Carson and Mindy Coatney live in Boone, NC and own the popular Stick Boy Bread Company there. All three of their boys play piano and at least two other stringed instruments, which my wife and I revel in as grandparents. Recently they visited acclaimed guitar maker, Wayne Henderson, and I interviewed Mindy about their visit.
Brian: How did you hear about Wayne?
Mindy: His name is well known in the area. We saw him sing locally at a Doc Watson memorial. He was playing with the Kruger Brothers, and one of them said, “I love playing with a Wayne Henderson guitar. After that, everything else sounded like junk.” We went later to where Wayne was signing autographs and asked if we could visit his shop. He said, “Sure, just call first and make sure I’m there.”
Brian: What got you that interested in wanting to visit?
Mindy: The boys (Caleb, Henry, and Wesley) have to do an academic level field trip three times a school year and report on it.
Brian: Where does Wayne live and when did you visit?
Mindy: He lives in Grassy Creek, Virginia–a tiny, rural spot where he was a mail carrier for years even while being a “luthier,” which is a maker of stringed instruments. His fame got around by word of mouth. That’s always been his way even though he’s made a guitar for Doc Watson and Eric Clapton. Doc Watson loved visiting Wayne to play music. Wayne is a classic, good old boy–not in a big rush.
Brian: How did Wayne get started making guitars?
Mindy: He told us his dad was a fiddler. Wayne loved whittling. When a neighbor bought a $100 Martin guitar back in the 1950s, “It was the nicest instrument in six counties. People would come to just get a look at it and listen.” That inspired Wayne, and his neighbor let him trace the guitar and study its construction. He was seventeen at the time. He said, “I used bone from a cow that died on our land to make the parts.”
Brian: Where does he do his work?
Mindy: His shop is next to his house. He told us that in 50 years he’s made over 600 instruments, including mandolins. He said, “I want to make a thousand. That’s how many Stradivarius made.”
Brian: That’s pretty enterprising.
Mindy: Yes, he will have to stay healthy. His wait list is ten years. We learned from Caleb’s guitar teacher, Trevor, that it’s not so much a wait list though. Wayne looks for those who want an instrument the most and persevere in letting him see their desire persistently in creative ways.
Brian: He sounds like the old cliché about the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
Mindy: Yes. Of course you can buy a used Wayne Henderson guitar off the Internet, but the prices are exponentially higher than if he makes you one. He doesn’t sell through stores, so you either buy one from him and have the experience or buy off the Internet and pay the huge price tag. Wayne doesn’t charge anything like you would guess, I think because he wants his fellow musicians to be able to afford a quality guitar. We put in an order with Wayne and hope to have a guitar for Caleb by his high school graduation (he’s eleven now).
Brian: When you went, did you call and then just go drop in?
Mindy: Yes, he sleeps later and does a lot of his work at night because he expects to have people drop in during the day, and he enjoys that. When we got there, he was walking across the yard in jeans and a Red Sox tee shirt (he loves baseball) and had on a ball cap of some kind. He took us to his shop where he keeps several instruments going at different stages.
Mindy: He showed us his shop, and he would tap all around on a guitar under construction. By listening to the acoustics of the wood, he can tell how the sound will be. At first, the guitar is just a box, no neck or strings.
Brian: Did he talk about his wood selection?
Mindy: Oh yes, he’s been “around the world in search of perfect woods.” Once he traveled to Brazil to get wood from an old stump. He wanted the cured part underground.
Brian: Is he a one of a kind, or is there a successor to his work?
Mindy: His daughter Jayne, an environmental attorney, has taken up the craft, and so that’s fun to hear. He’s excited about how talented she is and passionate about being a luthier.
Brian: What did you talk about after seeing the shop?
Mindy: He generously said, “Would you like to see my collection?” We were overwhelmed at this and wanted to see it. It would make a whole, separate article, and I can’t even begin here to describe the variety and sentimental connections he has to the instruments he has collected and preserved, some of them of his own making, like the first guitar he made and later traced down and acquired.
Brian: You’ve described him as so accessible and easy to connect with.
Mindy: He is. After seeing his collection, we said, “The boys brought their instruments and would like to play a few songs for you.” He really liked that and wouldn’t hear of them going to the car to get their instruments. He said, “I’ve got instruments!” He handed Caleb the original Martin that started his career and then handed a banjo to Henry and a guitar to Wesley. He even played with them, pulling out a stand up base.
Brian: I bet you got some video of that!
Mindy: Yes, we did! He’s genuinely excited to see the next generation of those who love mountain music, and he played three or four songs with them.
Mindy: we were there two hours. It was such a real experience, seeing the pile of fast food wrappers in his shop and his Cheerwine pop machine for his favorite soda. He also complimented Caleb’s “pickin,'” which was fun to hear.
Brian: So, you’re hoping by Caleb’s high school graduation? You need to send him some Stick Boy bread.
Mindy: Yes, and we’ll be thinking of other ways to creatively keep on his “list.” He’s got a passion for placing his instruments, and we do too.