Ask Charlie...

Story Time, part 2

Hello Troubadourians! In February I told you a story about “The Cash” and wrote about five Martins, one of which became the property of Mr. Johnny Cash. This is the story of one of those five siblings that became mine. As a refresher, the mythology goes that Johnny Cash was playing a gig at the old Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon. Restless artist that he was, he 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. Johnny had his eye on the D35 and a deal was struck: the D35—straight across—for his 1956 D28 and a signature… Cash’s autograph in the top wood of the guitar from a ballpoint pen. That’s where the D35 found its destiny in the hands of a Legend. Three of the other four went to more humble homes in the hands of players who, while not legendary artists, were still grateful to own and play a “real Martin” guitar. But it’s the fifth sibling that is the protagonist of this story; with apologies to the late Paul Harvey, this is the rest of the story.

Sometime after Mr. Cash traded for the D35, I happened to be in Valley Music for a lesson. Everyone was talking about “the deal” I got my first look at “The Cash” with the original ballpoint pen autograph (before the theft and “refinishing” that would later take place). The door to the storeroom was open and some local pickers were looking at the remaining Martins and taking turns playing it. I watched and listened for a while but soon my attention turned to those four remaining Martins. I watched as they were taken out of their cases one by one and played by everyone there. There was much discussion—as there always is when pickers and guitars come together—as to whether the new Martins were as good as the 1956 guitar that Cash had traded in. What happened next will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. While the two D28s and the D18 were being passed around, a guitar case was placed on the floor next to my chair. Immediately, all other sights and sounds passed into the background like a blur and a buzz, and my total focus was on that case. It was as if I somehow knew that my destiny had just been placed at my side. The grain of the black leather covering, the gold latches, and the smell… oh, the smell of a fine instrument—even the case—were intoxicating. I asked, “What’s that?” And Cactus said, “It’s a D41. Take a look.” I opened the latches and lifted the lid… There, nestled in the plush pink lining of its case was the most beautiful guitar I had ever seen…

D41s are arguably the most tasteful of Martin’s high-end guitars. Not so plain as a D35 nor as gaudy as a D45, a D41 has just the right amount of Abalone inlay to say, “I’m something special” without distracting you from the real reasons you bought it—the wood and the sound. Most natural-finish guitars that have a spruce top are fairly light in color when they are new and turn more golden with age. This D41 was absolutely white. I had never seen a guitar so white that wasn’t painted white. Against the Abalone inlay and the black of the ebony fretboard, the effect was stunning, almost surreal. It was so different that part of me wasn’t even sure I liked it. That momentary lapse of reason quickly passed and I knew that I had to have this guitar. Well, in 1972, despite the fine rosewood, spruce, ebony, mahogany, and abalone that the guitar was actually made of, for me it might as well have been made of Unobtainium. I had absolutely no way to purchase a guitar that expensive. I didn’t even ask how much it was because there was just no way I’d ever be able to afford it before it was sold. I was half expecting someone to buy it on the spot. But, strangely, I was the only one who showed much interest in it. I picked it up out of its case and played a few chords. It was as if we had become invisible, the D41 and I, and I must have sat there and played it for about an hour… That was the last time I saw the D41 for eight years.

It was 1980 and I had formed a white-hot “Newgrass” band called Beg, Borrow & Steal. The three of us—guitar, upright bass, and banjo—were exceptionally tight and ready to jump to the next level. By now I had returned The Cash to Jim (Soldi) and I needed my own guitar for the demands of the BB&S band. One Saturday while I was at Valley Music, I happened to ask Cactus what had become of the ’72 D41 that used to be there. He said, “Oh, that one? It’s still here. It’s in the back. You want to see it?” Does the earth spin on its axis? Of course I wanted to see it. When he brought it out, I opened the case and it was as if the previous eight years had never happened. There was the “White Rose” just as I had left it. (Yes, I named it on the spot). I asked Cactus what he would sell it for—to me… He said, “How about $1100?” I almost fell over. I was expecting four times that much and I only asked just so I’d know how out of reach the guitar was for me and hopefully get it out of my system. But, $1100, well, I could almost imagine affording that. I had $100 in my pocket and I asked if he would take that as a down payment. He said, “Sure. Let’s do the papers.” I was shaking as he wrote and as I gave him the money. I signed my name at the bottom of the receipt and then closed the case and handed it back to him. “Don’t you want to take it with you?” Cactus asked me? “What do you mean?” I said. “Well, it’s yours now. You can pay me when you have it. Just go play.” I nearly ran out of the store before he changed his mind.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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