|I was born in
Walker County, Alabama, during Roy Acuff's second year on the Grand Ole
Opry. I don't remember not wanting to play music and, once I got a few
chords under my calluses, I don't remember not wanting to be a member
of the Opry. Well, at least I grew up to spend a lot of time at the Opry
and even got to play for Mr. Roy in his dressing room, yet performing
on the stage has remained an elusive dream. Am I disappointed? Not disastrously
so, which has surprised me from time to time until I realized that, although
I love attention and being around people as much as anyone, my deep love
for music surpasses any need to derive money or, for that matter, attention
from it. When we started planning this website, Sherm The Webmaster suggested
the story and some photos of my Gibson LG-1, so here goes.
My FIRST guitar was an arched-top that I can't tell you much about because it burned in our house fire when I was ten years old. Family legend has it that Dad would come in from the fields or whatever and entertain me while Mama got supper ready. If his fingers got tired or he was just too tired, he would lay his guitar in the crib and let me entertain myself. When I was eighteen months old, he traded working on the family farm/fish camp for military construction work, but the guitar continued its role in keeping me content.
One of the most-told stories in our family: after jobs in Tennessee (where my sister Linda was born) and Georgia (where my sister Margaret was born), we wound up spending most of World War II in Mobile, Alabama, where Dad worked in the shipyard. A guy he worked with said something about wanting a guitar. "I've got one I'll sell you for fifty dollars," Dad told him. The following Sunday afternoon, the prospective buyer came to see the guitar -- Dad pulled it out of the case and immediately spotted the marks I had left along the binding and said, "Those are my little boy's toothprints, Fella; I can't sell that guitar." Well, he COULD have, but he didn't, not even for the help fifty bucks would have been. From that point on, it was regarded in the family as "Bill's guitar."
In 1946, we moved to Newberry County, South Carolina, where my aunt, Geneva, got to know a local hillbilly band, Joe Morris and the Silver Dew Boys. Good instruments were hard to come by and their lead guitar player had one in the process of being lined up, but, in the meantime, GeeGee asked me if he could borrow my guitar and put an electric pickup on it. Wow, I didn't even know to say "Cool!" but it was a real thrill for us to visit the radio studio one night and realize that was MY guitar making all that really exciting music. I had always been into music, but that might have been the moment I really got socked into the business of music.
Unfortunately, as you already know, that guitar and just about everything else we owned went up in flames in November of 1949. I was ten years old and under a doctor's care for a condition that had kept me bedridden the preceding winter. Seeing how upset I was, the doctor's prescription: "Buy that boy whatever vestige of a guitar you can afford, no matter how cheap -- just so it's a guitar." Sears had one they boasted in the catalogue as being "a real guitar for under ten dollars." That was my primary Christmas present that year -- the only one I remember, in fact.
My little Silvertone held up quite well for a while, even with my kidstyle playing that was more instinct than knowledge and was less off key some times than others. HOWEVER, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving of 1953 (I was in the eighth grade), I started taking honest-to-goodness guitar lessons from Cliff Edwards -- within a year, the little Silvertone not only had a hole in the top a la Willie Nelson, it had craters in the fingerboard in front of the first three frets and required new nut and bridge bones. During the summer after the ninth grade, the tuning peg for the first string literally disintegrated. Guess what? Press the second string down on the fifth fret, and you have the same note as the first string open, so the second string at the sixth fret is the same as the first string at the first fret, and on and on -- hey I just kept on practicing, using someone else's instrument for public performances.
My big dream was to buy a Gibson guitar and, sure 'nuff, Greenwood Music Company had one in the window, priced at one hundred dollars. Nobody told me it was a student model, not intended for the rigors of professional music, but, what the heck, I was playing a lot, but nobody paid me enough to be considered professional. Money was the main issue and Dad offered to help me plant two rows of okra in our garden (a BIG garden) and what money I made from selling okra to a produce peddler neighbor, Tom Williams, could go toward that Gibson in town. So, in 1956, during the tenth grade, I got a "new" Gibson -- quotes on new because we learned some forty years later that the guitar had actually been built in 1948 and had apparently been aging in the music store window.
Short version of the story: Larry Broome, David Ayers, and I formed a band round about that time and that little, lightweight guitar got a lot of honest wear and tear. Several bass players worked with us during my high school years and John Bailey came on board a couple of weeks after Castro took over Cuba. We played anywhere people would invite us and were not above requesting invitations. At least once a week, with or without other gigs, we gathered at my house to practice, all of us sharing whatever we were learning from whatever sources we had access to.
Other guitars came and went in my life for various reasons and under various circumstances, but "the little Gibson," its current official designation in my family, has stayed the course, even though it was unplayable for maybe fifteen years. In 1996, old friend Ed Miller took it to Dale Steele at Morrison Brothers Music in Jackson, Mississippi, for restoration. I won't explain tap tuning, but that fifty-year-old wood got loving luthier treatment and I really got back into music -- well, I hadn't been away, as such, but I had stopped performing and writing songs in deference to the time demands of the entertainment journalism work that had pulled me into those circles quite soon after moving to Nashville in 1965. There had been a number of recording endeavors over the years, but no releases -- "This is good stuff," I was regularly told, "but where would it fit on radio?" I still don't know about radio but I know that the songs wouldn't go away, the guitar didn't go away, and neither did I.
Hope you enjoy.
Well, you may as well be -- I sure was. The instrument pictured above is quite unique and unique entities ALL have stories, right? Well, buy coffee sometimes and I'll tell you the long version; meanwhile ... I met the illustrious Dean Porter right after moving to Nashville in 1965. He had been here back in the early '50s, I think, playing in Little Jimmy Dickens' twin guitar pairing with Thumbs Carlile, Jabbo Arrington, maybe, and probably others -- Dean told me that as friends hanging out; I wasn't taking notes.
Anyhow, Dean got road weary and went back home to Southern Ohio, where among other things, he performed on a show that provided performing opportunities for an awesome young singer named Connie Smith. Short version -- Dean, his wife, and daughter moved to Nashville for his second go-round scant months before I came here, so we were "new-comers" together. He got involved in instrument repair (with a lot of inspiration from a friend in Ohio whose name I don't recall) and I got started in entertainment journalism. Well, we were buddies, so I knew when Dean started experimenting with deeper bodies, a VW hubcap for a resonator on a banjo-shaped resophonic instrument, and such. I also knew about a "what if" that came about after a session where he was asked to double on guitar and mandolin -- ah, how about a mandolin that a guitar player can play without learning a whole new string configuration!
I was writing a column on pickers for INSIDE COUNTRY MUSIC, so I did a feature on Dean's interesting array of instruments, including what was technically a twelve-string soprano guitar, although he generally regarded it as a twelve-string mandolin. His questions as to whether it would work were answered in the affirmative, so he built himself a really fine version and, upon moving to Arkansas to run quality control for the Gretsch people, gave me the prototype. At the point of presentation, he stressed, "Bill, don't take this down on Music Row and tell folks this is a fine Dean Porter instrument, 'cause it's not. It plays well enough for you to have some fun with but I mostly want you to have it as an expression of thanks for the publicity you've given me.
So when, within a year, it developed an intonation problem on the first string, I laid it out of the way and generally regarded it as a momento of a good friendship. The ensuing years got frantic, what with my PERFORMANCE Magazine responsibilities and the overall pace of the music endeavor. Every once in a while, I'd pull the little twelve string out and show it to picker friends, but it went longer and longer with danged nigh little attention.
Until November of 2002. My songwriting momentum had resurfaced and I was actually looking at an occasional live performance. Some instinct told me to pull the little twelve string; I did. I looked it over carefully and realized that the first pair of strings was resting on the first fret -- ah, THAT could be fixed! I took it to Turner Mires, he fixed it, and I became, so far as I know, the only active mandotar player on the planet. Mandotar? Well, it takes less energy to say than "twelve-string soprano guitar" or "twelve-string mandolin" -- Charlie Louvin tells me that Ira built a half-scale guitar that he called a mandotar, but it has only six strings (and currently resides in the Country Music Hall Of Fame), but this is one of the two I know of with twelve strings -- Dean died a good while back and it is my presumption his family still has the other one. Maybe this site can help us connect and I can learn if, indeed, any others were ever built.
Meanwhile, this thing is a shout of joy.
Mike and I have used it considerably on my "Cup Full Of Words" album
reactivating an old tradition from the Louvin Brothers, dividing intros
and turnarounds between electric guitar (often played by Chet) and Ira's
mandolin. I love the straight ahead honesty of that music and
humbly hope we generate some warm memories. The mandotar also
dances all the way through "Green Bananas," which you should be able
to hear soon. Maybe it's not a case of teaching an old dog new
tricks, because I play the mandotar pretty much like I've long played
a standard flattop, but it is a brilliant example of how much fun an
old dog can have on a new trail, sniffing out new possibilities.
"Some people take a #2 washtub of words to give you a cupful of meaning, but Bill Littleton gives you a #2 washtub of meaning with a cupful of words."
- Dalton Roberts
Please click to play a MP3 sample from our CD - "A CUPFUL OF WORDS"