In the 1960s and 1970s, Randy Wood was a forerunner in the vintage instrument industry. Known as the instrument repairman to the stars, the list of Wood’s clients reads like a Hall of Fame roster: Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Billy Gibbons, Bill Monroe, Keith Richards, Roy Acuff, Ricky Skaggs, and Hank Williams Jr. . . . to name a few. In Randy Wood: The Lore of the Luthier, Daniel Wile traces the life and work of a man who quietly influenced a hidden history of bluegrass and country music.
In his twenties, Wood vowed to avoid complacency in his work. What started simply as a quest to find fulfillment turned into a career that has shaped a generation of musicians, professional and amateur alike. Through his incredible gift for lutherie, Wood brought cherished pre-WWII instruments back to life, many of which were considered beyond repair. He crafted his own instruments as well, based on what he learned from vintage instruments, and these instruments found their way into the hands of some of the most renowned musicians, thanks in part to Wood’s strategic location in Nashville during the resurgence of country music in the 1970s. Humble, unassuming, and unfazed by the presence of celebrities, Wood has spent his life devoted to building and repairing stringed instruments.
Wood also built community. After tiring of big-city Nashville, he retreated to the Georgia coast, where his home shop became a hub of bluegrass activity. He eventually opened a new shop near Savannah, where a new generation of friends and strangers can come in, visit, and pick a little. Randy’s stories, complemented with those of his friends and family, create a compelling picture of a modest man with a talent for his craft, a genuine care for people, and the courage to follow his passion.
About the Author
DANIEL WILE has written for Bluegrass Unlimited, Vintage Guitar, and The Bluegrass Standard. He is president of Southern Cast Products, a steel foundry in Meridian, Mississippi.
Read an Excerpt
When Elvis Presley took the stage with his guitar at the Aloha from Hawaii concert, millions of television viewers saw Randy Wood’s work. When Eric Clapton played slide guitar on his Grammy-winning Unplugged album, his fingers glided over Randy’s inlay creation. The list of Wood’s clients reads like a music hall of fame roster: Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Billy Gibbons, Bill Monroe, Keith Richards, Roy Acuff, Ricky Skaggs, and Hank Williams Jr. Randy is known as the instrument repairman to the stars. Yet he is humble, unassuming, and unfazed by the presence of celebrities. His life’s work has been devoted to building and repairing stringed instruments. While at work, he has opened his shop doors to let friends and strangers come in, visit, pick a little, and build community. What started simply as a quest to look forward to waking up each morning has turned into a career that has shaped a generation of musicians, professional and amateur alike. Randy moved to Nashville in the early 1970s to be the instrument repairman—the luthier—for a new venture formed with friends and theretofore amateur instrument dealers Tut Taylor and George Gruhn. The new venture was dubbed GTR and was one of the first instrument stores in the United States dealing in vintage stringed instruments. Located behind the Ryman Auditorium, GTR became a popular destination for performers on rehearsal breaks and amateur pickers eager to rub shoulders with the greats. GTR became Gruhn Guitars, known today as the mecca of the vintage instrument world. Randy and Tut left GTR and opened the Old Time Picking Parlor several blocks away on Nashville’s Second Avenue. While GTR sought to be the purveyor of vintage instruments, the Picking Parlor appealed to a broader population of music enthusiasts. Within its wood-paneled walls, Wood and Taylor created a magical trifecta—a music store, a repair workshop, and a performance space. When bluegrass was enjoying a swell in popularity prompted by the banjo sounds in The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde, the Old Time Picking Parlor was one of the top venues for bluegrass music in Nashville. The stars came into the Picking Parlor, as they did at GTR, during daytime respites from Opry rehearsals seeking repairs on their instruments or a few hours of jamming. Weekend pickers relished the chance to jam with their heroes. In the corners of his second-floor repair shop, Randy quietly held court over his apprentices, setting the example for humility and open-mindedness that permeated the Picking Parlor’s culture. That culture left an indelible mark in the memories of a generation of Picking Parlor visitors. In 1978 Randy returned to his native Georgia low country to escape the bustle of Nashville and devote more time to his original love of woodworking. However, his fans and devotees continued to seek his repair expertise and prompted Randy, once again, to open a commercial repair shop, this time in Bloomingdale, Georgia. Characteristically, this shop is more than a place where Randy trades and repairs instruments; it is a hub for bluegrass music activity throughout the Southeast. It was at his Bloomingdale compound that I discovered Randy Wood one weekend in 2005 while on a mission to buy a Dobro, a brand of slide guitar that is somewhat obscure outside of bluegrass circles. I had been enchanted by the sounds of the instrument in the hands of Jerry Douglas, who played on some Alison Krauss CDs I had borrowed. Living in Savannah, Georgia, at the time, I scoured the local music stores for a Dobro but had no luck. Finally, one store clerk suggested I check out Randy’s shop in nearby Bloomingdale. The following Saturday I made the twenty-minute westward drive to Bloomingdale to check out Randy Wood Guitars. Even from the small parking lot I noticed the place had a pulse. In fact, it was audible, as the rhythmic thumping of an upright bass emanated from the rustic storefront. The front door squeaked as I entered, and a cowbell dangling from the inside handle announced my arrival. Guitars lined the walls of the small carpeted room. To my left, a clerk stood behind a lighted display case. Straight ahead, the music store opened to another merchandise room. From there, the sounds from that bass, plus a banjo, mandolin, and guitar, flowed throughout the shop as a group of men sat in a circle of metal folding chairs, playing their instruments. Through a side doorway to the back room where the jam was taking place, I could see a workshop aglow in fluorescent light. There were workbenches and tables and not a clear square inch on any of them. On one table, instruments in various stages of construction floated on top of a sea of old magazines and catalogs. The walls were lined with tool cabinets, shelves of books, CDs, and DVDs, guitar tops turned backward to expose the bracing underneath, and a wire string with violins hanging by the scrolls. A large flat screen television played a black-and-white cowboy movie. Several men scurried around the workshop, but I easily spotted the store owner. He had a gravitas I could sense. He moved slowly and did not talk much. He was casual, wearing what I would later realize is his standard uniform: Hawaiian shirt untucked, draping over his belly, shorts, flip-flops, and a front shirt pocket bulging with pens, pencils, scales, screwdrivers, and business cards. He wore elegant, wire-rimmed reading glasses perched on his pointed nose. His thinning gray hair was combed neatly from front to back. He exuded a calm assuredness. This man did not have to announce that the name on the sign out front was his. I was intimidated by Randy at first glance. With his quiet demeanor, he did not exactly go out of his way to invite me in. I was downright scared to walk through the doorway into the workshop for fear that the jamming musicians might be secretly guarding the entrance, and my intrusion would bring the jam to a screeching halt. As I stepped back from the workshop door and looked around the retail space, I noticed walls filled with photographs of Randy Wood with people who looked famous but were as yet unrecognizable to me, a neophyte bluegrass fan. However, one framed photo caught my eye. It showed Randy staring back at the camera calmly while two smiling men flanked him on either side. I recognized these performers; they were both members of Alison Krauss’s band, Union Station. One was Ron Block and the other was Jerry Douglas, the man whose music had inspired my quest that brought me to Randy’s shop in the first place. I felt I had stumbled upon something special here. Later I would learn to identify the other faces in the photographs scattered around the walls of Randy Wood Guitars. Those pictures of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Earl Scruggs, and Vassar Clements were portraits of giants of their genres. I would also learn they were standing with a giant in the world of musical instruments. I bought a beginner Dobro and made a habit of driving out to Bloomingdale to join the Saturday afternoon jams. As I began to feel more comfortable in the place, I mustered the courage to walk into the workshop and get to know Randy. It was not long before I considered him a friend, as did all of the weekend pickers. The more I watched musicians coming in and out of the store, the more I realized Randy had a lot of friends. Always willing to visit, Randy, in his syrupy slow drawl, would tell stories from his career spent around music’s most recognizable names, all the while sitting in a swivel chair with a carving knife in one hand and an unfinished mandolin back in the other. Today new customers may look to Randy for help repairing an instrument, but his impact on the music world reaches far beyond repaired guitar frets and warped necks. He has created spaces where music enthusiasts of all stripes can hang out, surrounded by people who speak their language. Randy sets the example for how to behave. All people in the shop are to be treated as friends, whether they have sold a million albums or just picked up a guitar for the first time. Careers were launched from the networking Randy facilitated. Lifelong relationships took root. Thanks to the weekend jams I regularly attended at Randy’s, the Dobro has become more than an inanimate curiosity piece. It has been my ticket to a world rich with friendships and inspiring encounters with my musical heroes. Randy’s great achievement is his wide circle of friends who can relate to my experience. Randy is too understated to write a book about himself, and after several years of hanging out in his shop and hearing his stories, I began thinking, “Somebody needs to write a book about this guy.” At some point I thought just maybe I could be that somebody. At first I assumed I would develop a series of stories around notable musicians influenced by Randy’s work. But after many interviews with important people in Randy’s life and many more conversations with Randy in his workshop during quiet, late-night sessions, I realized my focus was in the wrong direction. Sure, star power of Randy’s customer base makes for great stories, but I was naïve to assume that a story of Randy’s life needed to be propped up by the fragile veneer of celebrity associations. Randy is remarkable because the celebrities revere him. Randy’s is a story of a luthier who has quietly influenced bluegrass and country music. Randy’s own stories and the accounts from family and friends are entertaining in themselves. Assembled together, they reveal an inspiring theme: a humble man with passion for his craft, a genuine affection for people, and the courage to follow his heart can leave an indelible mark on the world.