Luthier and musician Freeman Vines was 8 or 9 years old when his neighbor, an older white man named Oscar Hopper, introduced him to the guitar. “It was an old C.F. Martin, and you had to call his guitar ‘Mr. Martin’ before he’d let you play it.”
The first two songs Oscar taught him were “John Henry” and “Wildwood Flower.” He says those songs are his earliest memories, and from then, Vines was hooked. As he grew older and played out in his community of Fountain, North Carolina, he became pretty well known and earned the stage name Bro Vines. In his young adulthood, he grew bored of the tones in the instruments he played, so he decided to start building his own guitars. He became a little obsessed after he stumbled upon the sound he was seeking, but it was fleeting and, according to him, he’s never been able to find it again.
“I was in the shop and something happened,” Vines remembers. “Have you ever bumped your elbow and hit that nerve in there and had that sensation? That’s what happened with music. I started seeking a sound. I wound pickups, I looked at pickups, wood.… I had to leave guitar alone for a while. I found I wasn’t ever going to find that sound again.”
He may not have found his definitive sound, but Vines has made an impressive collection of instruments that is unlike any other. Some have traditional elements, perhaps a T-style body or traditional pickup arrangements, but others have carved faces, skulls, animals, and other figures which evoke a spiritual feel. In some of the guitars, the metal hardware, like the bridge, is incorporated into the face as the mouth. His latest series of guitars are quite striking, attention-grabbing, and not exactly comforting. Vines himself has referred to them as “horrific” and “macabre.”
These ghostly, shockingly original handcarved guitars are the subject of a new book, Hanging Tree Guitars, which is a collaboration between Vines, photographer Tim Duffy, and folklorist Zoe van Buren. Duffy, who cofounded the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation with his wife in 1994 to provide support to rural Southern artists, first met Vines in 2015 and began chronicling Vines’ work through tintype photography. Music Maker helped Vines arrange a shop to build in and helped him get medical assistance for his diabetes. The book Hanging Tree Guitars is a poetic arrangement of Vines’ words about his process and his life and the land he comes from, set to the tintypes Duffy has taken of Vines and his guitar creations over the course of five years.
The series of guitars known as the Hanging Tree Guitars make up Vines’ first solo exhibition in his hometown, at the Greenville Museum of Art. It was scheduled for debut in June 2020, but is being rescheduled due to the pandemic. The exhibit received funding from the National Foundation for the Humanities and the National Foundation for the Arts, and will tour nationally for the next five years. Earlier this year, it was shown at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Kent, England. (The exhibit can be viewed virtually at hangingtreeguitars.com.)
Fair warning, the book’s subject matter and these guitars are deeper than what meets the eye. There’s a blood-curdling backstory involved: The black walnut wood used to build several of these guitars is reported to have come from a tree that was used for lynchings, particularly in the mob murder of Oliver Moore in 1930.
Read on to learn about Vines, his singular vision and craftsmanship, and the history of Oliver Moore and the black walnut wood. You’ll find an excerpt of images and prose from the new book, Hanging Tree Guitars, at the end of this article.
A Man Needs a PurposeWhen asked how many guitars he’s made, Vines, who turned 78 this year, is modest: “There’s a whole museum full, but I have no idea.”
His building techniques fly far from convention, but he is meticulous and always learning. And the process brings him joy. “I have created some magnificent instruments, the quality and sound. They even sound good to me, and I’m hard to please.”
Vines uses a wide range of materials in his handmade instruments, such as wood from tobacco barns, mule troughs, and radio parts. He uses eccentric methods, like burning the inside of the guitar body and then scraping the ashes to reveal a new character in the surface. None of the guitars are painted. “I like them natural, because when a man wants a custom instrument, he wants it to be his,” according to Vines. “He has to know what’s under there.”
The pickups in Vines’ guitars come from old Esquires, Telecasters, Strats, Rickenbacker 360s, and whatever else finds its way to him. Recently he found a new glue that bonds better than any other glue he’s tried. And he’s always on the hunt for parts.
“I’ve got seven guitars in the works, but I’ve got to get some tuning keys for the necks and different little odds and ends,” Vines says. “Diabetes has kinda messed with my eyesight a little bit, but I got a magnifying glass now.”
The life of Bro Vines is heavily steeped in the blues. He believes in the credo that you can’t play the blues unless you live ’em. And indeed he has. His family were sharecroppers, and he spent time in prison when he was 14. Much of his life is dictated by where he grew up—even his musical tastes. “I saw a blind man on TV and he was the best guitarist I’d ever seen,” he says. “He grew up right here in North Carolina. His name is Doc Watson—you ever heard of him?”
Vines has been making guitars for decades, but the eerie Hanging Tree guitars are different than anything he’s made, different than any stringed instruments you’ve probably ever seen. Even Vines himself says they give him a sinister feeling. He didn’t know what he was getting into when he got the black walnut wood from a supplier he works with all the time. Indeed they are morbid-looking, with skull and snake imagery throughout, and especially hard to swallow once you know the full story behind how they came to be.
All of the materials Vines sources are regional, and he heard that a white man named Mr. Jefferson had a nice pile of black walnut wood. When he went to pick up the lumber that became these guitars, the wood merchant said something unexpected. “He said, ‘Freeman, you might not want that wood there. A man was hung on that tree,’” says Vines. “At first I didn’t believe him. Then we researched the young men who were killed on that tree. When I told Tim where the wood came from, he came back with the newspapers and it was true. I felt the wood was trying to talk to me, trying to tell me something. It had a character of its own.”