and I don't need the legendary Barter angry with me. Anyway, I packed my dream of watching the snow from the warmth and safety of the couch into my ukulele case and off we (slowly) drove to Abingdon.

I wasn't quite sure what we would talk about as my dad is more of a 'wing it' kind of performer, where I feel that I need to be prepared before I say anything in front of an audience of more than 5 people. On the drive toward Chilhowie, after passing her little house on the hill to the left, thoughts drifted to the Bible my Aunt Shirleen gave me a couple of weeks back. It belonged to my Granny Ollie, who got it from her mom Laura Jane Hall. The book is saturated with family memories and brought me to images of stories my dad and Granny and Shirleen have always happily passed along to me.

Leafing gingerly through the delicate pages the other day, I saw births and deaths from my family written in unsteady handwriting spanning back to the mid 1800s. Looking at the names obviously scribed with a turkey feather, turned quill, I was surprised to see my name in there too, under my dad's, his siblings and my Granny. It made me realize that I had no choice to be born into this special family, and all of the members who came before me passed through their genes a trait that made me want to do what I do for a living. My grandpa made coffins. I remember once my dad telling me that everyone came to Grandpa Orren when that unfortunate time came for their family members because his were the best made coffins in the county. My great Granny Ollie and my Granny Sylvia were incredible quilters, I often admire their perfect uniform stitches woven through the fabric by hand. When I was young, Granny taught me to stitch quilt squares by hand, and even though I have a sewing machine, I have never found it as easy or as satisfying to use as simply a needle and thread. You might remember from a past post, that my dad's Grandma Henderson had the unbelievable patience to stand in her garden long enough to shoot a vole from between her feet. Just like how my dad has the patience to work a piece of wood into a guitar part until it is the most perfect it can possibly be. I believe that all of these attributes have flowed from generation to generation into my dad, and into me. Because I stumbled into doing the job I do after trying some other things first, I wholeheartedly believe my family and the blood in my veins is why I am a luthier.

We talked our way through family memories and added a few stories as to why my dad and I each became a luthier sprinkling a few songs in between. My dad told the audience that he used to walk to the farm neighboring his parents' to spend time with Granny Ollie right after her husband Orren passed away so she wouldn't feel lonely. Often he would bring a guitar he had been working on and play her favorite song, Wildwood Flower. We played it for her. He told of the moonshiner that visited her house and offered to buy my dad's brand new 45 style guitar that he had spent a year working on for $500. Now, still using some of the tools he bought with the money from that guitar, he can put a guitar together in one day. Following our chat, The Whitetop Mountain Band brought the music and more stories from farther up on the mountain which was really fun. I enjoyed dancing along to their old time music. Outside, the snow poured on.

After the show, on our drive back through the Jefferson National Forest, I got to thinking about how Helen would say that her dates with my dad were always during the drive to the venue where they were going to play. She said she had to share all the other times but when they were driving that was the time they could just chat and spend time together. I find that to be the same situation for me, as it is always a special miracle when I find myself alone with him in his shop. While driving, nobody can just hop in the back seat so some time is guaranteed. Thinking back to my youth, I really only spent time with just my dad when he met my mom at the halfway point between their homes and we drove to or from his house. I remember I would ask him to make up stories to entertain me as we drove for what felt like years. I still remember the landmarks I pass now still perched along the way that would designate the amount of time until we arrived home.

As we navigated the slick road back from Abingdon, I thought back those special car rides, to when it snowed. I remember thinking that the snow looked like stars rushing by the windshield. Star Trek was on TV at that time so I'd pretend I was on the Starship Enterprise zooming through space about to save the universe with the guy from Reading Ranbow who wore a headband across face instead of in his hair.

Breaking into my memories, my dad said, "I remember one time we were driving home from Shirleen and Cliff's house when they lived Sugar Grove. My dad was driving and I must have been about eight or nine, because my favorite place to ride was standing up by the dashboard hooking my fingers in the defrost vents. We had a '52 Chevrolet pick up truck and I'd ride like that all the time so I could see everything there was to see. But when it snowed it was mesmerizing, like flying through space or something. This time though I was kind of worried we might not make it across the mountain. It was right....here," he said pointing to a curve in the road, "But Dad would have pulled chains out and put them on if we had been in any danger of sliding off the road. Once we got around that curve I wasn't as scared we wouldn't make it home." The snow wasn't as deep as his memory, but still, Highway 16 was covered in white slick snow. We carefully made our way home. I sat in the passenger seat feeling thankful for this little bit of time just with me and my Daddy, and the stories he is still willing to tell me filling the car.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


It's interesting that the more experiences you gain in life, be it your job, your relationships, your hobbies, the biggest constant is that elements are going to change. Usually it is an incremental shift, perhaps a skill you practice over an over you suddenly realize you can do it better and more easily, or the way you stand with your feet in the sand and watch the waves wash over them until you realize the water has moved the sand around your feet until you are no longer standing on top of the earth. Whatever it is, things shift and move forward. It seems I am at one of those points when I look down and see that my feet have been completely enveloped into the sand when I have done nothing but stand still.

This Thanksgiving, things felt different. So different. In order to help quell my anxiety with the missing people in my life, the new routines, I have been clinging onto past traditions that I love and that I can't let go of no matter how old I get. I'll always have my Granny's potato salad, even though I am the one making it now. I will be sure to slice the can shaped cranberry sauce into slices on a glass plate even though I don't particularly like it. I will always make the stuffing out of the box even though I am a skilled enough cook to make something from scratch. That is just how it will always be no matter what happens in between the holidays. This year, I summoned all the family I could find, my dad expressed interest in deep frying a turkey, we enhanced our Thanksgiving day traditions with prizes, and most importantly, I insisted we attend the annual Thanksgiving dinner held the Saturday prior to the holiday at the Rugby Rescue Squad.

Last year my dad got a ragtag band together to play as they had so many years past on the old Rescue Squad stage. The green astroturf stretching over its surface has worn over the years, the 'No Dancing' sign has been removed, though everyone still observes it, and the chairs and microphones might have been a bit more rickety, but getting to sit up there with him was one of the biggest highlights of my year. Of course, he had his regulars, the people who knew what they were doing: Gerald on mandolin and Helen on fiddle, but he also invited a couple of excited musicians who maybe weren't as well versed in their instrument's language; me on my #52 ukulele (the one that matches my dad's old guitar), and our family friend Gary Davis on the bass. (He usually plays guitar but helped round out our quintet with a nice steady beat). A memory from that day I hold quite dear is getting to sit between my dad and Gerald, Gerald telling me which chords were coming next, and simply feeling special, sitting up there on the stage where, growing up, I had aways watched from the sidelines. If you had told me that day that our quintet would only be a trio just a year later I wouldn't have believed you.

Rugby Rescue Squad Thanksgiving last year. Helen White, Wayne Henderson, Gary Davis, me, Gerald Anderson

We obviously didn't play for the Rescue Squad gathering this year. But I still insisted on going down to the gray metal building where all the emergency vehicles had been driven from their cozy garage and in their place sat rows of tables and chairs. Just like it was then I was 5. When I was 13. When I was 33. That's the thing about Rugby, and these dinners especially. Whether they are the same people from my youth, or others who have taken over the same roles, there are still the guy always in his 60s, taking the donations for dinner, grandmother aged ladies serving the potluck food everyone has brought and squished onto the long cafeteria counter, younger members of the community selling raffle tickets for the Henry shotgun door prize, the two or three young children choosing names from the bucket of tickets. The same people I have seen for years are always there, and while I probably don't agree much with their politics, things like that never really matter then. They'd still do anything for me and I them simply because they are my community. The loss of my family members this year has felt profound, but I think it was a healing experience for me as well as my dad to go join in our Rugby community of characters, maybe not in as big a way as last year, but just to sit among them and listen to the gossip and the new band, and eat the same traditional dishes mounded onto my plate that I couldn't forget the taste of if I tried.

Following the Squad dinner, I took it upon myself to host the biggest Thanksgiving our little family could muster at my dad's house. My husband's family drove up, my mom drove down, my cousins stopped by to catch up, and a few friends who weren't planning to travel for the holiday joined our party as well. I wasn't sure how my dad would feel given he had lost his partner just a month prior, but I think he enjoyed the distraction, offering to fry a turkey like he used to when I was a teenager, though that brought a twinge of sadness as we reminisced on how Gerald always came by on Thanksgiving day to fry a turkey or two for his family dinner as well. This year the frying process was just how it always was, the fryer not quite working, the men arguing out in the yard on how to fix it, trying to rig up some method to keep it going long enough to kill all the salmonella. Our turkey shoot was one for the books, with all three of our non (blood related) family members winning the prizes my dad made for the occasion. Our friend Sam won the first choice of prizes right off the bat. Though, if we were truly playing fair, my dad's first 'practice' shot had buckshot hitting almost exactly on the X drawn on his paper plate target. While the cutting boards he made were beautiful, everyone was especially hoping to win the little maple box with a tiny pearl and abalone fox I inlaid on it. When two plates were too close to call, we decided to give them both prizes only to find out they were owned by Frank and Barb Kruesi, respectively, neither of whom had shot many shotguns before.....I am still pretty skeptical of their collective win.

Measuring is serious business around here.


The holiday was fun despite feeling the loss of our friend and my dad's partner of so many years. While things are shifting, some traditions of the holiday simply can't be quelled. If holiday recounting isn't really your thing, here is the latest in the guitar world:

It seems the sand around my feet is shifting not only in my personal life, but maybe in my instrument building world as well. I have noticed lately that people are calling me for interviews, focusing on my use of sustainable wood or how I work as a female luthier, and not stopping to mention my dad until I do. I am teaching inlay classes alone, I am doing demonstrations by myself, answering all of the questions  asked of me because I know the answers from experiences I have gone through, not just from regurgitating what I have been told or what I have heard my dad say. It is an odd feeling, thinking I might be good and knowledgeable at something, and I am excited to feel competent enough share it with other people who also believe I am competent at what I do.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad asked for my help. That role was an odd shoe for me to fill, seeing as he is always helping me, never the other way around, not really. Anything I have helped him with he is usually perfectly capable of doing, but I just happen to be able to step up in the moment. This time, because he is short a partner, there was no one else who could have done the job of taking him to address a medical issue. The nature of the procedure required him to stay at my house in Asheville for several days. I was worried that he wouldn't have a nice time or that he would feel severely uncomfortable out of his element. Luckily it seemed as though he didn't hate his time with me in my space. We fell into a similar routine as we do at his house. I woke up early and work, he stayed up late. I showed him how to watch Andy Griffith and the Beverly Hillbillies on our 'newfangled' TV, and he worked in my shop with my cheap, simple tools until he felt like stopping. He didn't bring anything to work on, so I let him make braces for me, glue ribbons and kerfing around my guitar rims, and fit the top and back onto my guitar while I worked on two ukuleles. I feel a bit guilty that one of my clients is essentially getting a Henderson guitar with my name on it, but working provided a sense of normalcy and ease to his visit so oh well, we both win. I ended up enjoying his time at my house with me quite a bit and for that time we had I am extremely thankful.

Getting free guitar help :-)

The guitar he worked with me on was completed right around Thanksgiving and I flew it up to surprise its new owner in Washington, DC last weekend. I enjoyed visiting with David and his family very much, learning more about the wedding of his son, the tree on the fingerboard symbolizing the tree under which he will be married this summer. David didn't seem too terribly sad about his collaboration guitar, and now perhaps after knowing how important and special the experience was for me it will make his guitar that much more enjoyable to play and love.

I enjoyed talking about how much David's wife Cheryl (my coconspirator who bought the instrument for David's birthday unbeknownst to him) enjoyed cooking and baking in her cozy, inviting, well loved kitchen. A passion we share. Experiences like these add exponential joy to my job and reminds me how thankful I am to be able to share something I love to do so much.

I wish you and your family the happiest of holiday seasons and hopefully I will get around to writing you a Christmas story before the end of the year! What would you like to hear about next? Guitar work, stories from my dad's childhood, stories from my youth? Please comment and let me know what you want to read about!