Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Well I'll be a Ham Sandwich! (The story of R.L. Burnside's MDX Guitar)

In 1994, Dr. Joe Stevens approached me about organizing a music festival with the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society in my home town of West Point, Mississippi. He told me then that he highly recommended that I meet and create a custom guitar for the great blues legend R.L. Burnside, who would be headlining the event.

After months of planning, the day finally arrived for the event to take place. When I first met R.L. Burnside, I remember being backstage and seeing him there, sitting in a small fold-up metal chair with a big kind smile. He looked at me, only 24 years old at the time, and probably thought of me as some novice guitar-maker kid, although I had already gained seven years under my belt as an experienced and well sought after luthier.

I sat down with a list of questions in my mind to get an idea of what he would want out of a custom guitar, made especially for him. I asked him the normal questions that I always ask everyone when preparing the sketch in my head for what their guitar would look like at the end of all of the work. What shape of guitar do you prefer? His answer, "Something small." What kind of pickups? "Humbuckers." What is your favorite kind of finish? "Sunburst." These questions probably went on for about 15 minutes then the last question was "How many frets would you like 21, 22 or 24?" I am guessing he felt he had humored me long enough and with a chuckle he said "23."

The 23rd fret on this guitar was made as an example of the R.L. Burnside humor that I had come to learn from my short time spent with him.

A year went by and it was already time for the second annual Howlin' Wolf Blues Festival in West Point and I knew R.L. would be there to perform another show again. I went up to him backstage with a guitar case in hand. He may have even been sitting in that exact same fold-up metal chair. We made eye contact as I was walking toward him and with that big friendly smile he said "Whatcha got there?" I opened the case and handed this guitar to him. He looked a little shocked as he sat there looking at it in his hands and started playing it for the first time. He shook his head and said "Man, that's nice, real nice.."

R.L. showed the guitar to Lil Howlin' Wolf who was standing there at the time and he said "Well I'll be a ham sandwich!" We all chatted for a few minutes while R.L. picked on his new guitar then I had to go set up my MDX Custom Guitar display for the festival. The night went on and so did life.

In 2006, I was on tour with the band Cowboy Mouth as their guitar tech. I was standing outside of the House of Blues in New Orleans with our tour manager Bryan Barry who had also happened to be R.L's tour manager for years previously. He pointed to a large window display outside of the venue that houses a mural of sorts. A kind of a collage of folk art and blues images with photos of some of the modern greats of the genre. A photo of R.L. sits among them: "Hey Dwight, did you ever notice in that picture, that guitar R.L. is playing is one of yours?" I had been to this venue multiple times but had never looked up at the display. In a bit of a daze I flashed back to that night in West Point and said: "Well I'll be a ham sandwich." I asked him if he knew where the guitar was now. He said it had been taken from R.L.'s home and nobody had any idea to where it could be now.

Again, life moves forward and in 2011 I got an email from Keith Mallete at Hillgrass Bluebilly Records telling me he had found this very guitar on Ebay and purchased the guitar.

All of R.L.'s other guitars had been lost in a house fire some years ago and Keith felt it was necessary to preserve this one.

Now it sits proudly in The Delta Blues Museum.

"Well I'll be a ham sandwich…"

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