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My Visit to a Luthier in Tennessee

Jun 13, 2008

by Rokali

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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.


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.

CUSTOM Original  Holding  Hands
CUSTOM Original Holding Hands
CUSTOM Original Bird on a Hand
CUSTOM Original Bird on a Hand
Custom Bird on a Wire Sculpted Painting - 12 x 12 x 1.5 inches deep
Custom Bird on a Wire Sculpted Painting - 12 x 12 x 1.5 inches deep
Very Large Original Painting - Native American - Southwestern
Very Large Original Painting - Native American - Southwestern


  • jared Admin

    jared said 9 years ago

    Superb! Thanks for the great story.

  • Slowshirts

    Slowshirts said 9 years ago

    It's beautiful! Arlo would be jealous.

  • BlackStar

    BlackStar said 9 years ago

    Great story and beautiful guitar!

  • brepettis

    brepettis said 9 years ago

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

  • TeenAngster Admin

    TeenAngster said 9 years ago

    Great story and video. Thoroughly enjoyed it!

  • weirdwolf Admin

    weirdwolf said 9 years ago

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

  • BlackStarBeads

    BlackStarBeads said 9 years ago

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

  • TheSingingBird

    TheSingingBird said 9 years ago

    More musical video portraits please! :)

  • ChristinaPerdue

    ChristinaPerdue said 9 years ago

    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!

  • littlepurls

    littlepurls said 9 years ago

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

  • katelynjane

    katelynjane said 9 years ago

    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!

  • iysta

    iysta said 9 years ago

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

  • jessiemccann

    jessiemccann said 9 years ago

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

  • mermaidsdowry

    mermaidsdowry said 9 years ago

    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!

  • phydeaux

    phydeaux said 9 years ago

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

  • thebirdsandbees

    thebirdsandbees said 9 years ago

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

  • waxbloom

    waxbloom said 9 years ago

    cool! awesome story and video!

  • Hyena

    Hyena said 9 years ago

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

  • ribbonwands

    ribbonwands said 9 years ago

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

  • mermaidclaire

    mermaidclaire said 9 years ago

    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!

  • walkinthewoodsllc

    walkinthewoodsllc said 9 years ago

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

  • jenniferaboston

    jenniferaboston said 9 years ago

    What a wonderfully written story! Thank you!! ♥

  • gSakura

    gSakura said 9 years ago

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

  • mamamade

    mamamade said 9 years ago

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

  • fernfiddlehead

    fernfiddlehead said 9 years ago

    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.

  • shandke

    shandke said 9 years ago

    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.

  • littlethings1

    littlethings1 said 9 years ago

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

  • ndnchick

    ndnchick said 9 years ago

    Great article and guitar!

  • MAKUstudio

    MAKUstudio said 9 years ago

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

  • DorotheeRH

    DorotheeRH said 8 years ago

    I LOVE the videos! Just wanted to let you know that Rob Kalin made's "25 Hottest Guys in Green" and I can see why... Check it out:

  • luckycoloryellow

    luckycoloryellow said 8 years ago

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

  • ThisOldHenHouse

    ThisOldHenHouse said 8 years ago

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

  • moonstr

    moonstr said 8 years ago

    that is an amazing guitar :)

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