Just a couple of generations ago, pickers often faced a painful moment of truth when their beloved stringed instruments—with nicknames like “Betty Sue” or “Lucille” for their hourglass curves—broke or became too worn out to play. The time would come to put the guitar down, to use the banjo for kindling.
“For a long time, it was just cheaper and more practical to throw away the instrument and replace it with a new one,” says Randy Wood, 68, who runs the world-famous guitar shop bearing his name, just outside Savannah. He shakes his head, imagining the loss of so many vintage pieces that had resonated with mountain ballads and jigs. “When I got out of the military, I was an engineer and draftsman who loved working in a woodshop, and loved music. It seemed that making, repairing and doing upkeep on musical instruments might be a good way to make a living.”
As it turns out, working as a luthier—which derives from the Old French word for “lute”—also proved a good way to make a life. Randy Wood Guitars, located in the small community of Bloomingdale, serves as a magnetic hub of craftsmanship, sustaining fellowship and impromptu jam sessions for musicians from around the world, all taking their cues from Wood, who presides like a courtly, easygoing master of ceremonies, happy that his surname somehow foretold his destiny.
‘Right place, right time’
Early on, his chops with a table saw took Wood from Milledgeville to the country division of the Muscle Shoals recording scene and then, in 1970, to Nashville, where he and two buddies, Tut Taylor and George Gruhn, established G.T.R. Inc.—an acronym of their initials that handily looks like “guitar”—just behind the Old Ryman Auditorium, where the weekly Johnny Cash Show was in production.
“It’s true that we were at the right place at the right time,” Wood says, of that heyday for the Nashville Sound, “but you always have to work hard to get to that right place. I was the only person doing major repairs and custom instruments then. Artists who were featured on the Johnny Cash show would drift over to our shop to hang out between rehearsals, so that’s how we started meeting people like Joni Mitchell, ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot, Kenny Rogers, Bobby Whitlock and others.”
Wood developed a reputation for detailed custom-work and personalized pearl inlays. He worked on Elvis Presley’s prized Black Gibson Dove, inscribing the King’s name on the fingerboard. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Dickey Betts, Hank Williams Jr., Vasser Clements, Emmylou Harris and Shot Jackson, an inventor of the Sho Bud pedal steel, all became clients. For several years, Wood served as an on-call mandolin medic, of sorts, for Bill Monroe.
“He was rough on his mandolins,” Wood says, “and once he half-jokingly, half-seriously asked me to take it home with me, to keep it from getting stolen. The story that got out was that he asked me to take it home and sleep with it. So that became a running joke.”
Wood also performed some painstaking historical restoration on a guitar, circa 1800, that belonged to Rachel Jackson, first lady of “Old Hickory,” for the Hermitage.
A second wind
Then, after eight twangy, heady years in Nashville—and after G.T.R. became Gruhn Guitars—Wood and his wife, Irene, went into semi-retirement on the Isle of Hope, closer to Brunswick where he grew up.
“I lived like a hermit there for 22 years, working for a few longtime clients from my home,” he says. “But our northern neighbors tend to move down here and try to remake this area into the place they left. I was told because of zoning laws I couldn’t run a commercial enterprise, even though it was small, from my home.”
So, 10 years ago, the Woods went farther inland and staked out a few Spanish moss-draped acres in Bloomingdale, just down the road from Lips Pizza, Ray-Ray’s Beauty Parlor and rows of low-lying houses and Holiness churches.
“This,” he says, indicating his woodshop, redolent of resin and balsam, “was supposed to be a small retirement operation. But it keeps growing. We have a lot of clients in Japan and England.”
Adds Barry Palmer of Bluegrass Alliance, “When we toured Japan, we saw more Randy Wood instruments than Gibsons. Nobody is better at pairing up the grains of wood and doing inlays. I didn’t even recognize my banjo after he was through with it. He matched the Brazilian rosewood and made me a five-string neck for my 1928 Gibson Bella Voce. It was immaculate, just exquisite.”
Randy Wood Guitars employs two full-time staffers and several contract workers to keep up with demand for instruments and instruction. Every Saturday, local pickers convene to jam—with serious miens under wide-brimmed hats—on old, high-lonesome tunes such as “Too Much Mountain Dew,” “Wheel Hoss” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” A gentle, elderly dog named Emmy roams around the shop, which functions as the only bluegrass-centered venue in the Savannah area, historically dominated by jazz and blues.
We would not have a bluegrass scene at all here if it weren’t for Randy,” says Daniel Wile, one of the Saturday regulars. A Gulfstream engineer, he took up the dobro with great reverence after hearing an Alison Krauss album. The first time Wile walked into the store, his eyes fixed on a photo of Wood arm-in-arm with Krauss’ dobro accompanist, Jerry Douglas. “That’s when I knew I was in the right place, when I saw Randy posed with my personal hero! Then I learned that, as one of the first vintage instrument repairmen, Randy is one of those people like Roy Acuff, who have genuinely made an impact on music, who have changed and preserved it for the better. He’s a history-maker—the real deal.”
Wood brushes back his silver hair with a large paw and blushes under his South Georgia tan.
“Ahhh. We just try to get along,” he says. “We don’t make no money, but we sure do have fun.”