Memorial Day Weekend Eve Musings on Pace and Balance

I want to acknowledge this weekend as the day we salute those fallen in service, and offer respects to them and their circles; so I don’t hold “Big sales” on this weekend except for those who have served or are serving… any branch, any time, any way. If that’s you and you like and want what I do – please call this weekend and we’ll get something extra special going for you, and $$$ arrangements can be made; I own this joint. And THANK YOU! I have no way of paying adequate respects to the fallen, so I improvise. I drive a rusty, ragged, tattered fatigue-green '74 Plymouth Roadrunner named Sarge, and among all who sacrificed all, I think in moments of the young car guys who never made it home to their projects or hot rods or new musclecars waiting for them in the garage. They never came back. They never got to blaze the tires with their music on, the sun shining, that girl they loved. They never came back. They didn't make it home to cruise in the summer or have all that fun waiting for a life put on hold to answer the call. They left... and never came back. Sarge has some military in his ownership history and so I'll be sure to take him out and do a few burnouts because I'm here and I can and I will FEEL that engine and SMELL that rubber in your stead and let out a big yell because I'm SO grateful to be alive and have that freedom. Like I said, I improvise... but ceremony it is and it comes from the heart.  Everybody enjoy yourselves and your freedoms, but please be safe out there. We love you.

What a week! Very very productive. Instruments started, instruments finished and flying the nest to waiting hands & homes. Neck work, routing, carving, parts orders, assembly, wiring… I think we touched on everything! It went by FAST, that’s all I can tell you… but at its own pace. 

I know many of you tuned into the royal wedding – it might come as a huge shock, but I didn’t. I knew something of the sort was happening but honestly, until it was explained to me, I had no idea who exactly these people were while the rest of the world referred to them on a first name basis, like they were all old fishing buddies. Of course I wish them well, as I would anybody. I can’t imagine entering into such a high profile union. No, I’ve been busy with the marriages here that tend to keep me consumed. Jamie’s doing great, my affair with the 1960 Pontiac is showing signs of LRP (“Long Range Potential”), and the marriage of my spirit to this body has held together for another week. The marriage of wood & wire, of sound and note, of tools and hands – these are always prominent in life here around the workshop and they continue to come together as well.

I want to talk a moment about that one of soul and body. I’m running about a month behind where I pictured this spring last fall. I stopped doing night shifts and am trying to… welllll… sleep! It’s been a buildup since 2004 and I knew we were rocking it all the way and the lists were getting bigger and I was personally feeling very productive. And I love what I do, so it’s easy to slot in more hours over things like proper nutrition, sanity, meditation, rest, recharging, relationships, care for the body, perspective, self control… you know, those little details of living a life. Being a human BEING, not just a human DOING. I had no idea just how hard I was running until I slowed down. So don’t think I’m slacking - the wait times went up so I can settle down a bit and maintain the pace of one good man for a while instead of two. OK, maybe one and a half. 

When I sketched out this new endeavor in the dawn of 2004 it was “Time off over the Holidays and August off.” It was 2016 before I took August off, and last year I worked through August AND the Holidays. It was glorious – I love what I get to do SO much. I love it in that vision tunnel. And every so often it’s good to run the machine through the gears to see what it’ll do! Certainly no complaints here, just gratitude. But I’m never doing it again. There are too many basses and guitars I want to build and a whole list of other things I need to get to before this intangible drop of consciousness rivulets back into the stardust, and this means we work on keeping my components together in balance whilst crafting these others into your instruments.

One of these things is a book I have started working on, collecting some words from the past decade of Friday update news page blog posts and other writings about this ride and the view from behind the bench. Getting it done this year is the goal. I’m feeling more music bubbling up, which is good too. It feels like spring and I must remember that this all is a garden and I help it happen, and not a daily decathlon I have to go for the gold every time I open my eyes. 

Cruisin’ into June,

Listening to: The Heptones Night Food; Les McCann Invitation To Openness; The Best Of Paul Desmond; Eric Clapton Eric Clapton.

Flip a Coin

Today, May 18th, is my mother’s birthday.Mumford” (as she has been referred to as for decades) is shown here in one of my favorite pictures of her, as seen through a little hole in a piece of Italian bread. 

So wherever you are and whatever beverage is your flavor this moment, kindly hoist it towards Florida (where our people go to retire) and say – out loud – “Happy birthday, MUMFORD!” This happens every year and I hear from people that did it in other COUNTRIES even! Be a part of it and give the other folks in the restaurant something random to look over at and belt it out really good. Thanks! "Happy birthday MUMFORD!"

In honor of my wee Mumford’s birthday, I bought ME a 1960 Pontiac Catalina.  Happy Mumford’s birthday, Scott. Why thank you, self! I had wanted a late '50s, long, sculpted cruiser for a while; for this to come out in 1960 it was designed in the ‘50s and that’s what I was after… the Art Deco touches morphed into the rocket age from the early to late 1950s and it has always floored me that you could be making the sensible family car decision and drive out of the dealership with something that looked… like… THIS.   

So we welcome Ol’ Burnside, or Buford, or Buster (not sure which yet - what do YOU think?)  into the fleet. There will be adventures in this battleship for sure, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted. For now, let me share some wisdom – if you're stuck unable to make a decision because of all the justifications you can come up with on one side and the equal number of concerns you manufacture for the other, if you’ll be fine either way, if nobody’s going to starve, if it’s not life or death… you know what? Flip a coin. Just flip a damn hell coin; call it in the air. Then do it – or don’t – and be fine with it. And get on with living. FREE YOURSELF from unnecessarily cluttering your head up with agonizing over decisions that really, in the big life perspective, shouldn’t matter THAT much. It’s fine to make “Smart decisions” but don’t care so much you make yourself mental over things. Flip a coin, follow through, and enjoy what that decision brings. That was given to me last week by my buddy Gino. Thanks, fucker! It was heads! 

Listening to: A rumbling old high compression 389 cubic inch Pontiac V8; lots of jazz guitar and Bob Seger Live Bullet.

Build it from the best

It was the late ‘90s when I first used the Birdsong name, about 2000 when it first showed up on a headstock (woodburned, naturally), and 2004 when we became an actual little company with workshop, tools, website, and a phone. The stuff I built in the ‘90s (most of it signed “Scott” on the headstock, which I’d do again years later on the Shortbass) was odd to say the least; the early Birdsong pre-company stuff as well. It was mostly experimenting – some get into this life by making Stratocaster copies, I wanted to know what the twang of a double rail DiMarzio wired coils parallel in the bridge position of a short scale guitar with a solid mahogany body sounded like vs., say, the twang of a Tele. 

Ultimately, like any line cook that turns chef, it’s with recipes. Ingredients that always work together for you, special seasonings you come up with, different techniques that bring out different results… you piece all this gathered through experience together as your skills get honed, and then you have signature menu items. The Cortobass was launched in 2004 and built the little company we built to build IT. Today’s Cortobass is about the same as the ones from 14 years ago… perhaps a bit more refined, but the basic specs are the same. Low-noise single by the neck for woody bluesy jazzy warmth with no mud, small humbucker back closer to the bridge for punch, power & clarity but not TOO big. Both together? THE big tone nobody ever expected out of a small, short scale bass. HUGE. Mahogany body, maple neck, rosewood board. 

At the time, the prototypes of what would evolve into the Cortobass were just my next ideas, solutions or questions built into the next little bass. Here is a Cortobass and four prototypes. You can see where it came from. You can also see what I was getting at visually, and how that evolved. Various bits of design or wood combo or info from each became combined into a whole & refined into what became the basis of the basses of Birdsong. All other models are based on leaning THIS recipe further in one direction or another visually or tonally. The basic Cortobass is our calibration; our unit of measure; the north star we navigate bass design by.  

The first was a short scale in 1998 which was a starting point ergonomically and tonally. The second is the Dragonfly, which came together in 1999-early 2000, giving some overall dimensions and the neck pickup, and an early version of the control plate shape. The third, shown in its later "guitar" reconfiguration, was actually when mahogany/maple/rosewood was settled on as standard, and it was in this bass the bridge pickup and position were decided on. Fourth, we have Cortobass #001 where it all came together, and then the refined design.

This is more than guitar or bass design, it’s life – we walk and experience and if we allow ourselves to spend most of our attention working with the lessons and constructive bits we come out of our situations with as we go, we build new and better things – lives, relationships, selves – out of the pieces that worked and what works together to season our lives and doings. Wallow in what didn’t work and that’s where you stay. Try to force it all into fitting some other shape or how you wanted it to be BEFORE all that you know now, and you don’t get the garden that wanted to grow for you maybe just a little to the side of that. I’ve watched people not go with what it all shapes up as, instead disrupting it by insisting on banging their head against this other thing over here that was the role they cast themselves in. And it fails because in trying to force the other into happening they work against what IS HAPPENING right now in front of them, already forming, already shaping up and trying to hone THEM into its captain. All they really failed at was getting out of the way. Brethren, in this life, if through gathered experience and discoveries it hands you two in one hand and two in the other that you can add together and somehow come up with 5, there’s your magic – there’s your recipe – go with it. A bass may be just wood and wire, but this bass added up to 5 – had that extra something all combined – and that got the interest, and that impressed owners enough to talk, and that built the company, and that’s why we’re here talking now. Note what worked and keep walking and when the groove takes over, that’s your song. Let the others go - they led to this. 

Listening to: Joe Henderson So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles) – with Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster on drums, just sweet from first note to last. An excellent, excellent jazz album. And Dungen Tio Batir, and the Stones Beggars Banquet.

Minding Your Business

Greetings! Rainy Friday here, catching up on cleanup and paperwork, all that stuff that comes in the package deal of doing what you love. It’s the price right there – I’ve seen builders with great potential, even craftsmen whose skills I’ll never even get close to, get sideswiped right out of contention because they weren’t ready for it or couldn’t handle it. It’s like once being in a band becomes a living, an amazing blessing against stunning odds no matter HOW good you may be, it’s not just soaring guitar solos in the basement anymore. Truth is, none of it is that hard – the hard part is that you have to stay on top of it, or it rolls over on top of you. Once that happens, the “Fun” to “F this” ratio goes out of whack pretty fast. I guess the best advice I can give after 21 years of self-employment is to do what needs doin’ as it needs to be done, and just do it. There’s the price of admission and then there’s the ride. Don’t confuse the two.

The big news in the industry is Gibson finally filing for bankruptcy protection. This is not due to declining sales, people – it’s been the single longest, most melodramatic, drawn-out, overacted, falling backwards for 15 minutes, obvious, cheesy B-rate movie death scene the industry has ever seen. And they’re not even dead – just sick enough to finally have their priorities refocused. Which is good – Gibson is the flagship American guitar brand. I want it to survive. I've had deep love for Gibson since my first in 1988. What this IS the death of is the overstuffed, out of touch, top heavy, insulated, misguided, mismanaged, grow-at-all-costs-to-us-and-everything-around-us company model where they lose the plot of who and what they were, what they are, what they do for their clients, how they treat their employees, and it just becomes a cash grab based on legacy and inertia. It is “part” of the death of that. Not the guitar, not healthy company growth or doing good business, not American brands… just building your ship too big to maneuver, thinking you’re too smart to fail, listening to nobody and believing that water pouring in through the portholes has nothing to do with your decisions being bad and so you just keep going. GC is next partly because of their own version of this, and because they’re a big part of this particular industry shit show as well. Obviously there are many factors but in general everybody I know who is running a company right is growing; everyone I know who is mismanaging things is not. When you have a hundred years of inertia and still rake in 2 billion a year it just takes a while longer to faceplant. Gibson is in the hands of creditors, refocusing on musical instruments. Hey guys – go buy Heritage, move back to Kalamazoo, build 10 models of what people want in both vintage and a modern version, price it so the people who want it can buy one, sell it direct through a staff that knows your history and products and guitars, limit production so quality goes up, limit management so overhead goes down, quit buying and destroying other guitar brands, stop buying tech companies, sell Epiphone to pay off your debts (with a stipulated percentage off the top coming in every quarter – “points” – for use of your trademarks), and get back to building flagship iconic American guitars - how about that? And hey, if you want a great bass design that works ergonomically, call me. I’ll hook you up. Hell, if there’s anything I can offer AT ALL, call me. 512-395-5126. Good luck over there, guys. 

Here’s a poem from a few years back… Thoughts On An Old Album.

Someone bought this album. 
They played it and enjoyed it – it has the wear of play but the care of no scratches. 
Who were they?
What was their life like?
Are they remembered?
I listen now in their stead.
Like some kind of time-travel baton passing race.
It will continue, some other hands will have this after mine fail to reach it one more time.
Will they play it and enjoy the music?
This music from a distant time
These musicians, all gone now
This music nobody plays anymore
Will it still make a heart feel something?
Fill a room with melody?
What rooms has it filled…
Dark with walnut and buttoned red leather?
Sunny summer rays onto a hardwood floor?
A family now scattered dust, seed of gardens since
A collection dispersed, seed of new moments.
Was there love made to the grooves that played?
A good cigar and an evening paper full of hope?
Scotch and a fireplace?
I think of young ears introduced to this
Then rejecting it as their own music found them
Only decades later coming back around
Finding this album
And going back in time to what, now, were formative moments
Memories full of epiphany
But everyone is gone
No questions can be asked
No stories can be told
Only the soundtrack remains
Black with shiny grooves
A musty cardboard cover of faded pastels
And liner notes I read like Scripture

Try to make a moment this weekend, and make it music…

Listening to: Neil Young re-ac-tor; Steve Earle Train a Comin’; Frank Zappa Hot Rats; The Best Of Blue Note (is there 72 minutes of better jazz than this ’92 CD compilation?)

The Music Is On... The Road

Putting this up on Thursday because it’s 4/26, a Mopar day. If you get it, cool – if not, it’s all good. Something to do with an engine, and that ties in with this week’s missive… on road music.

Road music to me is completely contextual. Where I’m driving has an influence, and what I’m driving most definitely has a defining say in what gets slipped into the deck and comes out the speakers. For example, there was a little right hand turn on the way back to Texas one time that took me up the delta in Mississippi on a blues pilgrimage to the crossroads. And I mean that plurally, as deep blues folk know there were, in fact, two – and the smaller, much creepier of the two was probably the actual location. So driving those painfully poor, still cotton fielded and sharecropper shacked roads through the birthplace of the blues, I listened to Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker and – one of my favorites – Jack Owens. It synced up perfectly with what I was seeing and smelling and feeling. They say in great wine you can taste the soil in which it came from.

Now, when you’re cruising some V8 1970s street machine, you gotta have that first Boston album, Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell, The Cars, and Aerosmith’s first greatest hits – the red one with the white wings logo. Put on some mirrored shades and you’ll probably even have big ol’ sideburns by the end of the day. A time machine needs that soundtrack and those combined make it an exponentially great moment. I remember driving at night under the stars on an empty and desolate area of an undisclosed interstate, at a rate many would take umbrage to,  the road stretching out before me and a long, sculpted hood… basking in the glow of the gauges… window open, arm on the door, holding that pedal down to the sweet sounds of screaming American V8 through dual exhaust and “Double Vision” by Foreigner. Just slicing through the night. You had to be there. Wandering in the slow lane in a housetruck? That's a whole different vibe - meandering music. Live jams from The Dead, lots of Jazz from ‘Trane to the textural like In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. What’s a housetruck? Think of it as a hand crafted camper conversion of an old truck. Sort of an artsier approach to a tiny house on wheels before it was a thing. We’ll talk about this another time.

But long before I was Scott the short scale bass guy I was off somewhere in a van. Sometimes short times and sometimes seasons, it is a continuous thread in my life this dance with the road, this love affair with the highway – and its interwovenness with my life’s path of music. Even during this amazing ride of the past 14 years, this magic carpet called Birdsong which itself was conceived on a road trip, there has been a little time here and there for adventure. And over the past 30 years specific albums also have worked their way into the fabric of the whole road mythology for me and remain timeless companions when time turns into miles. Here are ten.

Grateful Dead American Beauty
Bob Seger Beautiful Loser
Jackson Browne Running On Empty
Gordon Lightfoot Gord’s Greatest
Richard Betts Highway Call
The Best of Mississippi John Hurt
Neil Young Tonight’s The Night
CCR Chronicle
Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy
Bruce Springsteen Born To Run

I realize there’s not one there later than the 1970s, but what can I say; our time finds us, even if we’re a bit out of it. Or just out of it, as the case may be.

And speaking of time, and blues, and the road… I have to mention the passing yesterday of brother Merlin. I did not know him in person but he was held high by others I consider family. He was a local bluesman, guitar slinger, and philosopher of his own design. Much like the blues itself - simple, with influence, but one’s own spin – he was an inspiring and kind soul, an original and authentically steeped character prone to rambling posts of brazenly free form gramaticality not unlike a Jack Kerouak, all beginning with "The music is on" and going on about life and love and feeling the song of it all. But you knew what he was saying 'cause he spoke the truth - it was all about the music, spreading it and the good healing vibrations. May they carry him now as we carry him on. Thank you for the music, Merlin Luck. I dedicate this missive on road music and this moment with my friends to you sir. The music is on. 

Play on, good people...

Listening to: The local jazz station I can pick up now -

The Love Of Machines

Hey, Birdsong familia Greendog wants to thank everyone for their best wishes and communications healing up from his stroke. He’s doing better and very grateful. ‘Dawg’s been in the Birdsong circle a long time and we love the guy & wish him all the best too!

The other weekend I skipped off to a car show. I love machines. Cars and trucks and motorcycles are all cool, I’ll look at them and I respect expression and craftsmanship on whatever I see even if it’s not my taste. But I’m not into devices or computers any more than I have to be to do what I do. And cars from the ‘90s on up are devices. I like machines. Bolts, levers, cables, mechanical connections. Castings. Stampings. Metal pieces screwed together. I like looking at them, I enjoyed wrenching on them, I like the way their old engines sound, and I love driving things that are noisy, raw, smelly, and maybe a little obnoxious. If I have to explain it, it can’t be explained. 

But luckily this immersion is where a lot of my inspiration comes from – from the ethic of simplicity to the way the curves happen in the body and around the wheels, it’s the automotive world that has trained my eyes by looking at them in their infinite forms and my ethos by having spent time living with such machines. Here are some pictures from it and from other old vehicle gatherings I’ve been to in the past few years. My dance with the world of obsolete machines – machines in states of en obsolata, as some would say -  has been FAR more pleasure than pain. 

Next week, ROAD MUSIC!

Roll on,

Listening to: An incredible station I just discovered had powered up into my area last year. KRTU 91.7 San Antonio, TX – check them out – deep jazz all day long! People in a studio spinning album cuts. Unbelievable. Plus Count Basie Half a Sixpence and some Lightning Hopkins.  

Clamps 'n Tunes

The great wrench Leonardo DiBartolomeo once told me “Tryin’ to work without music? Fughedaboudit.” And while that can veer into being aware of – and preferring in some moments – the combinations of various tool noises and machinery with the birdsong and breeze through the trees, or the music of reverent silence, that principle is sound. And that sound principle is that the music helps it happen. Lots of music gets played in the little workshops here, especially the green one known as Wingfeather where planks and pieces go in and finished wood instrument parts come out, neck fit onto the body, and into the other little building where assembly happens. Where woodchips happen and sawdust is made, much music is played. It is a lubricant for accomplishment. 

It’s not the glue that holds things together, more of the clamp that helps the result come together from two things in the moment. One piece of wood and another, or tool and task. Then the music goes, evaporates, and there is something there in a different form than it existed before the song; the clamps come off, getting hung back on the rack or put back in the crate, and you never see the marks or the mess – just new results. This shop has quite a bit of music and a fair supply of clamps, both gathered over the years and well used. There are some that get used regularly and others that are more what’s needed in the moment, maybe for special tasks that don’t happen all the time. Small red handled Bessey clamps crimp the body halves level with each other while long orange Jorgensen clamps go on to pull these halves together as the glue joins them into one. Working with the wood, laying parts out on the plank, cutting and joining… long Grateful Dead jams or Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are nice, Spanish guitar music on a nylon stringed classical like Andres Segovia (or an actual album called Spanish Guitar Music from guitarist John Williams) is great. Depending on where my spirit is leaning, the delta blues of Jack Owens or Mississippi Fred McDowell, or some old Gospel, Vicente Fernandez from Mexico or bhajans from India – these are never far away.   
Blue & yellow Irwin Quick Grips will hold the body blank, once cut out and cleaned up, onto the routing bench for it to make the big transition from a guitar shaped piece of wood into a guitar that’s just not put together yet, with places for other parts to fit into and holes to align more onto, edges rounded and ready for contours and sanding. Aerosmith Rocks, Jerry Cantrell Boggy Depot, Lightning Hopkins, John Coltrane, Los Lobos Colossal Head, Clapton’s Rainbow Concert… no rules, just what gets reached for more often than not. Like the right clamp for the job. If I’m fading before I’m done or need to get the eye of the tiger back for one more thing off the list of the day, when some may reach for caffeine or stronger I put in Zen Guerilla Trance States In Tongues and that’s all the bump I need. Sometimes I’ll even just put their cover of Bowie’s Moonage Daydream on repeat for a half hour. That’ll get things done. It’s worked for years.

Neck work is ponderous, so I sanctify the tasks with some dub reggae such as Augustus Pablo, or maybe some Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger is always a favorite, and it’s “All clamps on deck” over on the flat bench by the windows. On this and on the other woodwork I try to work in a few very special clamps from craftsmen now departed, their dusts scattered and their ripples dispersed; I keep their tools working, my fingerprints on theirs as theirs went onto those before them. I think of them as I tighten their clamps. I thank them and wish them well. These pieces of their lives and livelihood are in good hands who remember them, still helping to build things and fill the world with beauty. Same goes for many of the music makers who color the air in here, whose music vibrations are in the wood now, whose songs I literally breathe as I work. 

For the rare set-in neck I go old school – felt-padded old wooden clamps, a couple of which were made by a guitarist I was in a band with for a brief time. I can’t remember his name but I do remember his eyebrows used to have a mind of their own, going up and down and giving the impression of momentary surprise, but many moments of momentary surprise close together that came and went quickly. He was a hard one to read. 

Listening to: JJ Cale Special Edition (always good getting started in the morning music); Leigh Stephens Red Weather (One of my favorite albums of the psych era – a kind of still obscure buffet from the original Blue Cheer guitarist); Stephen Stills Manassas; Big Sugar Ride Like Hell EP!; and Cal Tjader Soul Sauce… always good vibes from this one.