I’d spent the whole of yesterday with George Gruhn, the go-to guitar man of Nashville, so before I had to be back on the road and head over to see Elvis in Memphis I had just about enough time to pay my respects at the Mother Church of Country Music – The Ryman.
The Ryman Auditorium is a converted Evangelical Chapel built in the centre of Downtown Nashville and still an operating music venue… Dolly was there only last week.
Originally built in the 1890s as an evangelical chapel by 1925 it was the home of The Grand Old Opry radio show that broadcast weekly to around 50 million American homes when radio was king. The building is still the Mother Church of Country Music and $35 gets you a backstage tour… another $15 and you can record a song there to take home with you. Most people just sing along to a Shania Twain karaoke track but you can play your own tune if you want. I was booked in for an 11.00 session… and I had my 1955 Martin 0-18 in the back of the car…
At 11am sitting at the recording desk at Ryman was Jimmy Cunningham Jnr. While miking me up he told me that as a black man he was thrilled that I was intending on playing Hesitation Blues – especially Reverend Gary Davis’s 1934 version – I was guessing he’d heard enough renditions of D.I.V.O.R.C.E. to last him a lifetime. (For the record Rev. Gary was blind but probably not actually a Reverend. He did not live up a mountain but his blindness did enable him in the 1940’s to play on the streets of Mississippi without being molested by the police.)
I went back to see George Gruhn on the way to the Freeway… he’d offered to give my Martin the ‘once over’. Watching George evaluate a guitar is a bit like watching a shaman diagnose whether you’re going to live to a hundred or die tomorrow. He must have looked at thousands of guitars… often in the prescence of an owner who has a feint hope that this may be the special one… only to be told it’s a fake or a badly restored hatch-potch of various old guitars made to look like a rare model.
“The serial number tells me this was built in 1955 and it looks ‘right’ – it’s been well played but not beaten up. It all looks pretty original… apart from the bridge which has been replaced… not uncommon in a guitar of its age.” He sat down to play it…. five minutes later he pronounces… “It sounds great”…. “the thing about Martin’s is that here is probably one of the cheapest guitars they produced in 1955, but it sounds incredible”.
My work in Nashville is done. I’m going all the way to Memphis… where I have an appointment with The King… or at least the sofa he sat on.
(This article first appeared as part of a series of e-mailed blogs following my October 2015 road trip)