Carters Vintage Guitar Store, sits off the main strip in Nashville, in a part of town where maybe you wouldn’t want to hang around after dark. It’s a long, low, non-descript building, like so many others along the side streets. There’s a car park outside, a railway line clatters nearby. But it is the island of Anthemusa and its sirens are made of wood and gut and steel and bronze, although their shapes are no less winsome than those who would have enticed the hearts and loins of sailors in classical times.
I tried to protect and brace myself against what I knew would be overwhelming temptation. The usual precautions of tying yourself to a mast or plugging your ears with wax did seem a little counter-productive, so I made a mental list of why I did not need another guitar and asked Dinny to physically prevent me from jumping if she saw me tottering on the edge of surrender.
My second line of defence was that I believed Dinny would soon get bored in there, creating that distracting sense that somebody wanted to go but wasn’t saying anything… yet.
It really is the most extraordinary place. Hundreds maybe a thousand or more guitars hang from racks upon the wall looking mournful and desperate to be loved like so many dogs in the pound. Each one silently beseeching ‘play me!’ If anything can rival the Colt 45 revolver and the Winchester rifle as a symbol of American identity, it has got to be the guitar. It has become the weapon of dissent, of solace, of escape and ultimately rebellion. It is possibly impossible to estimate the shape shifting impact of America on both global music and in particular the voice of youth. From jazz, to rockabilly, to rock ‘n’ roll to blues, to rhythm and blues, to swing, the Western swing, to grunge, to folk, to protest song, to heavy metal, through them all America entered into a conversation with the young of the world and the young of the world talked back.
And at the heart of it all was the wood, the wire and the shape of the guitar. Its image is etched in the consciousness of generation after generation. It sits under the spectacles of Buddy Holly, as the bleeding pen and ink and paper of Dylan, it is a flaming light as the sun goes down with Jimi Hendrix. Not for nothing did Woody Guthrie write on his Gibson, ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.’
And one thing more than any other, a guitar captures the essence of America and makes it available to all; you don’t have to play great to communicate. Sure, people get unbelievably adept but, at its heart, a guitar is a simple thing and playing it easy. When I was seventeen, I learnt three chords and wrote a song. One of the greatest of Chuck
Berry’s songs, lyrically a work of sinewy art, ‘You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)’ consists of a magnificent two chords.
And to think the definitive instrument of American music might just have been the banjo!
So, I was window shopping for a lot more than handbags and hats, I was looking at the instruments of magical revolution. The sort of thing that gave everyman wings. And when the first guitar I picked up was a trial model, semi- acoustic and the tag on which said, “Previously owned by Steve Earle,” I knew I was surrounded by holy relics. I was not being called upon to buy a guitar, but make a statement, a testimony if you will, to who I was.
Which is how I came to be the owner of a forty year old National Steel resonator guitar. It wasn’t my fault! Dinny mischievously snuck off and found an eloquent employee of the store whilst I was just introducing myself to its rusty old strings. He appeared at my side, nodding appreciatively at my clumsy picking. I handed it to him so I could hear it from a distance. He tuned it to an open tuning and picked a lazy pattern and the vocal sound of a nation declared itself.
The National Steel is voice of the dispossessed, the plantation worker, the guy on the assembly line, the hobo, the long train coming. Incredibly loud, four times louder than an ordinary guitar, it is made to be heard.
It is strange thing of wonder. The guitar, the body of which is highly polished metal with the ghosting effect of palms trees on the front and back, has a wooden neck the head of which bears the blue and red shield of the National. Two ‘f’ holes are cut into the top of the body.
It’s a sound like a multitude. It hums as you play, like there is a motor in it, the bottom strings a Baptist choir from the land of the delta, the top strings aching with hurt and lost love.
Incredibly this monster was built to accompany Hawaiian music.