Poverty, Creativity and Repairing Things Rather than Trashing Them

Thursday, October 23, 2014 9:01 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: One thing that I  have learnt by hanging around with poor people is that they tend to fix things when they break, rather than throwing them out as rubbish like some of us tend to do. 

An example is an old guitar that Doc got from a bloke who was going to get rid of it (cheaply, not free) because it needed so much repair. I saw it and would not have wasted the time with it - which is what the previous owner thought.

But to Doc, it was beautiful and needed saving. He looked past the cracked finish, the bowed up top, the split in the back and bought this guitar that needed a total rebuild. Here is his story: 
Doc: Yeah, Tondy, I heard about that guitar and drove over to look at it. It wasn't much, but it wasn't wore out. It was sort of like me. Not much, cracked and broke but not wore out.

The guy I got it from said it had belonged to a friend of his dad's back when his dad was about 20. This guy was about forty, I guess. His dad's friend left it there and was never heard from again. The old man put it in the attic in like 1965 and it was there til I got hold of it a couple years ago. The guy who had it said it had been there all of his life, and his dad was going in a nursing home and the guitar had to go!

It's a '63 Gibson LG0, which means it is smaller in size than a big guitar. Like a nylon string guitar size. But it has steel strings. It had only been used a couple years, and not very much, and then throwed in that attic.

You might think that's a good thing, but it isn't. Fifty years of being real hot and dry in the Summer and then cold and freezing in the Winter did a number on the wood and the glue. It did "Number Two" on them, if you know what I mean.

The wood was dried out and the glue was dried out. You could hold it up to the light and see right through where the back was joined in the middle. The braces inside were dried and coming lose. But the guy let me have it pretty cheap, and that was better than him tossing it in the trash.

Tondeleo: So, did you bring it home and fix it, Doc?

Doc: No, that one was beyond me. I knew better than that. I took it over to my friend, Paul Cunningham. He makes acoustic guitars from scratch. I mean, he takes a tree, cuts it down, cuts the wood real thin, and makes guitars out of them! Then he just puts them upstairs in his house and starts making more of them. He just loves making guitars! He's a genius at making guitars. He has made them out of oak. I have played an oak guitar that he made, and it sounds as good as a high end guitar you could buy in a store. He said he made it because he had never seen one made out of oak, and he wanted to know what that would sound like.

He had a cedar tree in his front yard and had a guy cut it down so he could make a cedar guitar. He can keep it in his closet to keep the moths away.

I took that little Gibson straight to Paul's house and showed him what I had. He said he could fix it. He first of all took the back off without breaking it, and re-glued the middle joint.He had to put a TINY little sliver of wood in the crack. He reglued the original braces on the back.

Paul had to flatten the top of it, because it had arched a bit from having strings on it up in the attic for fifty years. Then, he had to make three new braces for the top, and put them in. He handmade a new bridge for it out of rosewood and braced it from the back. Gibson looked like they had used a scrap of wood under the original bridge.

You can tell now why it was beyond me! I ain't got that kind of surgery skills.He got it all back together and set it up. That little guitar got a new life. I brought it home and made the finish look right without sanding it or taking it off. I have a way that I do that, and I don't tell people what it is. A man's got to have a FEW secrets, Tondy.

One my friends bought me a brand new case to put it in, so it's got a good home and is protected. I don't take it out of the house much, but it's good to keep around for playin' in the livin' room with friends. 

I traded Paul some tools and other stuff I had, so I didn't have to spend anymore money on it. Now he has some tools he needed and I have that little guitar.  Here's what it looks like now. The finish has a depth to it, as far as looks, but it still lets the grain show through. And, it could have ended up in a dumpster somewhere, if it wasn't for Paul Cunningham. He's a good man, Tondy. You got to make good friends. 

Poverty, Creativity, Jam Sessions and Getting Along with Other Musicians

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 6:00 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: For serious musicians, everything else is just something they have to get out of the way, so they can play music. 

If they have jobs, the job is to pay the bills so they can play music. As soon as they have spare time, they're out playing music and trying to find people to play with. It doesn't matter if they are poor or are doing well financially, it seems that serious musicians all feel this way. At least the ones I have met through Doc and his friends. 

Doc: Yeah, that's pretty much right, Tondy. Hey, here's an old musician joke for you. What's the difference between a guitar player and a pizza?

Tondeleo: I don't know, what IS the difference between a guitar player and a pizza?

Doc: A pizza can feed a family of four... guitar player can't. Well, most of 'em can't. Not without a regular job.

But yeah, like you said, we want to play all the time. If we go out and are playin' a lot of times there's other players out there listenin' and they might ask if they can come up an' play with us.

Like me an' Rick was out playin' the other night. The rest of the Holy Ghost Band wasn't available, so just the two of us took the bookin'.  We knew that there'd be people there who would join in and make a band and we'd sound ok.

We got home made and cheap equipment. That means we've had to learn to work around that. The other guys have nice stuff. I have to make my guitars sound as good as theirs or it won't work. They do't care how my stuff looks, just how it sounds.

Tondeleo: And what happened... did it work out that way?

Doc: Yeah, as we  got set up, a drummer and bass player was listenin' to us tune up and hit a few notes. They joined us from the git-go. Then a lead player and a trumpet player of all things. That's the first time we had a blues trumpet player with us. He was good, and I didn't even get to meet him! He just come up and played real well, and then disappeared into the night after about an hour of playin.' Later Jim McWilliams said the guy on trumpet was Mike Robey. I never did get to meet him.

The drummer was Glen Strobel. He played a while and does a good job. Then Bobby Jones played drums lot of songs. He was the drummer for Roy Buchanan for like 30 years and was on a lot of albums with Roy and toured the world. He was there.

We had a couple lead players, too that night. Couple of bass players, too. A gal named JoAnn and a guy whose name I didn't get, and Troy Peterson swapped around from lead to bass. Bill Hull played lead for a while. People swapped in and out a lot.

One reason we get a lot of people and other bands what like us is we sound different than most. We ain't had no music lessons, so a lot of what we do is homebrew.

Tondeleo: Homebrew???

Doc: Yeah, homebrew. It means we just sit down by the radio   and try to figure out what they was playin'. We end up not playin' it exactly like the guy on the radio, but we discover a lot of other things while tryin' to play it.

You wouldn't get that if you took lessons. You'd just be taught how that guy played it and that would be all you learned. People ask me all the time how I learnt to play a song a certain way. It's not because I'm doin' it better, cause I'm not. It's because it's different, but still sounds pretty good.

Another part of it is because we don't play bar band music, and that is different.

Tondeleo: Can you explain what bar band music is?

Doc: Bar band music is what bands got to play in bars. Like Hits of the 70's, 80 's and 90's and 00's. They got to do that to get bookin's. Plus the people in the bars ain't really listenin', but they expect that band to sound JUST like the original recording. Look, the original band never played it like the original recording, if you heard them play it live, later. Why should I try to sound like someone else sounded ONE time in their life. But if you're a bar band, that's what the audience wants. They can all be drunk, but if you play a couple of notes different than the record, they notice it and don't like it. To them, you got it "wrong." You gotta play it like the jukebox.

We play songs that's in our hearts and play and sing it like it is in our hearts. If it ain't in my heart, I ain't playin' it or singin' it. Old country music, like our daddies listened to, Hank Williams, Sr, and Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline, and then we play some old school Gospel from Grandma's day, and we play old school blues, like Muddy, BB, Buddy Guy and all them, and we play some rockabilly. But we don't sound like the record on any of them. We just sound like us, which is hard enough.

Anyway, we let anybody who's good enough to be playin' somewhere play with us. If they sound real good, we step back and let them take front and center. You can't be a show off and hope to get along with other people. You can't be a mic hog or a spotlight hog and expect people to want to play with you again. Everybody got to be in the spotlight for a bit. Especially if they been helpin' you to sound good! You got to appreciate other peoples' talent and feelings.

Enough Poverty can Birth Creativity; and that's a good thing.

Monday, October 20, 2014 10:55 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: I find myself ever so fascinated by the creativity of rural Americans. I think it is part of their DNA. If they want something badly enough, they are not going to let something like a lack of money keep them from trying to have it anyway. For those who won't steal what they want, and who can't get what they want any other way, there is inner creativity that they draw on. 

I have seen and heard many home made musical instruments in the rural areas of the States. Most of them sound as good or at least as interesting as their commercially made massed produced counterparts. One example is Doc Stevens' fishing tackle box guitar. Doc says that several years ago, when he was traveling on foot and by hitchhiking, he wanted a strong guitar that would take abuse, was small enough that he could travel with it, and that sounded good. One more thing, he wanted to be able to carry a sandwich or two in it. The result is the tackle box guitar that he made about a decade ago.

Doc: Yeah, I made that one about ten years or so ago. I wsa on the move a lot, and needed somethin' I could carry around and wouldn't get torn up. Needed it to be smaller than a regular guitar. I had a old tackle box. I measured it out an' found out you could make one that would work.

Tondeleo: What do you mean by measure it out. Do you need specific sizes?

Doc: Well, yeah. What I learnt was you have to have the same length from the nut, the part at the far end of the guitar to the twelfth fret, as you have from the twelfth fret to the bridge. If you don't have that, it will never sound right. I don't know if that is really a true fact, but it is what I learnt. The tackle box worked out to be long enough.

Then, I did what I always do in a guitar which is put a two inch board on the inside, and seal it to the edges. That is what the neck bolts to, and the pickups are mounted into. It gives the guitar more sustain, and also balances the weight. What I don't like about cigarbox guitars is the neck is usually heavier than the box part, and they don't feel right, well don't feel right to me. Some boys what have 'em love 'em like a bear loves a picnic. I like a guitar to have some weight to it, like 6 pounds or a little more. 

 Tondeleo: What else is involved, Doc?

Doc: You gotta get a neck. Make it or take an old one and trim it to the size and thickness you like. Mount it to the wood inside the box. Put pick ups in it. I picked out three that I had in a box of old parts, and got it so the neck one sounds like a jazz guitar, the bridge one sounds twangy like a Tele - that's a Telecaster - and the middle one just is in between the other two. With that, you can play any music you like - and still look like a broke man while doing it.   

Tondeleo: What do other people think of your guitars when they see them?

Doc: I don't know what people think. I hardly know what I think. But I get a lot of pictures tooken. 

Some people want to pose with me holding the guitars. Like last week, Jimmy McWilliams, the lead singer from The Hometown Band got his picture tooken with me. Not because of me, but because of the tacklebox guitar. He liked how it looked and wanted to be seen with it. He liked that you can put things in side of it. I can get two sandwiches, a bag of Doritos and a Capri Sun in it... and still play it. 

People think these guitars will sound like garbage because of how they look. They are amazed when they sound as good as a decent store bought guitar. Heck, I ain't surprised. I make 'em to play 'em, not to look at 'em.  But I have found out that people like to look at them, and when I play it, people always come up to take pictures of it. They don't do that when I play a regular guitar. I have a couple store bought guitars, what people have traded me for my home made ones. That always surprises me.

Tondeleo: Why is that, Doc? 

Doc: It surprises me 'cause if I could afford a store bought guitar, do you think I'd be makin' these guitars out of garbage and whatever parts I can scrounge from other peoples' old guitars? I make these pieces of garbage, and get them to sound as good as I can, livin' out here in the country. Then, someone who can afford a real guitar comes and trades it to me for one of my home made ones. It just seems weird to me, Tondy. I can't explain it.

Other guitar players see them, and then ask to play 'em and are always surprised at the sound and tone and how well they play. Then, a lot of times they want that guitar, right then and right there, and trade me whatever they had been playin' that night. That makes a poor man feel better. But it don't help pay the rent.

Here is something cool, Tondy. Last Saturday night, after me and Rick did a set, with some other guys from other bands playin' with us, Troy Peterson was commenting on how good it sounded. That made me feel pretty good. 

Troy's a real good guitar player. I let him play it a while and he played it on stage for a long time. He was shakin' his head at how ugly it is, but that it plays well and is well balanced and all that. He was likin' the tone and weight and size - plus it's built like a tank.

Troy Peterson plays in a couple bands  - I know he plays with Sara Gray and he does a solo act too, I think. That was pretty cool, him playin' it and likin' it.Well, to me it was, anyway.

Tondeleo: Do you ever sell your home made guitars?

Doc: Yeah, I sell 'em. I trade 'em more. More people got extra guitars than extra money. That's why I'm still poor! Sometimes I trade 'em, and then later one of the boys down here wants to buy a store bought guitar, so I do end up makin' a couple dollars here and there.

I had a guy who lives in Orlando, Florida. He had a 50's lap steel in the case, with the three legs and all that. He played my tackle box and decided he had to have one. I like lap steels pretty good. I already had one from the 40's that I'm not that good on. So I figured maybe I needed one from the 50's that I'm not so good on. 

I made him up a tackle box guitar almost just like mine and we swapped even. I think he takes it out on his boat with his fishin' buddies, I'm not sure. I brought his lap steel home and set it up on the porch and that got me to play it more than havin' it tucked away in a case out in the shop. So it was a pretty good deal.  I'm just as poor now as I was before - but I got more stuff now!

Old Friends, Old Music and Changing Roles

Monday, October 13, 2014 9:27 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Most of the time, when I go out with Doc Stevens and Marilyn (and now with the Holy Ghost Band) Doc is the front man, playing rhythm guitar and singing. Marilyn sings about half of the songs, and plays harp on the other half. If Marilyn is singing, then Rick plays the harp. If she is playing harp, then Rick plays the bones. Jay "I didn't do it" Jordan plays bass, Buttermilk Wade plays lead and Brian Garner plays drums.

One of Doc's oldest and best friends is Big Dave. Big Dave lives somewhere in the hills of Virginia and visits Doc and Marilyn a few times a year. When they go out to play music, interestingly the roles change.
Doc is no longer the front man, and he no longer plays rhythm guitar, but plays bass. Big Dave does most of the singing, and Doc sits behind him, providing strong rhythm and clean runs on the bass. 

It interests me how the roles change so completely. I ask Doc about it.

Tondeleo: Doc, why is it that you are SO out front when it is you and Marilyn, you and Rick, or you and the band, and suddenly with Big Dave, you retire to the background, and are content to sit there quietly and play the bass?

Doc: Well... I ain't really thought about it that much. Me an' Big Dave go back to maybe when we were 15 or 16, so we've played together for years. I moved around the country a lot since I was about 20 and he took off for somewhere when he was about 19 or so. I lived all over the place and he lived all over the place. We mighta seen each other maybe once a year, IF that, for a long time. But we'd always have our guitars, and when we got together, it'd be based around that.

He's good on guitar, and he sings pretty good,  and I like to listen. He knows a bunch of songs what I don't even know the words to, so I ain't gonna sing 'em and mess him up. So he sings, and I back him up.

Tondeleo: But why the bass, always the bass when you and Big Dave get together? 

Doc: I play regular guitar 90 percent of the time when I'm playin' music. When I'm travelin, I take a acoustic guitar or a 'lectric an' small amp. You can't sit out on the sidewalks busking and do very much with a bass. With a bass, you always need electric, and if you ain't got it, you're dead in the water. So I take an acoustic most of the time.

Plus, Tondy, I'm better on bass than on regular and I like it better. But I don't get to play it much. We got a real good bass player in the Holy Ghost Band. Jay plays a 6 string bass. Other'n that, I have a couple of home made guitars what has two bass strings and four regular strings, and I play those if we're out and our bass player can't make it.  

Tondeleo: Tell me a bit about playing those guitars with the two bass strings. How is that done? Where do you get guitars like that?

Doc:  Well, the first one I made was because I needed to play somewhere and they wanted electric, not acoustic, and I wanted to have a fuller sound, you know, with more bottom end. I was wonderin' how I was gonna compete with the other people playin' who had a whole band.

I was asleep and the idea came to me to drill out the holes on the tuners and the bridge on a regular guitar and put bass strings on it.It didn't cost me one dime. A broke man has to be a creative man. So I got up and went out to the shop and did it. Later, I did that to a couple of box guitars that I made.

Tondeleo: And how is a guitar like that played?

Doc: Well, it sounds stupid playin' it with a flat pick. Sounds muddy. But I play with a thumb pick and my fingers, or just with my thumb and fingers, playin' a bass line with my thumb and  the rhythm part with my fingers. It ain't that hard, really. I mean, if I can do it, it can't be that hard. And it adds some good bottom end to the sound.

Tondeleo: But you prefer to play just a regular bass?

Doc: Yeah, really I do. But nobody wants to hear a man sing while companyin' himself on a bass guitar! So when Big Dave is in the area, It's a good break for me. I like hangin' out with him and hearin' his stories, and I like hearin' his songs, an' I like just kickin' back an' not being out front, just backin' him up an' playin' bass. It's like goin' on a vacation. Well, to me it is.  I ain't got the money for a real vacation. Never have.