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A narrative account of coming face to face with the destroyed guitars in Nashville''s Soundcheck

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

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.”

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