The Search for the Perfect Guitar, Part III
"Vintage Silvertone Acoustic guitar," "1977 Dobro Duolian," "Martin 00X1 Auditorium Acoustic Guitar (14 Fret)" are just some of the headlines advertising guitars on Craigslist, but how are you supposed to play them, hear them, feel them? When you order a guitar online, you're missing an important part of the musical trinity: your fingers caressing the guitar's neck. Willie Nelson may have never touched Trigger until after she arrived in the mail, but he also had Shot Jackson, a master luthier, selling the guitar to him. Somehow I doubt the guy who's selling "Acoustic Guitar with Marijuana Leaf" on Craigslist knows about the tonal differences of aged wood.
At this year's 36th Annual Dallas International Guitar Festival, most of the guitar dealers understand wood in relation to a guitar's ambiance, tone, durability and ability to age. Guitars ranging between $4,000 and $14,000 are a testament to this comprehension. Rows upon rows of acoustics and electrics fill tables, hang from stands and hover in the air. Fenders, Taylors, Gibsons all filling the distant horizon. Stratocasters, Telecasters, PRS. Vintage, cutting edge. Gibson even parked a trailer filled with custom guitars inside Dallas Market Hall. It looks like heaven, but it feels like hell as more and more guitarists fill the entryway.
In 1981, Dallas guitar shop owner Charley Wirz held the first Guitar Festival in a small meeting room of a Dallas hotel in 1978. Charley wanted to promote a vintage guitar show similar to a car show but with the feel of a biker rally. "Build it and they will come, he thought," according to this year's Festival magazine. And from its humble beginnings to Dallas Market Hall's 140,000 square feet of display space, this year's festival brings guitar makers, collectors, celebrities and music enthusiasts together under one roof for three days of "guitar heaven."
"Are you from the Dallas area?" asks a guitarslinger, standing next to me. He's short, stocky, and what remains of his white hair is pulled into a ponytail. His name is Gary "Doc" Dockery, a connoisseur of bingo halls, City Hall events and local festivals around the Temple, Texas, area. "I played the Rattlesnake Roundup twice," he says. "It's neat. It sounds like bacon frying because of all the rattling."
Small talk isn't helping either.
Several more guitarists fill the entryway, pushing us closer together. The show doesn't open for another 45 minutes. "I used to play music out in Las Vegas," he says, "but you play as much out of Vegas as you do in Vegas." He moved to Texas to take care of his son's house while he fought his third tour in the Iraq/Afghan war. Doc didn't attend the festival to buy, sell or trade a guitar. He's here to see Gregg Barton from the Kentucky Headhunters. "He's playing at the jam tonight."
Bands are jamming all three days of the festival. The Sound Bridge Acoustic Labs Stage, Bugs Henderson Stage, Ernie Ball Stage, the Dallas Observer Clinician Stage and Fuller's Vintage Guitar Acoustic Stage are hosting more than five dozen acts. Robert Miller and Friends, Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King with special guests Chet Stevens and Kate Moss, and The Hairless Brothers Band are just some of the acts playing at the Guitar Festival.
"Have you heard of John Prine?" asks Doc. He's wearing a green T-shirt with John Prine's name embroidered in gold.
John Prine is an American songwriter. Highwayman Kris Kristofferson discovered Prine playing in the Chicago folk scene. Kristofferson was quoted saying, "Prine writes songs so good we'll have to break his thumbs." And Bob Dylan told the Huffington Post in 2009: "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree," he says. "All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier junky daddy and Donald And Lydia, where people make love from 10 miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."
"I picked with him in Kentucky," Doc says and shakes his head. "He's a good songwriter. He's written songs like 'There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money's gone' and 'Paradise.'"
Gibson 335 is Doc's guitar of choice. He also plays a Martin DL. His first guitar was a Silvertone. "It was a $35 guitar," Doc says. He also had a Fender Mustang. "But my first real guitar was a Gibson 335. It was a 1965/66 model. I paid $150 for it." It was his favorite guitar. His Trigger. Years later, he paid $1,900 for a replica.
"I got to play a Gibson 003; the 001 and 002 are in museums." Doc removes his black hat and runs his fingers through his white strands. "I hope Greg isn't mad at me. I kept telling him: 'I'm coming'; 'No, I'm not coming'; 'I'm coming.' He's a character. He lived about 18 miles from me. You go like you're going to Madison, turn at ..."
Finally, security opens the festival's glass doors, and everyone surges inside.