Randy Wood’s Guitar Shop sits along the side of U.S. 80 in the town of Bloomingdale about five miles from one of the Savannah exits on I-95. Each day, hundreds of thousands of people pass this exit headed toward Florida, returning home, or just commuting. Many of them have a guitar, a mandolin, or some other acoustic instrument in their back seat or at home in the closet. Some of those people driving north and south are professional musicians or pickers who own fine instruments. Lots of these people take the exit and stop at Randy’s shop to see what he has for sale, or to consult with this master instrument maker about a repair or a set-up of their instrument. People in the know go to Randy Wood’s shop because they know that he can deliver.
There isn’t much of a bluegrass scene in the Savannah area. When I posted a query on line about bluegrass activity in the Savannah area, one person wrote me and said, “Randy Wood IS bluegrass music in the Savannah area.” When I mentioned on my Facebook page that we were heading to Randy’s shop, several noted musicians asked to be remembered to him. As we drove up to his small shop attached to a large, long tin-roof shed, I didn’t know what to expect. We wandered into the shop where a man was sitting in a practice glider chatting on the phone. The young woman at the counter nodded when I asked her if it was Randy, so Irene and I wandered the shop as he finished his conversation. On the wall were pictures of Randy Wood with Billy Carter, Johnny Cash, Tut Taylor, and other music luminaries from Nashville and Georgia.
Randy Wood - Master Luthier
Randy Wood grew up in Brunswick, Georgia. Bluegrass music wasn’t a big part of his early life, but he played guitar and knew folks like Curtis Burch, later one of the original members of The New Grass Revival. He says instrument repair and construction was the result of “a hobby that got out of hand.” As a guitar player, he had to learn to fix instruments the best he knew how, since there weren’t a lot of luthiers around, so he learned as he needed to. He soon moved to Milledgeville, GA to be near Tut Taylor and make music together. Later he moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to work with Rual Yarborough, banjo picker and later a Bluegrass Boy with Bill Monroe at Rual’s instrument service. By the time the job he had moved to Alabama to accept became open, he and Yarborough were six months behind in instrument repairs. Repair jobs kept coming their way, and soon it turned into a full time job. They drove a van to festivals and picked up repair work wherever they went.
Presentation Mandolin - $45,000
Soon Wood moved to Nashville to form GTR Guitars with George Gruhn and Tut Taylor. Taylor left after about eight months. Later, Randy left Gruhn to open the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor in Nashville with Tut and Grant Boatright. Gruhn Guitars is now legendary for its selection of vintage and classic instruments. The Old Time Pickin’ Parlor has been through some tough times, but currently is run by Tut Taylor’s grandson. Meanwhile, Randy Wood moved back to Georgia, settling in Savannah. Several years ago he moved to his current location in Bloomingdale. Tut Taylor reminisces about the early days, saying that in those days luthiers had to make do with the tools, wood, and parts that were available to them. Where materials weren’t available, they made them up. Tut Taylor says, “There are lots of good builders out there now. They didn’t have to make the effort to learn their way around the way we did back then. We needed to learn as we went. There were no instructions available.” He characterizes Randy Wood’s reputation as a luthier as very high.
Randy Wood’s guitar shop demonstrates the contrast between running a thriving music store that welcomes customers and jammers as well as presents performances by some of the top bands not just in bluegrass but in a range of acoustic music genres and a working repair and construction operation. The shop itself is neat and tidy with some very fine instruments on display as well as a range of vintage and newer ones of lesser pedigree. Like many acoustic shops, there’s also a selection of electric guitars. It’s very difficult to make a living on acoustic instruments and supplies alone, and Randy Wood believes in making a living as well as being involved in music. He says, “I’ve never been for giving bluegrass away. You’ve got to make a living, and nothing’s free in this world.” When Randy relocated in the Savannah area, he opened a shop in his home near the ocean. During 22 years there, he never even hung out a sign, put pickers knew where to find him. When the neighborhood became increasingly gentrified, he moved to his current location along U.S. 80 in Bloomingdale, just a few miles west of I-95.
The workshop, unlike the sales area, presents a jumble of construction and repair in seeming chaos. Shells of half built mandolins and resonator guitars are spread out across the space. Mark Gresham, a fine guitar builder in his own right, is working on a repair. He does contract work in Randy’s shop. (I’ll be posting another blog on Mark Gresham and fellow luthier Barry Kratzer in a couple of days.) Family with babes in arms wander in and out, Randy’s attractive blonde wife Irene is busy behind a desk where the books are kept. Instrument cases with bills tucked into the handles or work orders attached are stacked awaiting pick-up or the attention they need. Randy tells a story about a client who called to ask whether he’d take on a repair that had been botched by another luthier. The client had gone to someone he had perceived as costing less and discovered that less expert work costs more in the long run. A flier available in the shop says, “Welcome to the most complete repair and custom shop for stringed instruments on the East Coast.” The claim appears accurate.
A look around the facility confirms it. The further back in the shop you venture, the more chaotic it seems. Power tools and stacks of instrument parts dominate the rear-most room. On Saturday afternoon, Randy is outside working with a welder on building an oven for the barbecue that will soon be available in front of the performance area to serve lunch to customers. Randy Wood’s operation is a thriving enterprise that serves up great instruments and repairs, fine music in the form of jams and concerts, and a welcoming environment where practicing and aspiring musicians can feel welcome and be helped to make wise decisions.
The Saturday afternoon jam at the Randy Wood’s store attracts a group of highly accomplished and friendly pickers. During the afternoon we were there, perhaps a dozen men and women joined in as the music worked its way around the circle. Pickers called familiar and unfamiliar songs. Some had been written by people in the circle, others were old favorites known to all. Unlike many jams we’ve seen, there was a good sampling of instrumentals as well as songs with lyrics. The level of performance, no matter who sat in, was uniformly high and very enjoyable.
Attached to the store complex is one of the finest small performance venues we’ve seen anywhere. An intimate room seating 100 in comfortable chairs with no seat more than 35 feet from the stage is home to a range of national and local bands performing on scheduled Saturday nights. The sound is excellent, warm and full without needing to be too loud. Tickets for these events run in the range of $20.00 - $30.00 for regional and national performers. Tickets may be ordered by phone ((912) 748-1930) with a credit card. Upcoming performances include: Special Consensus (March 21), Mountain Heart (April 3), and Dailey & Vincent (April 16). Purchasing advance tickets is advised as the room is small and sells out for top attractions.
On Saturday night we had the pleasure of seeing a young bluegrass band from Ashville, NC named Mountain Town. This rising young band will be making appearances in Tennessee, Colorado, and California in the next few months as it spreads its wings. Their self description says, “Imagine a band with one foot proudly planted in the path of traditional bluegrass, and one foot stepping out into the unknown forefront of American string music.” This band features fine original bluegrass produced by their own members along with interesting covers of bluegrassed rock and roll material. One example is lead singer Robert Greer’s very effective treatment of Bruce Sringsteen’s “I’m on Fire” as a bluegrass song. This band has the courage, perhaps audacity, to fit many genres into acoustic string band music and will appeal to a range of musical tastes. While remaining accessible to traditional bluegrass fans, Town Mountain reaches out to the larger community of music audiences who are open to acoustic music. This band bears watching.
As you head along I-95, get off at the Pooler exit and head west on U.S 80 for a few miles until you see the sign for Randy Wood Guitars. You’ll enjoy the visit. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop in on Saturday for the weekly jam. Tell ‘em Ted sent you.