Hello Troubadourians! I want to tell you a story about two guitars I had the privilege to shepherd for a while, one of which I actually owned. Fine guitars are born with a personality that is further shaped by the things they experience during their time being played by humans. Some have a tough life while others lead a more sheltered existence. But just like the humans whose hands they pass through, they are permanently changed with every moment in the world. 1979 was an interesting year for me. It marked my twentieth year on the planet and proved to be the crossover between the restrictions and limitations of childhood and the promise of adulthood. The next three years would find me experiencing many remarkable highs and lows in my personal, musical, and professional life. I would soon own a succession of excellent and vintage guitars, I would find myself playing with some of the best musicians I would ever encounter, I would find the love of my life and marry her, and in the process I would walk in the footsteps of some legendary musicians and pass through the same portals that they had passed, recently enough for me to still hear the echo of their music and feel the presence of their passion.
“The Cash” as I called it, was at one time simply a non-descript ’50s Martin D28. It hadn’t started out as a guitar particularly gifted with the best materials—the spruce top was wide-grained and not very pretty while the Indian rosewood on its back and sides might be generously described as being “brown and looks like wood.” The neck, as I recall, played fairly well and had a “V” shape that I liked, and the headstock displayed the heavily rounded corners that had become common on Martins from that era, caused by years of wear on the headstock shaping template that at one time had nearly right-angled corners. What it lacked in curb appeal, it more than compensated with pedigree; it was a Martin after all, and it had been owned by a legend: Johnny Cash. The mythology goes that Cash was playing a gig at the old Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon. Restless artist that he was, Johnny wanted a new guitar and it just so happened that the owner of the Bostonia Ballroom was one Andrew “Cactus” Soldi who also happened to own Valley Music store. Cactus had five Martins in the store at that time from the early ‘’70s: a D18, two D28s, a D35, and a D41. John had his eye on the D35 and a deal was struck: the D35—straight across—for Cash’s 1956 D28 and a signature, Cash’s autograph in the top wood of the guitar from a ballpoint pen. (note: I have heard differing details about the actual terms of the deal that was made—sometimes money was exchanged, sometimes not—and while I’m partial to the guitar and an autographed version because it’s sexier, I wasn’t there so I don’t really know. I did work for Cactus for several years at Valley Music and from what I know about him, he probably got some money in the deal –CL). The story continues that for a brief time, Cactus’ son Jim Soldi used the autographed Martin when playing with local favorite band Montezuma’s Revenge. At some point the guitar was stolen from the band’s equipment truck. You’d think it would be foolish to steal such a highly recognizable instrument, and indeed it was. The thief, in an effort to disguise the crime, added injury to insult by taking a belt sander to the guitar in a vain effort to remove the “Johnny Cash” autograph from the wood. He then “refinished” the guitar using varnish applied with a brush. When the guitar was finally recovered, it was an ugly mess. The sanding had been performed unevenly, mainly applied to the lower bout where the autograph had been, and the varnish had dripped down the sides of the guitar giving the look of syrup poured over a stack of pancakes. The surprise from all of this abuse was that what once was a less-than-average sounding Martin now sounded big and bright, and crisp. And while still marred and scarred, it now had a unique sound that wasn’t “classic Martin dreadnaught” but was nonetheless a good sounding guitar that could cut through an acoustic or bluegrass band. With any vintage value destroyed but with its Legend status now firmly established, the top was subsequently re-autographed by Mr. Cash—this time with a framing nail—and the guitar was more or less retired from duty. It was at this point I first encountered “The Cash” and I was immediately taken with its sound and story. I don’t remember if it was Cactus or Jim who decided to let me use the Cash on a long term loan—they both would do that sort of thing on a regular basis—all I knew was that my first Martin was a legendary instrument with a lifetime of stories to tell, and it served me well during my first forays into the highly competitive world of the music business. Sure, I could play, but wielding that guitar in bluegrass and country circles was tantamount to having a battle-scarred Excalibur in my hands. Instant credibility and notice… and respect. Yeah, I worked it… hard. But I always knew that I wanted to be known for my playing, not just the guitar I played, and I also knew that the Cash wasn’t really mine. Someday I’d have to give it back so I needed to make my time with the guitar count for something and make sure that when I ultimately replaced it with an instrument of my own, that guitar would have to be special too.
That part of the story will have to wait for April since next month’s column will probably be about the upcoming NAMM Show (January 21-24). Well, okay, here’s a quick teaser: remember those five Martins from our story, one of which became the property of Mr. Johnny Cash? One of those five siblings will feature prominently in the next part of our story. So I’d ask all of you Troubadourians: if you have a story about a special instrument that you own, owned, possessed, played, or even just saw in a fleeting glance, and it still moves you all this time later, please write me at the email below and tell me about it.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)