The Etsy Blog

My Visit to a Luthier in Tennessee

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In early May I went to Barren Plains, Tennessee to visit James Peters, a luthier and Etsy seller Armor Guitars. He plys a trade after my own heart, as a fellow woodworker, though I’ve yet to muster the patience required to build a fine instrument.

I remember when James first joined Etsy and listed a guitar. It was something I’d been waiting for with patient curiosity – when would the woodworkers appear? (There are now dozens of them, I’m happy to report.)

To coincide with the re-launch of Alchemy, I requested a custom guitar from James. The supreme benefit of a handmade guitar is working with the maker to spec out the instrument. James asked a lot of questions and I answered as many as I could. I knew I wanted something smaller than a dreadnought, and with a well-defined “waist” (in geetar terms).

He told me what he had, including wood from an old piano that would be used for the soundboard (the top). He mentioned things I had never heard of, like a side port so the player can better monitor his or her own sound.

At the heart of Etsy is the connection between the maker and the buyer. So when James began building my guitar, I asked if I could drop in for a visit. We’d recently begun making our Handmade Video Portraits, and I thought he would make a rich subject for such a portrait.

Tara and I headed to LaGuardia airport here in NYC, and a couple hours later were “deplaning” (when did this become a word? they used it over the intercom) in Nashville. James lives about an hour north of the city, so we rented a car and drove through the flat countryside up to Springfield.

We drove past James’s house a couple times before catching the entrance to his gravel driveway, where a large ruddy dog named Jazz announced us. After meeting James and his family (who are also Etsy sellers), he led us over to a small structure beside his house. Inside, a cornucopia of tools and the smell of sawdust greeted us.

James gave us an eight foot by eight foot tour, up and down the woodshop. Everything inside had a story behind it, including his handmade jigs.

Day turned to night, and we ate a home-cooked dinner around the fire pit on his back porch. A musical family, James, Laura, Cody, and Carson, played songs until a light rain began. It felt like a Tennessee night as we drank Tennessee moonshine; it felt worlds away from my Brooklyn home.


That night Tara and I drove back to Nashville through the winding country roads, missing most major turns at least once. We were staying at a B&B that looked like something from a children’s doll closet, and smelled like old books.

The next day as we pulled into James’s driveway, he greeted us with his morning coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and this prediction: “Looks like a tornado later today.”

Tara set up the lights and camera in his woodshop while James and I paced around the several-acre property. Towards the back was a half-standing wood-framed hut, looking tired in the tall grass. Jazz scouted the perimeter for intruders and small game as James talked about the future. The hut could be a guest house, I could help fix it up.

When the filming began, James sat in the bright studio light, facing me and trying not to look at the camera. This took a bit of getting used to, but he soon settled into his easy wisdom and the portrait proceeded. At the end he played a couple songs for us which is all I’ll say about that. Nothing I type can color them in. (Watch the videos for South and Let Her Go.)

The day ran on like days are wont to do. The sky that foretold a tornado gathered but did not fall, and after a thunderstorm it was a big blue expanse again. James and his family went about their daily work: he carved, she painted, others read and like a subway platform, every now and then I heard live music from somewhere in the house.

I was looking forward to another night around the fire, but there were things to do back in Nashville. Tara and I met up with several other Etsy sellers, Mary Ink and Betty Turbo, and then went down to Broadway for a night on the town. All I can say is, where have all the acoustic guitars gone in Nashville? It was all flash electric whizzin’.

I miss James, his family, his house, his woodshop and Jazz. I left Tennessee with the hope that my guitar, as I’d left it, would be completed over the next month. James even hinted that he might deliver it in person to Brooklyn.

Packing up that hope, I flew back home just in time for a board meeting and the noisy hustle of New York City.

Postscript:

Alas James had to mail the guitar because he had some gigging to do. Here it is, in its new Brooklyn home. James keeps checking in, making sure I’m feeding it well and giving it plenty of exercise.


[photo by Vanessa]

See our other post with ArmorGuitars and other Handmade Video Portraits.

  • jared Admin

    jared says:

    Superb! Thanks for the great story.

    7 years ago

  • Slowshirts

    Slowshirts says:

    It's beautiful! Arlo would be jealous.

    7 years ago

  • BlackStar

    BlackStar says:

    Great story and beautiful guitar!

    7 years ago

  • brepettis

    brepettis says:

    Everything is great here. Photos, writing, videos. Great post!

    7 years ago

  • TeenAngster Admin

    TeenAngster says:

    Great story and video. Thoroughly enjoyed it!

    7 years ago

  • weirdwolf Admin

    weirdwolf says:

    It was such a fantastic trip! The wood shop, nice folks, great tunes, moonshine and a fire pit... What could be better...

    7 years ago

  • BlackStarBeads

    BlackStarBeads says:

    and if you want to hear acoustic guitar, next time you're in N'ville, go to the Station Inn.

    7 years ago

  • TheSingingBird

    TheSingingBird says:

    More musical video portraits please! :)

    7 years ago

  • ChristinaPerdue

    ChristinaPerdue says:

    Aww... I'm so happy you enjoyed TN... I love Nashville! Btw, please tell me the moonshine was made by Popcorn Sutton b/c his can't be beat!

    7 years ago

  • littlepurls

    littlepurls says:

    a great story and a gorgeous guitar! thanks for sharing.

    7 years ago

  • katelynjane

    katelynjane says:

    I loved this story! Thanks for sharing about your love for guitars and your meeting with James. I can't believe he makes such amazing guitars!

    7 years ago

  • iysta

    iysta says:

    "The sky that foretold a tornado gathered but did not fall" --lovely lovely writing. Loved the article - thank you.

    7 years ago

  • jessiemccann

    jessiemccann says:

    Enjoy reading story like this. It brings us a little closer to the artist. Thanks!

    7 years ago

  • mermaidsdowry

    mermaidsdowry says:

    This was a wonderful read and journey - thank you for inviting us all along. What a talented family!! Such beautiful songs, a wonderful voice and beautifully played guitar - just awsome James!

    7 years ago

  • phydeaux

    phydeaux says:

    Rob's story was great, the video even better, and the music took the cake! Loved it!!!

    7 years ago

  • thebirdsandbees

    thebirdsandbees says:

    Great video and story!! I have a great love of bluegrass music:)

    7 years ago

  • waxbloom

    waxbloom says:

    cool! awesome story and video!

    7 years ago

  • Hyena

    Hyena says:

    Too bad you didn't meet all the other sellers in Nashville...

    7 years ago

  • ribbonwands

    ribbonwands says:

    What a talented Etsian...and a great read and video!

    7 years ago

  • mermaidclaire

    mermaidclaire says:

    Old-timey music on a front porch in Appalachia in the summertime is truly my idea of heaven. Wonderful story, I can smell the grass, see the fireflies...taste the moonshine!

    7 years ago

  • walkinthewoodsllc

    walkinthewoodsllc says:

    This is such a *great* story and it is conveyed beautifully. Thank you for that.

    7 years ago

  • jenniferaboston

    jenniferaboston says:

    What a wonderfully written story! Thank you!! ♥

    7 years ago

  • gSakura

    gSakura says:

    Perfect. I especially enjoyed the great casual jam, with the cute woodshed in the back ground..good stuff ^_^

    7 years ago

  • mamamade

    mamamade says:

    Great story! My dad was a luthier at one stop in his life - brings to mind many wonderful memories.

    7 years ago

  • fernfiddlehead

    fernfiddlehead says:

    Love, love, love it. What a craftsman that guy is. I had already listened to his music and met his family in the other post. Great stuff all around.

    7 years ago

  • shandke

    shandke says:

    What a great story! Aside from making me want to sit down and play my guitar for hours upon hours, it makes me want a handmade guitar too.

    7 years ago

  • littlethings1

    littlethings1 says:

    Great article , so enjoyed reading it ! My son is also a Luthier & my dad a fabulous woodworker ! Thanks for sharing your journey !

    7 years ago

  • ndnchick

    ndnchick says:

    Great article and guitar!

    7 years ago

  • MAKUstudio

    MAKUstudio says:

    Your story gave me the goosebumps! Thanks so much for sharing. Definitely what life is all about!

    7 years ago

  • DorotheeRH

    DorotheeRH says:

    I LOVE the videos! Just wanted to let you know that Rob Kalin made www.earthfirst.com's "25 Hottest Guys in Green" and I can see why... Check it out: http://earthfirst.com/earthfirstcoms-top-25-hottest-guys-in-green-10-we-missed-last-time/

    7 years ago

  • luckycoloryellow

    luckycoloryellow says:

    Is this a satirical piece, or is this really how you view people from places other than NYC? I'm kind of confused...

    7 years ago

  • ThisOldHenHouse

    ThisOldHenHouse says:

    How wonderfully written! Sounds like an amazing trip! Thanks for taking us there with you through your post and the amazing videos and pics :-)

    7 years ago

  • moonstr

    moonstr says:

    that is an amazing guitar :)

    6 years ago