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Busted Guitars & Broken Hearts

Oh, that Cumberland River
It’s filthy, dirty brown
As it winds its crooked way right through
The heart of this heartless town
—Dan Baird, “Cumberland River”

Guitars don’t like water. Humidity isn’t good for stringed instruments. Outright inundation is disastrous. Yet during the great Nashville flood of 2010, thousands of guitars were submerged for days in pools of polluted water inside Soundcheck, a rehearsal studio and instrument storage facility located on the north bank of the Cumberland River, one bridge up from downtown. A relentless downpour dumped more than a foot of rain on Music City over a May weekend, causing catastrophic flooding. 

When the floodwaters receded, musicians all over town discovered that the deluge had devastated their warehoused collections. Some of the waterlogged instruments stored at Soundcheck were utilitarian and replaceable, but many were cherished, vintage treasures—guitars that played well, felt right, and had plenty of songs left in them. Such losses left their owners reeling.

“The flood took so many guitars it was unbelievable,” says Peter Frampton. “It’s forty-four guitars I lost. Most of my Les Pauls split in two or three places all the way through the body. I took the ones that didn’t split to Gibson, and they said, ‘They’re just not savable. They’re never going to be the same.’” Frampton did manage to salvage a prized Hank Marvin Stratocaster, even though it was underwater for three days and “there was so much toxicity in the wood.”

Vince Gill lost more than forty guitars and thirty amps, as well as many pricey guitar cases. “Through it all, going through all that carnage and stench . . .” He pauses and sighs. “To see a guitar that would never get to be musical again was sad. It was tough to let go of some things and say, Well, they did the best they could, and then the water got ’em.

Brad Paisley was between tours when the flood came, so his gear was in storage at Soundcheck. The country superstar lost virtually his entire rig. Fortunately, his iconic pink paisley ’68 Telecaster was safe at home, but the losses he suffered, including a priceless ’52 Telecaster, were significant. A few weeks later, he hit the road with mostly new and unfamiliar instruments. The string of dates had been announced months earlier: “The H20 Tour.” The title of his hit single that spring was “Water.”

Frampton, Gill, and Paisley were among roughly six hundred musicians who lost instruments that weekend. Perhaps the saddest story is that of Joe Chambers, founder of the Musicians Hall of Fame. Formerly housed downtown, Chambers’ museum had been displaced in February by an act of eminent domain to make way for a convention center. He stashed the contents at Soundcheck, pending relocation. 

Jimi Hendrix’s 1966 Fender; a sunburst Gibson Les Paul that Pete Townshend played on the Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia tour; guitars belonging to Glen Campbell and Jerry Reed; a bass guitar and drum kit from Nashville session greats Kenney Buttrey and Charlie McCoy—the inventory is considerable. It was all in there when the flood hit.


 

Well, there’s a few licks left in this guitar slinger
Even though half of my stuff’s in the Cumberland River
—Vince Gill, “Guitar Slinger”

It’s been called “Nashville’s Katrina.” On Saturday, May 1, 2010, a frontal boundary stalled and was fed by a steady stream of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, generating thirty-six hours of torrential rain. Nashville received 13.57 inches of precipitation that weekend, doubling the previous record set in 1979 when the remnants of Hurricane Frederic blew through. Some spots recorded twenty inches. The following Monday, the Cumberland River crested at fifty-two feet—an unprecedented twelve feet above flood stage. Inside Soundcheck the water rose to nearly four feet deep.

The flood caused $2 billion of damage in Nashville, including $250 million to the Grand Ole Opry House and Gaylord Opryland Resort alone, and $120 million worth of damage to the city’s public infrastructure. Nearly eleven thousand structures in Nashville were damaged, and thousands of jobs washed away with the destroyed businesses. Twenty-four people died in Tennessee from flood-related causes. Despite the historic dimensions of the calamity, it’s been ruefully noted that the flood received scant coverage in the national media, which was preoccupied with BP’s oil spill in the Gulf and a terrorist car-bombing scare in New York City.

George Gruhn, who has been dealing new and vintage stringed instruments since 1970 at Gruhn Guitars, a Nashville institution, casts the Soundcheck casualties in stark terms: “I tend to view musical instruments very much as though they’re alive and they’re not replaceable,” he says. “The vintage instruments are very rare, they were handmade, and they have real soul and personality. It’s a big loss if one of these is gone. I view it as if someone has died, and it’s very painful.” Gruhn speculates that, historically, the Nashville flood might have caused the greatest loss of vintage instruments in one day.

Once the river crested and trucks could get to Soundcheck, waterlogged gear was loaded and moved to dry warehouses. Joe Glaser and his crew at Glaser Instruments, along with others in Nashville’s instrument repair community, volunteered time and expertise. To assess the damage, they sorted through instruments that had been marinating for days in a chemical soup. In Glaser’s words, “You had to go through disgust to get to tragedy.”

“It all got brought over dripping wet to this facility, and fifteen or so guys started tearing into it. All this stuff was slimy,” Glaser remembers. “It was actually toxic. By the time [the river] got to Soundcheck, it had flooded backyards and been through a lot of cars, motorcycles, and lawn mowers. Sewage, garbage, and petroleum products went into the river. There was a cement plant and a plating factory upriver, and whatever was in those—acid and caustic this-and-that—ended up in there.” The mucky solution dripping off instruments “wasn’t water and didn’t smell like water.”

At the earliest stages of triage, curious and fearful musicians began showing up to inspect their collections. There were two groups: the studio players, whose gear had been in cartage, and the artists, whose holdings were in storage at the main Soundcheck facility. Glaser recalls that some of the studio musicians he was with at the unveilings started weeping at the sight of their distressed instruments.


 

He loved that guitar just like a girlfriend
But every good thing comes to an end
Now he just sits in his room all day
Whistling every note he ever played
—John Hiatt, “Perfectly Good Guitar”

Losing or breaking instruments is an occupational hazard for working musicians. Nashville mainstays Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale—longtime pals whose first-ever collaboration, Buddy and Jim, was a musical highlight of 2012—both know the sickening feeling of having a favorite guitar stolen. Lauderdale recalls being relieved of a cobalt blue Telecaster while living in Dallas: “I walked into my disheveled garage apartment and found my Tele gone. It was a sinking feeling that took me forever to get over. Here was this great instrument that I loved—I’d spent so many hours writing, practicing and performing with that Telecaster, and someone just took it away.”

Miller relates a similar story about his pet Wandre (pronounced van-dray) electric guitar. Dating from the 1960s, this Italian-made oddity featured an unusual shape, aluminum neck, sparkly Formica-like top, and pushbutton pickup selectors. Miller saw it on the wall of a Colorado music store in the mid-1970s and bought it for $50. It provided the sound he’s known for. But it was stolen after a gig in the early 1980s.

“I was beside myself,” recalls Miller, who posted hand-drawn signs around the neighborhood offering a reward. One day there was a message on his answering machine: Hey, man, I think I’ve found your guitar under my truck. The thief had been hoping for a valuable Fender or Gibson to pawn; when he opened the case, he thought so little of the freaky Wandre that he ditched it under a pickup. These days Miller’s eccentric treasure—“this mess of aluminum and plastic held together with duct tape and Superglue,” he says, chuckling—rarely leaves his side or sight. “To me, it’s beautiful. It’s the only thing that feels right in my hand at this point. And I know how to make it work.”

John Hiatt wrote “Perfectly Good Guitar” about the bond between guitarists and their instruments. The chorus takes a poke at musicians who smash them for theater. It was, in fact, Nirvana’s guitar-bludgeoning appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992 that inspired Hiatt to write the song. But he also issues an autobiographical mea culpa in the first line—“Well, he threw one down from the top of the stairs”—describing how he broke his first guitar, a Kay acoustic. He’s carefully minded his instruments since that youthful recklessness. 

Hiatt’s gear was mostly spared from the flood because his tour manager had the foresight to build elevated shelving. Still, he laments the loss of a Framus Florida acoustic: “It was really kind of pretty and ornate. Didn’t play worth a shit but I loved it.” A few days after the flood, Hiatt visited a warehouse where instruments had been laid out. What he saw there broke his heart. “It was a morgue,” he says. “Just awful. It’s not the dollar value, it’s the emotional value. The real killer was all the kids who lost their band gear and didn’t have any insurance. All of a sudden, they’ve got nothing to tour with. They’re there on a wing and a prayer anyway.”


 

Vaudeville Nanna and the banjolele
Waiting for me and a rainy day
Charing Cross Road, they all look like candy
Guitars behind glass that I wanted to play
—Peter Frampton, 
“Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele”

Some of the musicians’ most precious guitars were kept at home and survived the flood. The farsighted and well-off had insurance, which mitigated the economic impact of their losses. Beyond that, certain flood victims came to view the carnage through a more circumspect and philosophical lens. Vince Gill’s wife, singer Amy Grant, offered a helpful perspective: “She said, ‘All you need is one guitar. You can make a living with one.’ And she’s right. I’d get sick of the same sound,” Gill laughs, “but I could.”

On a tour marking the 35th anniversary of Frampton Comes Alive, Frampton auctioned his flooded Soundcheck guitars, one per show, for charity. He also donated his river-ravaged favorites—Peter Frampton signature Gibson Les Pauls no. 190 and no. 192, the workhorses he’d been playing onstage for the previous ten years—to NasH20, a charity created to help uninsured musicians who’d lost instruments. Many others, including Gill and Paisley, did likewise.

The Nashville community bonded to help affected musicians with gifts and loans of instruments and equipment; free or reduced-fee repairs to those who couldn’t afford it; and fundraisers, auctions, and other forms of material and emotional support. Joe Glaser donated his expertise in gratitude for the music he loves: “It was the least I could do for guys who mean as much to me as their instruments do to them.”

Glaser’s shop wound up working on 140 of them, and, surprisingly, some of the flooded guitars were restored to a degree not believed possible. “A few days into it, we sort of thought the whole thing was hopeless,” says Glaser. “The guitars looked swollen. The necks were just muffin-topping out of the neck slots. If you left the parts on, they would bust. If you took them off, you couldn’t get them back on.” Various artists and players would ask, Can you just save this one guitar?

“Slowly but surely we started to put some things back together and return them to artists,” Glaser recounts. “What was really bizarre was that we got these exceedingly favorable reports from players who didn’t know each other, from manufacturers who got instruments back, and from endorsees who restored guitars just to hang on the wall. And when they played them, it was like, Wow, what’s going on here? We had high success rates, so the bar just kept changing. The thing that was so screwed we weren’t going to fix it, now we thought, Let’s take a shot at it. One at a time, Keith Urban sent guitars over and said, ‘That one was so successful, let’s try this one.’ So his two 1950s gold-top Les Pauls went from being sad write-offs to going back into his repertoire.”

There is a mysterious “flood effect,” in which certain guitars that endured the soaking without cracking or breaking, were cleaned quickly, allowed to dry slowly, and had their electronics repaired or replaced with era-specific parts ended up sounding pretty good and, in a few rare cases, actually better. Glaser is bewildered but skeptical. “I’m very hesitant to say something like, Guitars that have been soaked in urine and diesel and sat in water for four days at a temperature of 115 degrees sound better,” he cautions. “All I can say is that it didn’t turn out to be a complete tragedy.” The same is true of Joe Chambers's Musicians Hall of Fame, which reopened in late August at the historic Nashville City Auditorium. The dehumidified, cleaned-up instruments are once again exhibit-worthy.

Then there’s Peter Frampton’s unbelievable left-field coda. After he lost so much in the 2010 flood, a year later a guitar that had been missing for three decades was miraculously returned. This was not just any guitar but the circa 1954 Les Paul Black Beauty that he played throughout the 1970s on several Humble Pie albums and a slew of solo releases, and at all of his concerts. How significant to Frampton’s legend is this particular instrument? Put it this way: it’s what he played on Frampton Comes Alive. When an equipment plane crashed on a South American tour in 1980, it was assumed to have burned up. As it turns out, the guitar was stolen from the crash site and sold. In 2011, Frampton received an e-mail with pictures of his beloved Black Beauty and contact info. Once recovered, he rechristened it The Phoenix.

“I’ve spoken to other guitarists who have had the same instrument for a long time, and we understand what each other is talking about," Frampton reflects. "It’s very hard to put into words what it is about a guitar, why it becomes you.”

 

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