John Jorgenson’s instrumental album, Gifts from the Flood, features guitars that were rescued and restored after being submerged for days in river water, diesel fuel, and raw sewage. Here he cradles one of these instruments, a ’61 SG Les Paul. “It was my first good guitar,” he recalls. “I bought it with monthly payments when I was 15 or 16 years old.”
Photo by Piper Ferguson

In 2010, the city of Nashville was subjected to two days of torrential thunderstorms in what was one of the area’s worst natural disasters on record. The Cumberland River crested at nearly 52 feet, covering the Grand Ole Opry stage with two feet of water. Those floodwaters also poured into Soundcheck, Music City’s storage and rehearsal site for A-list musicians.

More than a few music professionals saw their instruments completely destroyed. John Jorgenson—the freakishly talented guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who has worked with everyone from Elton John to Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan—had many of his best pieces in storage during the flooding, and all of them were at least partially submerged. A musician’s worst nightmare, to say the least.

But he was lucky.

Over the course of many months, Nashville’s ace guitar tech Joe Glaser was able to carefully resuscitate nearly all of Jorgenson’s gear that was damaged in the flood, including a quintet of classic Gibson solidbodies and the Telecaster he wielded in the Hellecasters and the Desert Rose Band.

Incredibly, Jorgenson found that the refreshed instruments sounded and played even better than they did before the great deluge. Just as water had seeped into the instruments, Jorgenson witnessed new compositions pouring out of them. And working at a feverish pace, he documented them on Gifts from the Flood, his new electric instrumental album.

Around the same time he completed the album, Jorgenson—a Gypsy jazz ambassador as well as one of the great country pickers—was putting the finishing touches on outings with his Hot Club and bluegrass ensembles. And rather than release the three albums consecutively, Jorgenson chose to bundle them in one massive package. Divertuoso, which includes Gifts from the Flood, The Returning, and From the Crow’s Nest—40 tracks in allmight be one of the most ambitious guitar releases ever, by any player, in any style.

Speaking from his home in Ventura, California, Jorgenson told us about the metamorphoses his instruments underwent in the flooding, and about how he manages to work at such a high level across a range of idioms and instruments.

There’s a staggering amount of music on Divertuoso. Did you intend from the beginning to release three different albums at the same time?
I didn’t really set out to do all three at once. They started at different times with different agendas, but they came close to being finished around the same time, and I had the choice of putting them out individually or together, as a package. It felt like a risk to release so much music at once, but I was willing to take that risk to put myself out there. If I’d thought about doing the whole thing as one big project, I probably would’ve been too overwhelmed and not completed it. But being able to complete each album in its own time made it manageable, sort of like looking at the mountain from the other side.

“I was used to practicing different instruments from an early age, and the skills I picked up on one instrument transferred to another.”

The electric disc, Gifts from the Flood, is obviously a reference to the disaster that wreaked havoc on so many instruments, yours included. How did it feel to have that happen?
It felt devastating because, like most guitarists, I’m pretty much a gearhead. I’ve been lovingly collecting guitars as a player for my whole life. I was one of those kids who’d just pore over a Gibson catalog, wondering if I would ever have any of those guitars.
The flood happened when I was on tour in Germany. I found out that, first, the basement of my house flooded. That’s where all my vintage amps were, and so that kind of freaked me out. At first, no one could help retrieve them, because the roads were all messed up. A couple of neighbors and some relatives were able to come a day later and pull everything out of the basement.

Then I got the news that my storage locker in Nashville also flooded. It was full of guitars and other instruments—some of my most favorite pieces. Some I’d had since I was a kid, like the ’61 SG Les Paul I used on the opening track. It was my first good guitar, and I bought it with monthly payments when I was 15 or 16 years old. The locker was unreachable for a week. It was a strange feeling to know that I’d very likely lost most of my instruments. But I have to admit I was one of the lucky ones. I had good insurance that covered everything, and Joe Glaser went into my locker, took everything apart, and started to triage it as much as someone could at that point.

Through that process a number of instruments were saved, and once they were playable again, I actually appreciated them so much more the second time around. They ended up giving me so many songs. That’s why there are some titles like “’64 SG Custom 3.” That guitar gave me two other songs, but there was only so much I could fit on one album.

What was the extent of the damage?
Some of the guitars had to be taken apart and cleaned with a toothbrush to get the rust out of everything. But some had grown mold inside and needed more extensive work.

What was it like to receive the repaired instruments?
It was amazing because they were new and familiar at the same time.

It must have been interesting to see how different pieces fared. What did you learn?
I learned that Fender pickups don’t fare as well as Gibsons, because a Gibson has a metal bottom piece and Fender has fiber. Fiber tends to take on the water and cause the coils to break. On the other hand, Gibsons have more holes in them for the water to get into the wood. Also, it seemed like the cheaper the finish, the better it withstood not just water, but the diesel fuel and sewage that came with it.

How did the revived guitars sound?
Some seem to sound better than before. I asked Joe about that, and he told me a number of people had said that same thing. He speculated that, for newer guitars, being waterlogged would artificially age the pickups due to the many small fractures in the coil windings. The pickups became imperfect in the flood, creating the sort of comb-filter effects that everyone loves so much in 40-year-old pickups.

Did your pickups survive the flood?
Most of them did. Joe was able to rewind a bunch of them, which was kind of amazing, considering the condition they were in after the flood. But the pickups in one or two guitars had to be replaced. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Before the flood, the ’64 SG Custom had non-original humbuckers that I’d been meaning to replace, so I took the opportunity to find better pickups for it.

Vintage gear tends to have a certain aroma. What did your instruments smell like after the flood?
At first the smell was horrible—like I said, a combination of diesel fuel and sewage, not to mention mold. It was just awful to remove the back of a Marshall 4x12 and smell inside the cabinet. Luckily, those odors subsided once the gear was cleaned up, but the pieces didn’t smell vintage anymore—that combination of cigarette smoke, sweat, and a little bit of mold in the old cases. They pretty much lost that.

The compositions on the disc are all titled after the guitars you played on them. Did the guitars inspire the pieces, and what was your compositional process like?
Each guitar would kind of push me in a certain direction. I normally don’t write things down when working. If I can’t remember it, then it’s probably not a strong enough melody. But so many songs were coming out at the same time that I found a shorthand way of notating them—not through notation and not through tab, just little things to help me remember everything.

Strangely enough, even though the album is all electric, I wrote most of the pieces on guitars not plugged in. The acoustic properties of the electric guitars are what pushed the compositions. For example, on “’70 Les Paul Custom,” the guitar has a kind of sweet sound in the high register way up the neck, acoustically speaking. And that sound informed the melody of the song.

As for the notation, I just wrote the chords down and sort of notated the lead notes in a rhythm and the frets underneath that. It wasn’t even on a grid—just a little something to remind myself.

On “’64 SG Custom,” the guitar has a beautifully singing tone. Is that how it originally sounded?
That was one of the guitars that sounded so much better after the flood. I mentioned that the electronics had to be changed, but also the fretboard started pulling off the neck. That’s because the guitar had been in a trunk full of water. Some of the others were in more of a vault, where the guitars were in a standing position, and so the water subsided. But the ones that were in flat trunks retained the water, and, as a result, it damaged the guitars’ glue. Anyway, when that SG came back to life it had this amazing feedback quality to it—it could sustain and feed back without being super-overdriven. You can hear that tone on the track.