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.
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]