Newsletter #12, December 13, 2003
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When I first met Hank Williams Jr. in late 1968, I was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in the Psychology department where I was studying animal behavior. I had a small apartment off campus in which one bedroom was filled with guitars. There wasn't much wheeling and dealing to be done in Knoxville. Although country and bluegrass music was popular there at the time, the local players simply didn't have much money nor was there a particularly good supply of fine vintage instruments in Knoxville. The greatest bulk of my wheeling and dealing was done during the spring and summer when I could go to and from bluegrass and old-time music festivals which were scattered throughout the South. Back then there were no guitar shows and certainly no Internet. We didn't even have any magazines or books available on the subject.
When Hank Jr. urged me to come to Nashville and said he would have an apartment waiting for me and would help me to establish a music store if I moved to town, it didn't take long for me to be packed up and ready. When I arrived in Nashville there was an apartment waiting for me at 17th and Edgehill. Rather than setting up any partnership to open a music store, Hank Jr. urged me to settle into town long enough to get to know the scene and establish some roots. It soon became evident that we were not going to go into partnership together, but I remained in very close contact with Hank and was out at his house at least three times a week for the first year I was in town and saw him frequently thereafter. He was without a doubt my best customer and greatest supporter during the first year I was in town.
In 1969 Nashville was quite different than today, but it had a vibrantly active music scene. Within the first few weeks after arriving in town I placed several ads in the local newspaper classified section advertising some choice vintage instruments. The result came less in the form of outright sales than in making new contacts. In those pre-Internet days a classified ad in the newspaper would be read by all local pickers and collectors, so it was a quick way to reach out and make contact with local pickers and wheeler-dealers. Whereas in Knoxville it was rare for me to buy or sell more than one instrument a month with local players, in Nashville I was soon selling several instruments every week.
It didn't take long to discover that lower Broadway, especially the block between 4th and 5th Avenues, was a hotbed of musical activity. The street was somewhat run down and seedy compared to today, but the pawnshops, honky-tonk bars and music stores were vibrantly active. The Ryman Auditorium is located right behind Broadway between 4th and 5th. Back then its main entrance was on 5th Avenue. Today, after an extensive renovation and addition to the building done in the mid 1990s, the new main entrance is on 4th Avenue. The Ryman was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from the mid 1940s through 1974. Today the Opry is housed in the Ryman for four months each winter, and the venue is used for numerous other mid-week events all year as well as being a venue for many weekend performances when the Opry is back in the Opry House.
Three of the best-known businesses on Broadway at that time were Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Sho-Bud Guitars, and Roy Acuff's museum and gift shop. Tootsie's had its front door on Broadway and its back door on the Opry alley almost directly across from the Ryman stage door. Since there was very little backstage area for performers to hang out between shows, many of them used Tootsie's almost as a backstage "green room." Country fans could see, hear and mingle with the stars. Playing at Tootsie's was part of the career start-up for numerous artists including Kris Kristoferson and Willie Nelson.
Sho-Bud Guitars was located in the middle of the block on Broadway between 4th and 5th. Shot Jackson, the owner, was well known as a Dobro and steel player and the Sho-Bud brand steels were famous worldwide. His retail shop was located on the first floor while the upper level was devoted to repair and custom work as well as some instrument building. Unfortunately much of the work done at Sho-Bud consisted of refinishing and customizing older instruments in such a way as to render them of no further interest to collectors. Their refinishes were plenty shiny but were thick and certainly not original in appearance. Flat top guitars were fitted with large custom pickguards sometimes engraved or inlaid with owner's names. For all practical purposes Sho-Bud had an entire floor and a complete staff devoted to rendering vintage instruments non-collectible.
Shot had the very best of intentions and had extremely good relations with the Nashville country-Western players, but he just never developed any understanding of the vintage market. I still vividly remember going upstairs at Sho-Bud and seeing an original hollowbody Gibson doubleneck from the 1950s with six- and twelve-string necks which had just been stripped of its original finish and painted white. When I told Shot that I hoped that in the future he would call me and offer such pieces for sale in their original state rather than refinish them first, he seemed genuinely puzzled. His comment was "Well, George, if you don't like it in this color, it should be no problem. I would be happy to put the original finish back on for you." What he meant, of course, was that he could refinish it back to sunburst if I wished. The concept of originality being desirable simply escaped him.
Roy Acuff's museum and gift shop was located one building away from Sho-Bud. Roy bought the building partially to have a backstage dressing room area of his own. As with Tootsie's, the front entrance was on Broadway and the rear door was on the alley across from the Ryman stage door. The upstairs was set up as a dressing room area and was a wonderful hangout between Opry shows. There were always great pickin' sessions going on. Roy enjoyed not only having his own band jam, but he invited numerous players to visit and join in on the action. The downstairs level had a small gift shop right by the entrance and the rest was the museum consisting not only of Roy's musical instrument collection but also his guns, coins and other memorabilia picked up on his numerous worldwide travels and his wife Mildred's collections of dolls and miniature lamps. Roy and Mildred personally ran the shop and museum and were there almost every day. Although Roy was a wealthy man and was widely known as the King of Country Music, he and Mildred still tended the shop and museum, personally collected $1 a head admission and gave personalized tours of the collection. It wasn't long after I came to town that I got to know Roy and began selling instruments to him for his collection. Roy and I quickly developed a deep friendship. It was through Roy that I got to know many of the Opry performers. He was generous in inviting me backstage and letting me hang out in his dressing room to meet players and hear some marvelous jam sessions.
The Johnny Cash TV shop was filmed in the Ryman Auditorium from the summer of 1969 through 1970. Although he was not an official member of John's band, Norman Blake had done recording and played road dates with Cash and was hired to play with John for the show. Norman was a native of Rising Fawn, Georgia, near Chattanooga. When he told a local instrument wheeler-dealer, Amos Bigham, that he would be coming to Nashville for a while and had an apartment right off Music Row waiting for him, Amos told him to give me a call when he got to town. Amos and I had known each other from dealing at festivals for the past few years. Norman and I had not yet met, but when we did, we hit it off almost instantly. Norman Blake remains today my absolute favorite guitar player, although I must admit it is hard to narrow that field down to just one. Norman invited me backstage to the Cash show where I not only enjoyed marvelous jam sessions but got to meet Cash and his band as well as numerous world class performers such as Homer and Jethro, Merle Haggard, Eric Clapton, Arlo Guthrie, John Fogerty, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Joni Mitchell. The Johnny Cash TV show presented far more than country music. It was one of the most amazing musical variety shows ever conceived. The show producers fixed up the backstage area at the Ryman to be more comfortable than it had been previously and also rented the upper level of Roy Acuff's building for additional space. To this day I still have the fondest memories of spending time back there and meeting some of the finest musicians I have ever known. The business I did there and the personal contacts I made at that time were critical in launching my career.
As an active dealer of vintage instruments I needed a good repairman to service and restore the instruments I found. Unfortunately there were none in Nashville to suit me. Randy Wood was located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, about two hours from Nashville. I had first met Randy a couple of years earlier at the Asheville (North Carolina) Music Festival. At that time he was working in Milledgeville, Georgia, with Tut Taylor, but by 1969 he was doing the repairs at Rual's Music Service in Muscle Shoals. Rual Yarbrough was a former barber and a fine banjo picker. He played with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys for several years and had his music shop next door to the barbershop. I used to go down about every two weeks carrying a load of instruments to be repaired and picking up whatever was ready. While the amount of business I did back then was minuscule compared to what I do today, between Randy's regular shop work plus the instruments I brought to him, he was up to his eyeballs in work.
Tut Taylor was a professional sign painter and musician in Milledgeville, Georgia. He had a woodworking shop along with the sign business. In the past both Randy Wood and Bob Givens had worked there producing banjo necks, mandolins, guitars and vintage instrument restoration. In 1969 Tut received a call from Gibson offering the prospect of carving work for the newly proposed reissue All-American and Florentine banjos. Tut contacted Randy and me to gauge our interest in participating in such a project. The three of us drove to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and met with Gibson's company president, Stan Rendell, and other company officers. We were amazed and somewhat appalled at the general lack of knowledge they had of their historic instruments, but we saw an opportunity to work with them. Tut and Randy were interested in doing the carving contract for Gibson and saw it as a possible foundation for a new business venture, and we felt that I could join with them to offer vintage instruments and restoration. It was a major move for all of us. For Tut it involved closing his business in Milledgeville and moving his sizeable family to Nashville for a less than totally secure future. For Randy it involved moving from Muscle Shoals to Nashville for the new venture.
We found a building housing a run down restaurant on 4th Avenue right off the corner of Broadway. Although we put down a deposit on rent, we soon found that the restaurant owner did not in fact own the building, nor did she have a long-term lease. While our deposit went down the tubes after it became clear that the building owner would not give us lease terms that were acceptable, fortunately we were not out much and the building directly next door at 111 4th Avenue North was available. It wasn't much of a place. It measured 20' X 60' total and was in poor condition, but Tut and Randy quickly set to work to build walls dividing the building into a showroom, a small office and a workshop. Out of the total 20' X 60' only the first 15' plus large bay windows were devoted to the showroom. The office area which also was soon set up as a teaching studio for Norman Blake, measured only 10' X 10'. The rest was devoted to the repair shop. Gibson sent down a spindle-carving machine capable of carving two objects simultaneously. Randy and Tut set out to make Florentine and All American neck and resonator carving patterns, but that project soon collapsed when it became evident that Gibson was willing to pay only $60 for the carving on such a banjo, although they were prepared to pay another artist far more for the painting and intended to wholesale the banjos for at least $2,000. It didn't take long, however, for us to be actively involved wheeling and dealing vintage guitars, banjos, and mandolins and repair and restoration work. From the start there was more than enough work to keep Randy busy.
My personal overhead was quite low. I had the small apartment at 17th and Edgehill which Hank Jr. had waiting for me when I came to town and which had relatively low rent, but Tut Taylor had a large family to feed. Tut and I were partners while Randy was an employee getting a regular paycheck. Those early days at the shop remain vivid in my mind and are a source of great nostalgia. It was pure magic to have Norman Blake there in our little office/studio and to be able to go back and forth from our shop and the backstage area of the Johnny Cash TV show and meet world class musicians, but I also recall that there were some days when we took in as little as $5 for the entire day's proceeds. We didn't enter the business with delusions of grandeur. It was evident from the start that we were not going to become millionaires overnight in a little 20' X 60' building with only the first 15' devoted to the showroom. Randy stayed plenty busy with repair, restoration and custom building, whereas I steadily built the vintage instrument-dealing end of the business. Tut assisted in instrument sales as well as repair and restoration and was actively involved in furthering his musical career.
We used to put some of our best instruments on display in the bay windows in the front and I made small hand lettered signs to go with each one. One of them was an early three-point body Gibson scroll-model mandolin which I now know to have been made about 1905, but back then I mistakenly thought was circa 1900 and handmade by Orville Gibson. The sign read "Mandolin, handmade by Orville Gibson, circa 1900." I still vividly remember sitting in the show room talking with Tut and Randy when an elderly couple came tottering up to the window and squinted down at the mandolin. One said, "Look honey, there's a fiddle." The other said, "I wonder how much it costs?" Next came "The sign says $19" and then "Aw, that's too much, let's go," whereupon they tottered away from the window and back down the hill toward Broadway. Fortunately for us, not everyone thought it was a $19 fiddle. That particular mandolin ended up in Roy Acuff's collection, but the incident brought home very clearly the fact that each and every one of us sees the world through his own eyes and his own mind and that our vision or interpretation may or may not correspond to someone else's.
One day in September not long after the $19 fiddle incident, I opened the store and found a note from Tut to me taped on the inside door leading back to the repair shop. Tut felt that it was time for him to move on and offered to sell his share of the business to me. While we were starting to make a small profit, there really wasn't much to go around. Tut wanted to pursue his own musical career and other ventures.
When we opened the shop in the beginning of January of 1970 under the name GTR Incorporated (George, Tut and Randy and a good abbreviation for guitar), it was far from clear where the path would take us. By the end of September Tut was gone from the business but remained in Nashville playing music and looking for new ventures. In 1971 he purchased the assets of the Grammar Guitar Company at their bankruptcy auction. In running that business he set up a manufacturing operation which after many twists and turns in its evolution evolved into what today is Crafters of Tennessee run by Tut's son, Mark. Along the way he also pursued his musical career including joining John Hartford's band along with Vassar Clements on fiddle and Norman Blake on guitar to participate in recording John's famous Aereo-Plain album.
Randy Wood stayed with me for another couple of years after which he went on his own and joined in a brief partnership with Tut and Grant Boatright to set up the Old Time Pickin' Parlor on 2nd Avenue. Tut and Grant dropped out soon afterward and Randy built that business as a retail shop and music club, which he ran until he decided to move back to his native Georgia. Today he has a successful music store and is actively building custom mandolins and guitars as well as doing fine repair and restoration work.
By the end of 1972 both the T and R were gone from GTR Incorporated, although I continued to operate the shop under that name until we moved from 111 4th Avenue North to 410 Broadway at the beginning of 1976. The building at 111 4th Avenue North no longer stands. The Opry alley comes out where that building once stood. The 410 Broadway building was the home of Gruhn Guitars until 1993 when we moved to the present building. Our small parking lot behind the present building is the site where the restaurant stood that Tut, Randy, and I had first intended to rent. My property line goes right up to the location of our first shop and is separated by only one building from our second location. While we have not moved a great physical distance, in thirty-four years much has changed. I wish I could step back into a time machine and revisit backstage at the Johnny Cash show with Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Norman Blake, Johnny and the rest, but I also vividly recall that those were not the easiest of times for me, Tut or Randy. While I have fond memories of the past, I am pleased to be alive and well in the present and to be here to serve you today.