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50 Feet High and Rising: Nashville's Devastating Flood

Nashville’s most famous guitar dealer, George Gruhn says, “I feel like there’s been a big death in the family. We have lost a piece of our heritage. This is not just a personal loss for the owners. This is a loss for all of our society. Because these things, just like Stradivari or Guarneri violins made in the 1600s, are still played today and can be played later. They go from generation to generation, and these are things worth going from generation to generation. It’s like losing a Van Gogh painting.”

Gruhn’s landmark shop on Lower Broadway was not flooded, but there were hours on Sunday, the second day of rain, when it was touch-and-go. As the Cumberland crept to within two blocks, the staff moved all the instruments that were on stands from the showroom to the second floor—a precaution that turned out to be unnecessary. Ed Beaver, who had a repair shop inside the Soundcheck complex, was not so fortunate. He spent the weekend after the flood tearing his cozy facility apart, ripping out workbenches and memories.

“If I let my mind wander as a luthier and guitar person, I could probably sit down and quit and just cry,” he said. “The history that is in Soundcheck is beyond belief. It is not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is the working tools of musicians that have come out of Nashville for decades. Soundcheck was the Fort Knox of instruments in Tennessee. To an instrument guy, it’s like watching Joplin die or Hendrix die. Lennon. We had guitars out there that have that much history—that much influence in the industry.”

As it happened, and by the cruelest twist of fate, one particular collection at Soundcheck was specifically curated to be just that important. The Musicians Hall of Fame was established by long-time Nashville dealer Joe Chambers, a man so dedicated to the Nashville guitar and musician legacy that he used to keep a parking place permanently reserved for Chet Atkins by his shop doors. He spent considerable sums of his own money to grow a collection of iconic American instruments and artifacts to be the core of a hall of fame that has already inducted the Nashville A-Team, the Wrecking Crew, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Chambers renovated a building just south of Broadway, across a wide parking lot from the Country Music Hall of Fame, and opened in 2006. Less than a year ago, the city determined he was inside the footprint of a massive new convention center, and bought him out via eminent domain. Lacking a long-term home for the museum’s pieces, Chambers was forced to move nearly all of the instruments he’d collected to Soundcheck about a month before the flood.

Peter Frampton’s badly cracked three-pickup Les Paul gets some TLC. Photo by Mark Montgomery

His wipeout was staggering. A 1960s Stratocaster owned by Jimi Hendrix will never be the same. The top of a cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul Deluxe played by Pete Townsend on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour is riddled with cracks [See “Opening Notes, pg. 22]. And the upright bass played by Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance on Hank Williams’ last recording session collapsed into a sickening pile of wood and wire. “If we had been able to work out an agreement with the city, we would have been sitting high and dry,” Chambers told The Tennessean. “We wouldn’t have lost a guitar pick.”

Meanwhile, the list of working guitarists affected by the Soundcheck flooding reads like some kind of royal order. Besides Brent Mason and John Jorgenson, Brent Rowan had at least a dozen road cases full of guitars and gear. Acoustic guitar star Bryan Sutton is determined to restore a damaged 1930s Gibson L-00 that had been passed from his grandfather and father down to him. Dave Roe, Johnny Cash’s last bass player, lost two uprights and 25 electrics, including the 1970 Fender Precision that he used on the majority of his sessions.

And Soundcheck was not merely the province of sidemen. Vince Gill reportedly had more than 60 carefully collected guitars impacted, including a D’Angelico and some vintage Strats. Brad Paisley was about to start rehearsals for this year’s tours, so nearly all of of his instruments and his band’s entire road rig were affected. Peter Frampton had vast amounts of gear underwater, as did John Fogerty, John Hiatt, and rock journeyman Steve Farris.

“It’s funny,” says Farris, “I survived the Northridge [Los Angeles] earthquake. I survived ripped off guitars in LA. And I was reminiscing yesterday with [Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer] Michael Cartellone about years ago when I took guitars and stuff to his apartment because fire was coming up the hill in Woodland Hills and he lived over in Sherman Oaks. And I never put guitars all in one place, but I thought what the hell, I’ll move away to my ranch and put them all in [Soundcheck]. And Mother Nature finally caught up.”

A drawer full of waterlogged pedals—including models from Carl Martin, Marshall, Danelectro, and Boss. Photo by Mark Montgomery

In fact, she took a toll on instruments and gear all over Nashville. The Gibson manufacturing facility took water and had to be shut down for an undisclosed length of time. (Fortunately, the Gibson Custom Shop was not flooded.) Home and professional studios suffered, like the one owned by Americana and rock producer Ray Kennedy. Kennedy says he saved his guitars but that he lost some vintage recording gear. And the inundation at the riverside complex housing the Grand Ole Opry House and the Opryland Hotel simply defied belief. The Cumberland River overtopped a dike built after a 1975 flood of what was then Opryland USA. By the time it was over, two feet of water covered the Opry stage and soaked the lockers and offices of the Opry administration and musical staff. Musicians and employees waded into the water in the dark to remove instruments from the Roy Acuff Museum and backstage areas. The losses there—potentially devastating—have not been disclosed. Corporate owner Gaylord Entertainment imposed media silence on employees until restoration efforts and a full accounting had been completed.

When stories of this flood are told years from now, however, most of the heartbreak and loss will be symbolized by Soundcheck. Opened in 1993 by Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and his roadie Bob Thompson, Soundcheck Nashville was an offshoot of their Third Encore rehearsal space in Los Angeles. About six years ago, Ben Jumper, a long-time road production manager, purchased Soundcheck and began an ambitious expansion. The place became a small town of product reps, microphone dealers, case builders, and a concert-video production company. It worked because it is incredibly convenient to the freeway. It’s also on a floodplain.

George Gruhn has been outspoken in his opinion that Soundcheck was the right business in the wrong spot. “There is a reason [that land] was never developed for housing. It floods! I think it was poor judgment on a lot of people’s parts.”
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