On May 1 and 2, torrential rains buffeted Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. More than 13 inches of rain caused the Cumberland River to rise 52 feet and spill over into Nashville. The Red Cross put the death toll at 24, and property damage is virtually incalculable. Beyond the human suffering and loss, some of the most heart-wrenching destruction was wreaked upon Music City’s historic and irreplaceable artifacts—many of which were stored at Soundcheck studios. The facility took on four feet of water and became the epicenter of the worst mass destruction of guitars in modern musical history.

A collection of Keith Urban’s guitars—including a vintage SG, Les Pauls, Teles, and a Gretsch G6199—hangs out to dry inside Soundcheck. Photo by Jim McGuire

"Beware of Snakes!!!” That’s what a sign taped to the door of Soundcheck studios reads. This is good advice for anyone in the music industry, but they mean it this time. It is Friday morning, six days after the Cumberland River surged hard and fast into this flat industrial district of Nashville. And as if the toxic slurry of mud, chemicals, and mystery brown stuff left all over the floors wasn’t dangerous enough, the early responders to this massive complex of rehearsal halls, repair shops, and storage lockers encountered venomous, slithering reptiles angry about being beached inside.

People are checking in with employees at a table inside the door. Most media have been stopped at an outer gate. Soundcheck management, understandably, doesn’t want local TV news cameras and lights pointing at the musicians as they pull the corpses of cherished instruments out of their sodden cases and trunks. I have been added to the client list as a volunteer proxy for John Jorgenson, a globally admired veteran of country, rock, and jazz. He is on tour with his gypsy jazz quintet in Europe, doing his best to keep a calm head and coordinate an unprecedented, unplanned evacuation operation from thousands of miles away.

I am with Jorgenson’s stepson, and our mission is to empty his locker and get his instruments and amplifiers to a designated dry-out and repair facility where Jorgenson’s acclaimed luthier, Joe Glaser, can administer emergency care—or last rites—to a collection of stringed instruments of inestimable personal and musical value.

The darkened halls and lockers are bustling with top-flight Nashville session musicians and their guitar techs. Pedal-steel guitarist Bruce Bouton is grieving the loss of his collection of vintage amplifiers. Nearby, country guitar kingpin Brent Mason is taking stock of his losses. Wearing blue surgical gloves, he photographs a prized ’65 Stratocaster that comes out of its case looking ghostly pale and slashed with cracks. At a loading dock, the road crew for country band Rascal Flatts is rolling case after case from multiple storage lockers onto trucks, stopping for photos and analysis by insurance adjusters.

Jorgenson’s locker gives away the story of what’s happened here. The water line is clearly visible in the particleboard walls— about three and a half feet from the floor. Inside, it’s a pathetic sight. Guitar cases are jumbled on the ground as if they’ve floated, shifted, and then sunk like dead submarines. A Marshall amp cabinet looks like it’s been airbrushed with an ash-colored residue. The most important guitars are stored vertically in a road case, their bottoms well off the ground, but it’s pretty clear they were submerged up to their necks and are now sitting in the humidified dark on saturated shag carpet. Nothing in the place smells good, but when cases start opening the stench of mildew and death permeates the air.

For the finite population of vintage and important guitars left in the world, the Nashville flood of May 1 and 2, 2010, may be the most costly natural disaster in history. Guitar experts can think of no other mass wipeout that compares. Hurricane Katrina tragically swamped the homes and instruments of an inestimable swath of musicians in America’s most musical city not nicknamed Music City. But whereas New Orleans is chiefly a city of horns and drums, Nashville is a guitar town. And some of the most carefully tended and cultivated guitar and stringed-instrument collections in the world were here in Soundcheck.

“It is really massive. Every day you hear about more stuff,” said Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. “It’s really hard to back up far enough to see this in perspective. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is an unprecedented loss. Because these instruments owned by the top musicians are the cream of the cream. Somebody said it’s the equivalent of the Louvre flooding. These guys were working musicians. So [their instruments] were tools, but from a financial and esoteric standpoint, one of these Stratocasters is worth how many new ones? It’s not possible yet to put a monetary value on it. But in terms of vintage, playable instruments, it’s probably the biggest wipeout in the history of modern music.”

A cracked and mildewed vintage Strat being aired-out as part of a massive salvage project headed up by respected Nashville luthier Joe Glaser. Photo by Mark Montgomery