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50 Feet High and Rising: Nashville's Devastating Flood

In his defense, owner Ben Jumper can point to the fact that even though the ground around Soundcheck has seen a few inches of water in decades past, his buildings’ floors are four to five feet above the ground, and this was at least a 100-year flood. “I feel I’ve done the best I could to protect everything in Soundcheck,” he says. “You cannot anticipate an event of epic proportion. My father—my grandfather—never saw anything like this in Nashville. It’s something you don’t anticipate or don’t believe would ever happen. Obviously we were all wrong. And it did happen. And I don’t know that I have ever been through a tragedy like this and I hope I never am again.”

Left: A soggy, sagging acoustic is one of the many flood-damaged instruments that will never be played again. Right: One of the lucky few salvageable acoustics at Soundcheck being dried out with an industrial fan. Photos by Mark Montgomery

Jumper’s clients seemed to be satisfied and even impressed with Soundcheck’s response to the flood. He secured two large dry-out facilities, and over three days company trucks and roadies moved tons of gear to the spaces where it could be spread out and dried at a proper pace. Guitar techs set up a kind of field hospital, where they disassembled the electrics, soaked the electronic parts in WD-40, and bagged them for rebuilding later. Guitars were laid out everywhere. Keith Urban’s guitars and banjos dangled from a ceiling by their headstocks as if from some hideous hanging tree.

Glaser shuttled between several facilities, working on guitars owned by Urban, Gill, Jorgenson, and others. Sizing up the overall damage on the Saturday of the recovery, he said, “It’s like any disaster. There’s been a lot of really pleasant surprises and a lot of discouraging damage, which we expected to see. The acoustics have fared worse than the electrics, because any instrument put together with water-soluble glues is tending to come apart. The acoustics are generally built out of boards that were bent into shape, and these are straightening out again. But there are some surprising survivors, particularly in old and valuable instruments. The irony is that, for the last 10 or so years, there’s been quite an industry in making new guitars look like old guitars, and this flood has done more of that than everybody’s careful expertise combined.”

John Jorgenson’s travel back from Europe was a nightmare in itself. Starting with the troublesome Icelandic volcano, a rash of problems got him home more than a day late. By then, we’d opened his guitars, emptied them of water, and put them in Glaser’s care. Some we’d delivered to his home so he could see them as soon as possible. None of those prized instruments had been spared damage, and some were complete wipeouts. Two mandolins—a pre-war Gibson A style and a custom-built John Monteleone—had more or less exploded. A rare Höfner guitar in the shape of Paul McCartney’s famous bass had mold inside it. And one-of-a-kind presentation pieces, including a custom Gibson Casino with artwork based on the Beatles’ animated Yellow Submarine film, had taken serious damage to its bindings and its previously pristine finish.

Some of John Jorgenson’s guitars—including a Fender Tele, a G&L ASAT, an Ovation uke, and his signature Fender Strat—with parts removed and bagged for safekeeping. Photo by Jim McGuire

“It was pretty horrifying,” Jorgenson says about finally facing the instruments and vintage amplifiers he’d collected and cared for so assiduously over so many years. One particularly hard-to-take loss was a 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG. “I bought that on time payments when I was 15 years old, and I’ve had it my whole life. It was really the first really good guitar that I ever bought, and I played it forever. It’s a great guitar. And I’ve had the original case with it and I’ve taken care of it. Guitarists will know those have the original PAF pickups, which are super valuable now. And I’d never done anything stupid like change them out! And to see it cracked and with rusty pickups just really kind of broke my heart.”

It’s a hurt that perhaps only guitar players and lovers can fully understand. Jorgenson and many others spoke of being caretakers and curators for their instruments. They technically own them, but they said they felt more like they were holding them in trust for future players and the future of music. Pretty much everyone spoke respectfully and emotionally about the many lives and homes that had been lost in the flood, but at the same time, fine instruments have a life force of their own.

“I know they’re just objects. They’re tools,” said Jorgenson two weeks after the flood. “But when somebody put in the time that it took and the energy and creativity to build those— that’s someone’s energy in it. And then it had a significance in the careers of other artists. That’s kind of the overwhelming part. It felt like my history was just being ripped away. I know that’s not true, but that’s what it felt like.”

Gone But Not Forgotten
By Thomas Scott McKenzie

Luckily, the type of immense guitar destruction seen in Nashville is a rare occurrence. Guitar catastrophes don’t happen often, and in the rare event they do, they can be related to industrial tragedies, natural disasters, or more mysterious causes. Here are just a few sad examples.

Mosrite Factory Fire, 1983
California guitar maker Semie Moseley came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s with his unusual-shaped guitars and multi-necked instruments. His Mosrite brand is perhaps most well known for being played by the Ventures and Johnny Ramone. After a series of setbacks, Moseley re-located his factory to Jonas Ridge, North Carolina. In late 1983, the factory caught fire and burned extensively. Lost in the blaze were not only the production models being built, but also Moseley’s personal collection of triple-necked instruments.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, instrument loss was the least of anyone’s worries. More than 1800 lives were lost and tens of billions of dollars in property damage occurred. Unlike in the Nashville flooding, there weren’t any single warehouses or storage facilities affected. Instead, the hurricane’s devastation was so widespread that putting a single dollar amount on the loss of instruments is almost impossible. “For months, people were bringing in instruments to save,” says Dave Newman of International Vintage Guitars in New Orleans. “But we’re guitar technicians, not miracle workers.” Music Rising, a non-profit organization founded by producer Bob Ezrin, U2 guitarist the Edge, and Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, provided 2700 replacement instruments to affected musicians in the short term after the catastrophe. Since then, the group has restored gear to tens of thousands of people.

Southern California Wildfires, 2008
Just about every year wildfires threaten the cities and suburbs of Southern California. With the high numbers of musicians in the area, it is in some ways a pleasant surprise that more wildfire-related guitar loss doesn’t occur. However, the Los Angeles Times did report the sad story of Roger Heath’s experience in 2008. A 20-year resident of Twin Lakes, California, Heath thought he had more time before the blaze would reach his home, but then he was suddenly surrounded by smoke and gray ash. He managed to save his 1959 Les Paul but lost 24 other instruments when his house burned to the ground.

Gretsch Factory Fires, 1973
In 1973, a disastrous fire halted production at Gretsch’s Boonville, Arkansas, factory for three months. Another fire would follow in December of that year. The Booneville chapter of Gretsch’s storied history is largely forgotten by most connoisseurs of the brand and is even downplayed with a bit of embarrassment in the company’s own annals. This is due to what is widely regarded as a period of questionable quality control during the company’s Baldwin years. The Baldwin Piano company bought Gretsch in 1967 and moved guitar production from New York to Arkansas. As QC slipped, Chet Atkins withdrew his endorsement and Baldwin eventually shut down guitar production in 1981. To this day, rumors persist that disgruntled employees sabotaged operations during the Baldwin era.

Robert Keeley Electronics Fire, 2009
On a cold afternoon in January 2009, employees at Robert Keeley Electronics were hard at work on their popular pedals when a fire broke out in the company’s Edmond, Oklahoma, factory. “It was a scary moment for everyone,” says company vice president Jacob Adams. “All of us were out there watching, and we didn’t know what the future held for us. We didn’t know how bad the fire was going to be, what all we were going to lose.” The firm lost the bulk of its inventory, as well as a large supply of vintage parts. A year and a half later, the company has moved into a brand new facility and is back to full capacity—with more employees than before the disaster.
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