It’s been continuing to rain in biblical proportions here, so my drive further up the mountain to see Paul Heumiller the guitar guru at Dream Guitars, was a nerve wracking encounter between me, the Chevy Cruzer and a complicated set of directions.
The SatNav is still not playing ball so I’d written the instructions in large print and taped them to the dashboard. As I’m starting out in the dark this requires me to keep switching the interior lights on to read, further impairing the view through the rain that has now started blowing what I think is a partial squall “backing to an Easterly gale, increasing”.
The drive cum sail takes me over an hour with Interstate giving way to Turnpike to side road to narrow private road. I saw my first coyote scavenging on the side of the road by some litter bins outside a farm so that was a good time to check the petrol level just in case – I hadn’t see another car or a lit building for the last 20 minutes of the journey. Then out of nowhere is a sign for Camelia Drive, I thought I’d slipped through a time worm-hole and ended up somewhere in Esher. As I walked away from my rental car in the torrential rain I realised the irony of the ‘Florida Sunshine State’ number plate
Dream Guitars isn’t so much a guitar store but a gallery for hand-crafted guitars. Like a Bond Street gallery owner Paul represents over 100 individual luthiers… established craftsmen like Kevin Ryan and Bill Tippin whose instruments start at $15,000 and have waiting lists stretching up to 10 years, hot new guys like Jordan McConnell who from nowhere command $20,000 and guys who have been making guitars for years and have been re-discovered like Wayne Henderson.
Wayne has made bluegrass guitars for years in his chaotic little one-man workshop in the little town of Rugby, Virginia where he was also the post man. He sells them direct to people who come to his shop for around $4,000. You meet Wayne and if he likes the way you play and perhaps likes you then you get to go on the list. Some people have been on ‘the list’ since 2000 and others get their guitars in a couple of years. What can get you up the list can be anything from trading Wayne something he wants – he collects American Civil War memorabilia – or being Eric Clapton. Clapton got his guitar in a little under three years and it became the subject of a book ‘Clapton’s Guitar’. Henderson guitars were regularly trading second-hand for $6-7,000 before the book, he was known mainly to just blue-grass players, but after the book things changed.
Paul Heumiller was the first person to get $20,000 for a second-hand Henderson. When it sold he got a call from a journalist who wanted to know more… turned out it was the writer of the Clapton book. “You did buy a Henderson before you wrote the book didn’t you?”. Paul was told the guy hadn’t and was pretty sore about his apparent stupidity.
I’d told Paul about the book I was writing around the acquisition of two luthier made guitars and in particular the parlor guitar British luthier Dave King had been making for me over the past 8 years. “John, you are going to buy a couple of Dave King guitars before you publish…aren’t you? The guitar world is weird and perhaps the story of a guitar made by a slightly dis-functional British maker… especially a guitar as nice as the one you’ve shown me, could just fire buyers imaginations!”
I spent the next two hours in a weird state of nirvana. Sure you can go to a gallery and look at a Hockney or a Riley but that’s all you can do. You can talk about it, sniff it, wonder if it was painted when he or she was sad, happy or between relationships, even wonder if it’s a good investment… but that’s about it. I could do all of that and then play the work of art. And play I did…
Paul then pulled out his own McConnell guitar, and played me his version of British guitarist Martin Simpson’s arrangement of Richard Thompson’s ‘Waltzing for Dreamers’…
We played it together, we sang in harmony, we drank a small glass of the wine I’d brought and then I remembered that I was indeed half-way up a mountain, five thousand miles from home with a mystic guitar man…
So here is Paul playing his $30,000 McConnell, the inlay on the neck is his favourite motorcycle route up into the mountains, the spruce top is made of so-called ‘Moon Spruce’, trees harvested from the Italian Alps only when the moon is on the wane so that the tree sap has returned to the roots when they cut it… yeh it’s that kind of vibe when the guitar guru is in town.
Paul also buys rare vintage guitars, often taken in trade for a deposit of one of his dream machines. So it was with shaky hands and a tear in my eye that I picked up a 1933 Martin 00-40, a guitar he’d just sold for $20,000. It had the original bar frets which made it a handful but it sounded beautiful.
There is just something about playing a guitar that was well-made in the first place and has then had 80 odd years to settle in – to find its voice, to relax, for the moisture and sap in the wood to gradually dry out and reach a brilliance of tone.
The drive back into Asheville was a blur, possibly because the de-mister in the Cruzer is on the blink… or perhaps it was the tears in my eyes.
I leave this morning to drive from Asheville to Bristol. It’s a journey Jimmie Rodgers, ‘The Singing Brakeman’, would take in 1926 to make his first recording. The recording, made in an abandoned hat factory and played into an acoustic horn microphone, would become the biggest selling record of the time.
Jimmie was the pop star sensation of his age.
I’ll see you all in Nashville.
(This blog entry was first published as part of a private series of blogs made in October 2015. I have only recently uploaded them to my blog site… so you may have read it before)