The flooding in Tennessee last week took more than 20 lives and wrought billions in property damage. In Nashville, it also took a toll on the city's musical heritage and infrastructure. The Grand Ole Opry House was inundated. The Nashville Symphony lost two Steinways when its basement flooded. But the most concentrated instrument loss took place at a facility beside the Cumberland River called Soundcheck, where hundreds of the city's musicians stored their treasured instruments.
Raul Malo, founder of country band The Mavericks and a widely respected singer and songwriter, opens up the case of his beloved 1962 Gibson J-45.
"What? Oh my god. How is that holding up?" Malo says in disbelief.
It's in one piece, but when Malo's guitar repairman turns it over, more than a gallon of water pours out of the sound hole onto the muddy floor.
"That's like my favorite acoustic," Malo says. "That's the one I was going: 'Please, if any acoustics make it, let it be that one.' Look at that. How is that possible?"
Malo and a friend try the soggy Gibson and a waterlogged acoustic bass.
"It kind of sounds good now," Malo says.
And his bass?
"Maybe that's what it needed. If I'd have known that, I would have dropped it in the Cumberland years ago," Malo says, laughing.
It's a rare light moment from a weekend of anguish for hundreds of Nashville musicians. The rest of Malo's collection didn't fare nearly as well as the Gibson. Guitar bodies have swollen up until their backs split in a lattice of cracks. Necks are twisted beyond repair.
"Last night, I was sitting there with my wife, listening to my new album, and I said, 'Those guitar sounds on this record, I will never be able to duplicate again because all of those guitars are gone,' " Malo says.
An Industry Shaken
One of the most devastating losses of historic instruments hit the Musicians Hall of Fame in a heartbreaking instance of bad timing. Less than two months ago, it was forced to store its collection after the city acquired its downtown property to make way for a new convention center. Lost in the flood: a Jimi Hendrix-owned Stratocaster guitar and the bass used in Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart." In all, the Soundcheck flood affected an estimated 600 musicians, from stars like Vince Gill to workaday professionals.
It's far more than just storage lockers. Soundcheck is a complex of repair shops, product representatives and rehearsal spaces where major country artists gear up for arena shows.
Last weekend, semitrailers idled at the loading docks while the crew for country band Rascal Flatts consulted with insurance adjusters and methodically photographed road cases full of instruments, wireless communication gear and racks of sound processors.
Soundcheck is also a so-called cartage company that delivers gear to the professional studio musicians when they arrive at recording sessions. That means a significant percentage of the great guitars in Music City were stored in the same place. And last week, that place was underwater.
A Community Shaken
Facility owner Ben Jumper acknowledges it's not comparable to the loss of lives and homes. But he says the community has been shaken by the destruction of so many fine and cherished instruments.
"I've seen tears. I've seen hugs," Jumper says. "I've seen real raw human emotion that will stay with me for the rest of my life."
At the same time, Jumper says it hasn't been a complete loss.
"Everybody thought that everything in Soundcheck was destroyed," Jumper says. "But a lot of people had shelving in their lockers and their equipment stayed above the waterline. From 3 1/2 feet down, it's tragic. It's horrific."
Jumper rented space at several nearby warehouses, where repair technicians set up a MASH unit for instruments. In one, a wide-open space hums with dehumidifiers drying out gear and guitars belonging to Peter Frampton, Keith Urban, John Hiatt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Fogerty and others. Guitarist Steve Farris, a session player and a former member of rock band Mr. Mister, surveyed his collection like a musical autobiography.
"That L5 over there I bought in 1975 when I graduated from high school and took it to the Berklee College of Music," Farris says. "I also took it to L.A. when I wanted to make it as a guitar player. I used to take that guitar down to Watts and sit in with jam sessions down there like an idiot white kid from the Midwest. But that guitar's been all over the place with me. So these guitars have history. That L5, I think, is gonna make it."
Most of his collection was not so fortunate. In general, however, guitar repairman Ed Beaver was somewhat cheered by the survival rate of the vintage instruments he'd worked on.
"If you want to go mathematical, I'd say about 10 percent of the stuff I have is tear-jerking," Beaver says. "About 60 percent of the stuff I have is going to be OK. It might bear the scars of the flood, but, hey, so do we."
Instruments are a category of loss unto themselves. They are not alive, but neither are they lifeless. For their players, they are extensions of their emotions and intimate companions. Years from now, many will say that in the storm of 2010, they didn't lose anybody, but they did lose close friends.