( I promise this is my last blog post referencing either Doc Watson or NGDB's Will The Circle Be Unbroken. At least for a while.)
In 1971 the popular, California based Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought together many of the old time greats from the forties, fifties, and sixties such as Mabel Carter, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson to record an album of pure country music that was destined to become a classic - Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Known more causally as the "Circle Album", it quickly went gold, then platinum and would eventually attain legendary status and open an entire generation to traditional music.
Perhaps sensing the historic nature of the project, producer William McEwen decided to include on the album a bit of the musician’s crosstalk captured between takes on an open microphone. Much of this studio chatter was fairly mundane conversation such as Mabel Carter bemoaning the difficulty of changing autoharp strings or how many basses side man Junior Huskey owned. But it was an interesting peek behind the curtain and gave the project a different feel from any album I’d ever heard. One such captured conversation was the first meeting between Doc and finger style guitar master Merle Travis in which Travis spoke about Ol' Hoss:
Travis: "Man, that guitar, by the way, rings like a bell.”
Doc: "It's a pretty good ol' box, isn't it? Mr. Gallagher makes these. Lives down in Wartrace, Tennessee - he makes 'em."
Travis: "Yeah, Grandpa Jones has got one."
With that exchange, two acknowledged guitar gurus commenting on the sweetness of a Gallagher instrument, The Gallagher Guitar Company became a household name among the millions who would obsessively play this album time and again. And the guitar in question, Ol’ Hoss became an icon.
Later, in 1974 Doc asked the Gallaghers to build him a custom guitar, and once it was delivered, and true to his word, he returned Ol’ Hoss to J.W. Not long afterward it went on loan to the museum at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville where it stayed until 2008 when it again came home to the little shop in Wartrace.
I first got wind of all of this when I visited Custom Fretted Instruments in Sparta, Tennessee. While dropping off a guitar off to be repaired, I tried out a nice looking Gallagher. Owner Jim Grainger explained that this guitar was an exact copy of the original Ol’ Hoss, which was now back in Wartrace, and that CFI asked Steve to build them an exact replica. “He said he’d do it if we ordered three. We ordered six,” Jim explains on the CFI website. It was Ol’ Hoss number six that I tried out at Jim’s shop.
As one of those pickers whose musical direction was drastically altered after exposure to Doc’s cuts on the Circle album, and being well acquainted with the story behind the guitar, I was at once delighted and covetous. And I was quite impressed by its balanced tone. I'm accustomed to a fat necked Martin 12 fret dreadnought which is very mellow, but overly bassy in my opinion. This guitar had no specific sweet spot; the entire fingerboard was its sweet spot. "Those Gallagher's really project," Jim explained and told how he'd been in a jam session attended by Doc in which his Gallagher cut through the banjos and fiddles loud and clear. The guitar’s price was beyond my reach, but I was having fun noodling around on it nevertheless. When I speculated whether the folks at Gallagher would let me see and play the original, Jim told me to give them a visit and “ask for Steve.” So, after a couple of email exchanges and a phone call I found myself a few weeks later in the tiny town of Wartrace looking for the fabled Gallagher shop.
I announced myself to Hazel Gallagher at the front desk, and soon a tall twenty something dressed in jeans, a well traveled Station Inn t-shirt, and green cap emerged to introduce himself. This was Steve Gallagher. Affable and with an easy laugh, in his youthful appearance and demeanor he seemed more like one of my son’s rock band friends than the heir apparent of a venerable guitar company. The kind of guy you'd enjoy having over to watch the game. But once the discussion turned to guitars and luthery his demeanor became that of a serious and knowledgeable businessman.
After graduating with a marketing degree from Tennessee Tech, where he was a walk-on tight end, Steve worked briefly in the corporate world before coming home to begin his apprenticeship in earnest. Six years later he’s still honing his luthiery skills while bringing his marketing background to bear on the business side of the operation.
LMI and buy a side bender rather than building it myself. If you think about it from that perspective, back in the sixties there was no such thing as Stumak or LMI. The art of building guitars is in building the forms and machinery.”
As he continued to show me around we were soon discussing tone woods, scalloped bracing, neck shaping, inlay and the like. In a small room not much larger than a walk in closet we found a number of completed bodies awaiting necks. Their raw state didn't diminish the beauty of the wood and inlay. "This one's a custom going to Denmark," Steve explained and was soon showing off the beautiful quilted mahogany from another custom drednought "And this is one of our new sloped shoulder dreadnoughts." His tapping on the bare wood produced a deep, rich "thump" and obvious glee from Steve as he explained that "this one we're building for stock. It's gonna make somebody a great guitar. It's gonna be a killer. I know it is"
Steve fished around in his pocket for a pick, knelt down and began a run of Angeline The Baker, and explained that he'd only been playing for the last four years or so and that he was the first Gallagher to have an interest in doing so. This kind of amazed me. I guess guitar skills and luthiery skills aren't necessary synonomous, but most builders and repair guys I've met have also been pickers. It seems counterintuitive that a person could craft great sounding instruments without being able to appreciate their work first hand. With Steve there's now a Gallagher who can.
"This thing hasn't been set up since the seventies," Steve told me. "This is how we got it back from the museum. I've only had light gauge strings on it and I'm curious to see what it'll sound like with medium." With the strings off it was obvious that it badly needed frets. There was also a crack showing in the lower bout which Steve snaked his hand inside to inspect. "This needs attention. And we need to do the frets and a good set up. These are just plastic pins. I wanna hot rod it out with some nice bridge pins, saddle, and nut."
About halfway through restringing we were interrupted by the gas man taking Steve out of the room the room for a few minutes to attend to business. This left me alone to more closely inspect the guitar myself and take a few photos. Inside was visible the original label proclaiming that this was G50 serial number 68001 and was signed by J.W.Gallagher himself. "Guaranteed Perfect," it read. It looked more like an instrument that had been in service for sixty years than just the six that Doc had it. The finish was worn off the entire length of the neck, the top and back revealed a galaxy of nicks and scratches, and the pick guard had a deep trough worn from millions (billions?) of pick strokes. All of the shine had long been worn off of the hardware and replaced by the thinnest layer of oxidation. Consider for a moment how long you think it would take you to wear the finish off your own guitar's neck and you get a sense of just how active a picker Doc is. He did this in six years! Amazing. This was truly a case of "if this guitar could talk."
Finally the restring was complete. "Wanna play it," Steve asked? "Uhhh, yep!" We moved to the lobby where there were a couple of chairs, and then I was suddenly hitting a G run on the very guitar with which Doc had dazzled my teenaged ears so many years before. I was more than a little wowed by the experience. I was hoping that some of the mojo might rub off on me. (If it did, it's certainly slow to kick in!) I tooled around a little trying not to look too much like the amateur I am, and when Steve offered to shoot a little video with my own camera I settled on a nice, safe finger picking thing with no fancy finger work or flourishes. I really, really wanted to do Black Mountain Rag or Down Yonder, but I just couldn't get my nervous fingers to cooperate.
Now, for me it takes a while to warm up, and that day was no exception. And I find playing strange guitars a little awkward at first as well. So, I really wasn't playing my best, but I found the guitar to be very sweet and well balanced, just as I had the replica back at Custom Fretted Instruments. But I have to admit that I was a little let down that I didn't find my fingers flying effortlessly over the frets. On a few occasions I've picked up an instrument at a shop and found myself "in the zone" and unable to hit a wrong note. Not so that day. But despite my own shortcomings as a player it was obviosly a great guitar with remarkable projection and tone.
That said, while I was playing Steve was called away to a phone call, and all alone I was able to unselfconsciously open up on it. For probably fifteen minutes I sat alone in the lobby running through pieces of every fiddle tune and fingerpicking arrangement I could think of. ** And while I never did fully hit my stride I was in hawg heaven cradling this piece of American music history in my hands before I finally, and reluctantly, handed it back to Steve.
Your Humble Blogger
Steve with a Steve Kaufman model cutaway and Ol' Hoss
What I took away from this experience is that the guitar, as great an instrument as it is, doesn't possess the magic. That comes from Doc, and a great instrument in his hands is merely a conduit for his incredible talent. I could play Ol' Hoss for the rest of my life and never even distantly approach Doc's sound. Still, the great picker does need the great instrument. And the association between Doc, Steve Kaufman, and many others with Gallaghers has truly enhanced the music they brought us.
Earlier, while restringing Ol' Hoss, I'd asked Steve what plans the company had for Ol' Hoss. "I'm trying to put together a recording project right now featuring artists playing it." "Any plans to ever send it back to the Country Music Hall of Fame or another museum? " I asked. "No," he firmly replied,” this is home to stay."
* Ingenuity seems to the common denominator among luthiers. Read Jim Grainger's account of how he taught himself instrument repair as a teenager.
** The nicest compliment I've had in quite a while was when Hazel Gallager, Steve's grandmother, mentioned as she was coming through the lobby that she enjoyed my fingerpicking and that I sounded like "a good musician." Considering the musical wonderment that she's no doubt witnessed in her own living room thats quite something. She was obviously being kind, but I'll take what I can get at this stage!!!