VOL. 114 | NO. 8 | Thursday, January 13, 2000
World-Class Music often starts
World-class music in tune with Tennessee manufacturers
By Carol Davis
Special to The Daily News
Each time country recording artist Chely Wright takes the stage, she is backed by more than her talented band she is buoyed by Tennessee's thriving manufacturing industry.
"If you really think about it, everything we touch is impacted by manufacturing and technology," Wright says. "From the instruments my band plays on stage, to the lighting and the sound equipment, the buses we ride around in, actually pressing the CDs and cassette tapes and the most important, impressive part to me is the actual making of the music."
That's why Wright has signed on as a spokeswoman for "Manufacturing for the New Millennium," a yearlong campaign launched by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development along with several other public and private sector partners that promotes the importance of high-tech manufacturing to the state.
"Creating world-class music starts with world-class instruments and one of the world's leading guitar makers, Gibson Musical Instruments, is based right here in Tennessee," says ECD commissioner Bill Baxter. "Thanks to our central location, low costs for doing business and perhaps most importantly our rich musical heritage and highly skilled workforce, Gibson is just one of dozens of high-tech music manufacturers that call Tennessee home."
Some of the music world's most enduring artists have played Gibson instruments, including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Emmylou Harris and Hank Snow.
Gibson's 10 plants seven in Tennessee, with others in England, San Francisco, and Montana - includes a recent expansion in Memphis, where they produce several makes of guitars, mandolins, bases, banjos, dobros, drums and amplifiers.
The Memphis plant, which will contain a factory and the Gibson Cafe, a restaurant and performance venue, is the largest so far, says Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson's chairman and chief executive officer, who is based in Nashville.
"That factory is rather unique in that it is designed to accommodate a large number of people to tour the facility," Juszkiewicz says. But the company is not one to rest on its reputation and has unveiled the first digital network for guitars and other instruments.
"The easiest way to describe it to (a non-musician) is it's the difference between a phonograph record, the vinyl disc, and a CD, which is a digital audio format," says Juszkiewicz, who envisioned the project. "We are essentially allowing digital technology to start at the source, which is the instrument or player."
While Gibson produces more than a million instruments annually, many other instrument-makers also have crafted a manufacturing niche for themselves in the state.
Marty Lanham founded Nashville Guitar Co. in 1980 to make acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins and slide guitars. Each instrument is made by hand and may take up to six months to complete, says Lanham.
He learned the trade by working eight years for George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.
"That amounted to a kind of training, by working on a large number of vintage instruments that were well made," Lanham says.
"It was kind of an archaeological method by learning the old techniques that old craftsmen made and it's information I'm now using to make instruments with."
Players of Lanham's instruments include country artists Marty Stuart, Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash.
Gruhn, who has nearly 30 years in the business, is repairing and restoring now, rather than manufacturing guitars, but he knows the industry well. Indeed, he's sold to Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, George Harrison, George Jones, Vince Gill, Roy Acuff and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few.
"People who have good hand labor skills are very much in demand," Gruhn says. "There are some skills that while they were not glamorous in the past and not even paid well in the past can be quite well paid today."
World-class quality is also key at Crafters of Tennessee in Old Hickory, says owner Mark Taylor. "All the stuff we do is individually built," he says of the guitars, resophonic guitars, mandolins and banjos. Some of those orders have gone to Garth Brooks, Little Jimmy Dickens, Richard Nixon and Porter Wagoner.
"Just about every time I see Porter play a guitar, it will be my guitar," Taylor notes.
Joe Glaser, owner of Glaser Instruments, once built electric guitars, but he and his employees now concentrate on restoration and repair for music professionals and manufacturing a string bender, an accessory for electric guitars to simulate a twangy steel guitar sound.
Creating music-makers takes much more than simply operating a piece of machinery, Glaser says. "Instruments are really very precise things," he says. "It actually is a tremendous skill and involves woodworking skills and problem-solving skills to do a good job."
Glaser's precise work has attracted top musicians, including Bela Fleck, who bought an electric banjo, and Ricky Skaggs, who bought an electric mandolin.
But it takes more than an instrument to create just the right sound, Wright notes. "Computers and technology have really advanced the sound of music in all genres and I really get excited about going into the studio and watching the engineers," she says. "They're like kids in candy stores when they get a new piece of gear."
Middle Tennessee's Harrison Systems, owned by GLW Inc., employs about 70 Tennesseans who build some of that gear consoles for postproduction music recording, video, broadcast and sound reinforcement, says Steve Turley, marketing director.
"It's a very complex, complicated piece of electronic machinery and it's computer controlled, so there are a lot of computer skills involved," Turley says in explaining their manufacturing process.
Harrison Systems' headquarters, engineering, administration, electronic and final assembly are located in Williamson County while the metal frame fabrication work is handled in nearby Nashville.
Spectrum Sound Inc. plays a big role in taking the show on the road. They ensure that delicate electronic equipment and instruments are protected during transportation with road cases manufactured at its Nashville facility. Spectrum produces from 500 to 1,000 pieces per year for such clients as Faith Hill, Boyz II Men and Patti LaBelle, says case shop manager Dave Mahew.
Everything here is custom," Mahew says. "Each piece is manufactured one at a time unless we get orders for several large numbers of the same thing, and then it becomes a production line."
Nashville Custom Case Inc. specializes in cases for complete recording studios, says Mark Morell, who owns the company with his wife, Leslie.
"We basically build cases for people who are moving very expensive recording equipment from place to place," Morell says. The company designed and manufactured cases to hold an entire recording studio about $1.5 million in equipment for rock singer Sting, Morell says.
"He wanted a studio he could bring into his home and not be away from his family," Morell says. "When he's not using it, his company rents that studio and they pack it up and take it somewhere else."
The diversity of music-related manufacturing opens the doors for a variety of talents, said Gibson's Juszkiewicz. "Manufacturing continues to be a very well-paid profession," Juszkiewicz says. "We are like a football team. There's not a single type of person that we need; we need everything from very ground floor-type positions to highly sophisticated computer and electronics knowledge.
Carol Davis is a free-lance writer based in Nashville and the former Metro editor of the Nashville Banner.