Six String Salvation
If you’re looking for the soul of the current Athens, Georgia, music scene, the best place to find it might be at the dead end of Winston Drive, in the shop of guitar maker Scott Baxendale, who takes castoff, Sears-catalog guitars and transforms them into exquisite instruments. Baxendale has become a luthier to the stars and perhaps the world’s greatest salvager of lowly instruments — but before he got there, he had to salvage himself.
About a mile outside of downtown Athens, Georgia, lies holy ground for folks who love music produced in this Southern college town over the past three decades or so. We’re not talking about the spot where R.E.M. played its first show. Tourists geeking out over Athens’ long-vibrant music scene pay their respects at the steeple, the last remnant of the abandoned church where two members of R.E.M. and a passel of other early-’80s Athens musicians lived, rehearsed and partied.
But they do not come to this building, at the dead end of Winston Drive, to pay their respects. Perhaps they should, because this is one of Athens music’s most sacred spots. It doesn’t look sacred, but places are not always what they appear.
The building is hardly a feat of modern design: two floors, a drab beige on the exterior with hardly any windows around the perimeter of the L-shaped edifice. It looks like it dates back to maybe the Carter Administration. On a typical day, the parking lot outside holds a half-dozen or so 15-passenger vans and about twice as many more cars from the ’80s and early ’90s — the typical carriages of struggling musicians.
And yet, this bland building houses Chase Park Transduction (a recording studio owned and operated by David Barbe, intrepid producer for Athens nouveau-indie rockers New Madrid and former bassist of Sugar alongside punk icon Bob Mould) as well as the semi-secret headquarters of another band Barbe produces, Drive-By Truckers. The complex also houses Baxendale Guitar, a custom guitar and restoration shop nestled in the suite directly adjacent to Chase Park Transduction. And if you want to discover the very source of the “Athens Sound” these days, you need to see the man inside, Scott Baxendale, whose stringed creations have become the tools of choice for many of this town’s top musicians.
“I’m an artist that builds a piece of art,” Baxendale says. “And if that piece of art that I make can inspire another artist to make art that they would not have thought of without playing that guitar …then, to me, that’s the magic and the total payoff at the end.”
Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers agrees. “They truly are something you don’t get off of a rack,” says Cooley, the proud recipient of both acoustic and electric guitars designed and built by Baxendale. “There are a lot of people making a lot of really nice customs, but there a couple of those guitars — they do have some kind of magic mojo in there that only a skilled craftsman with a lot of heart and soul can create.”
Now in his 60s, Baxendale seems content to stay in Athens. His luthier’s school trains most of the guitar technicians in town, and Baxendale’s personal services are still in very high demand. He’s found a way to fit seamlessly into Athens’ fabric.
Though not originally from the South, Baxendale lives and breathes by the principle of reconstruction — in its benign sense, the idea that even with limited resources, great things can be created. His ongoing project to restore cheap Harmony and Kay guitars has become one of his business’ greatest assets. On face, this may appear counterintuitive for a luthier with a reputation like Baxendale’s. Working on cheap, old, Sears-catalog guitars may seem like work for an amateur, but after years of studying the craft, Baxendale swears by these often-overlooked instruments. After nearly 40 years of guitar making and repairs in spots all over America led him to Athens in 2010, he seems to have perfected the ability to salvage the musical hearts and souls of discarded instruments.
Scott Baxendalee does some of the world’s best “guitar salvage” work. In the process, he’s managed to salvage himself.
Baxendale has flirted with the South all his life. After dropping out of the University of Kansas in 1974, Baxendale found himself in Winfield, Kansas, for a brief stint at Mossman Guitars studying luthiery, the craft of guitar making and repair, under the tutelage of Stuart Mossman. Following his apprenticeship with Mossman, Baxendale moved to Nashville, where he began working at Gruhn Guitars, specializing in vintage-guitar repair. He worked on guitars owned by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Dave Alvin, Billy Gibbons and virtually everyone that mattered rolling through Music City.
Following his tenure at Gruhn, Baxendale bought Mossman Guitar in the mid-’80s and moved the company to Garland, Texas, before selling it and settling in Denver for a number of years. There, he opened Colfax Guitar, where he spent the majority of his career as a luthier. Stationed across the street from the Bluebird Theatre, a 550-seat rock club in Denver, Colfax developed strong relationships with its customers as a result of its prime location and Baxendale’s reputation for being able to tackle emergency repairs swiftly.
Baxendale’s clientele, to put it plainly, is impressive and long. It includes a laundry list of guitar aces such as Joe Walsh (a client with whom Baxendale admits to having done plenty of cocaine decades ago in a hotel room before Walsh’s wife stormed in to break up the party) to Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, who no doubt was an influence on Baxendale’s decision to leave Denver and move to Athens.
Through the good graces of Athens locals who were in close contact with Elvis Presley’s estate, Baxendale was even invited in 2013 to restore the King’s guitar collection at Graceland. (“They’re not as good as you might think,” says Baxendale, smiling.) Both Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle regularly stop in the shop while on tour. Jim James of My Morning Jacket recently brought his band to meet Baxendale at the urging of their tour manager, only to leave with a newly purchased converted Harmony. Howe Gelb of Giant Sand tells me that he carries the Silvertone electric Baxendale reluctantly sold him wherever he goes — even on international flights.
“You just never know who will walk in here on any given day,” Baxendale’s wife Pam says coyly, before rattling off a long list of musicians who have dropped by their shop in Athens.
After restoring guitars once owned by Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and John Lennon for the Hard Rock Cafe’s collection, Baxendale was invited by the restaurant in Dallas to design and build two bar counters that were 34 feet long — one in the likeness of a Gibson Les Paul and the other replicating a Fender Stratocaster. Baxendale made both to precise scale. He is painstakingly reverent when he does his work.
Business was — and remains — good. One can make a living in this line of work, especially with the help of referrals. It doesn’t hurt that R.E.M.’s longtime equipment manager, Dewitt Burton, spends a great deal of his time working in Baxendale’s shop and invites his music industry connections to stop by.
“Scott Baxendale is one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet in your life — and smart people tend to get into a lot of trouble.”
Mike Cooley, Drive-By Truckers
Even with his tall frame, Scott Baxendale does not give the impression he could ever hold anyone at gunpoint. But once, he did, thanks to addiction.
Baxendale doesn’t like to talk about his past as much as he likes to talk about guitars, but his shop itself reflects the addict’s desire to bring order to a life marked by disorder. The shop’s showroom featuring a couple dozen Baxendale customs and restorations, is tidy. Scott shows off his guitars while imparting the history and material makeup of each instrument. He speaks of each guitar as if he were an astronomer offering a lecture on distant stars — each one singular and with its own unique composition despite their similarity to the naked eye.
But as Scott talks guitars, stories about his life occasionally come out. It becomes clear that the story Baxendale’s story about Walsh (also a notable recovering addict) wasn’t an isolated incident. He drops occasional hints about a life that is now decades behind him as he elaborates on another guitar’s specifications.
At his worktable filled with tools that would look equally appropriate in an auto mechanic’s garage, Baxendale recounts the drugs he did in college, a slow burn that eventually snowballed into a cocaine-induced explosion in the early 1990s. He warns younger bands against focusing too much on the “party element” over the music. He tells of a low point in his addiction, before his arrest, when he didn’t play guitar and took his craft for granted. There is plenty of wisdom in Scott’s reflections on his years of addiction, though he delivers none of it in a heavy-handed way.
Baxendale eventually speaks candidly of the night when — “completely out of my mind” on cocaine — he stuck a gun in someone’s face and demand that person give him drugs. Baxendale — a consummate storyteller — ties a thoughtful reflection of the events that led to his arrest in 1992 to the guitars in his collection. In one case, Scott riffs on a guitar that he had owned while working at Mossman before selling it during a cocaine-fueled bender in Colorado.
But Baxendale’s story, like the secondhand guitars he revives, is one of second chances. Following a reprieve from a judge in Colorado who noticed that Baxendale had a talent that ought not be squandered, Scott got back to work.
“Buy the ticket, take the ride … and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well … maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”
Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
Baxendale’s troubled past inspired not only the Cooley-penned “Checkout Time in Vegas” from Drive-By Truckers’ “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” album, but also “Do It For Johnny,” a low-budget documentary produced and directed by Haylar Garcia about an attempt to deliver a screenplay for “Narcophonic,” a film based on Baxendale’s addiction and life, to Johnny Depp.
The plan was this: If Depp — a noted guitar aficionado — could somehow get ahold of the screenplay and give it a read, surely he would be interested in financing (and perhaps directing or starring in) a film based on Baxendale’s life.
Baxendale went as far as building a custom guitar with a special compartment to hold the screenplay. The guitar was inspired by Depp’s affinity for the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards — a design mimicking a Fender Telecaster featuring a single lipstick pickup. “Depp” was inlayed in the headstock. This could be no one’s guitar but Johnny Depp’s, and so the adventure to bring the instrument — and, more importantly, the screenplay of “Narcophonic” — to the movie star began.
The documentary features Garcia and Baxendale riding around the western United States attempting to arrange a meeting with Depp. Agents are called, meetings are scheduled and then cancelled, the emotions of an aspiring filmmaker run rampant. To my knowledge, no other film in history captures a guitar maker and a filmmaker driving an RV named “The Turtle” around the West for two years. It is a singular film in more ways than one.
It is, as one might imagine, a bizarre chronicling of events that is made even more surreal when Baxendale and Garcia finally meet Depp shortly after the funeral of Hunter S. Thompson. When I finally reviewed the film after Baxendale had given me a DVD copy, I got the sense that Thompson would have approved of Garcia’s go-for-broke attitude. Even an unskilled film critic would notice a correlation between the mania found in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Do It For Johnny.” At times painful to watch and at other times downright hilarious, the film is, not coincidentally, quite the Thompson-esque ride — years after the drugs, of course.
The final scenes of Garcia’s film show Depp accepting the guitar like a diplomat (or millionaire actor avoiding a lawsuit, depending on one’s perspective) — only under the condition that the screenplay be removed. Baxendale recalls the famed actor being “gracious and nice” during their meeting at the famed Jerome Hotel in Aspen following Depp’s firing of Thompson’s remains out of a cannon at his mentor’s estate in Colorado. The encounter lasted less than five minutes before hotel security escorted Baxendale and the film crew off of the premises.
Baxendale admits that Garcia appears obsessive in parts of the film. Most viewers wouldn’t disagree — it is uncomfortable to watch anyone with that much ambition pining over a meeting with a celebrity.
Despite its handheld-camera production and often grainy aesthetic, the film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and received a positive response. It also screened at the Hollywood and Aspen Film Festivals to warm receptions. The film managed to charm the jury at the Sonoma Film Festival, winning first place in the competition’s documentary category — an impressive run for a film made on a shoestring budget archiving a wild goose chase to track down a Hollywood superstar. Baxendale may be disappointed that the film hasn’t received wide distribution through Netflix, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t taken on a life of its own.
At first glance, Garcia’s film is a subtle commentary on the cloistered Hollywood machine, an indictment of the inherent elitism of the culture industry. Yet, there is another narrative that runs parallel and is equally compelling: Scott Baxendale will work his ass off for the things he believes in.
Baxendale’s approach to teaching the art of luthiery is stunningly simple: Take Harmony and Kay guitars (“cheap” guitars that were once available for purchase in Sears-Roebuck catalogs) and modify them to compete with (and perhaps exceed) the sonic standards found in Martin guitars and others of that ilk.
The choice to operate on cheap guitars started as a pragmatic decision to keep costs low while teaching students in his luthier academy the fundamentals of guitar repair and restoration.
“When I first started the school, we started … remanufacturing the Harmonys, and I thought, ‘Wow. This is a really neat teaching tool,’” Baxendale recalls. “And then, ‘Well, these guitars are pretty dang good. This isn’t just a teaching tool; we’re making really nice guitars.’ Now that I’m looking at it, we’re taking a basically useless guitar that is destined for the dumpster or destined for a wall hanging, and when it was made, it was made with the intention of being a student’s first guitar. And we’re taking this guitar and giving it a whole different life 50 years later,” Scott says as he discusses his brainchild.
It goes against conventional wisdom to insist that cheaply made guitars can hold their own when compared to a Martin or another expensive brand, but Baxendale insists that he’s onto something — that there’s something inherently valuable in these guitars that have been looked over for so many decades in the court of public opinion.
These days, Baxendale doesn’t mind sharing his trade secret with his clients. Without even so much as a hint of braggadocio, he’ll tell you exactly why his method of rebuilding Harmonys and Kays works as well as it does. If one had the technical knowledge, replicating the process wouldn’t be all that difficult. Baxendale gets his business because he’s good at what he does, not because he’s the only one to unlock this secret of the guitar universe.
“All these new companies are selling guitars that are made to look old, like they’re fake-relic’ed,” says Baxendale in his not-so-implicit critique of the modern guitar industry. “We’re taking something that is old, real-relic’ed, and making it new again. The more I do that, the more I think, ‘Golly. This is really amazing. We’re creating a whole new culture of musicians that have an appreciation for this.’”
Following some high-profile endorsements, that culture is growing. After Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers began enlisting Baxendale for his guitar making and repair skills, business has been steady, with both amateurs and professional musicians calling on Baxendale to design custom models, often modeled off of his Harmony and Kay conversions.
“I’m lusting after all these Harmony and Kay guitars that I used to think were junk. The more I learn, the more I realize I didn’t know anything,” says Baxendale.
When I ask Baxendale if he sees any correlation between his vocation in restoring guitars and his personal recovery from an addiction to narcotics, he pauses.
“I suppose I never thought of that,” he says, cracking a smile. This is Baxendale’s persona made manifest in a single utterance: disarmingly humble and endearingly honest.
Jamie Thomas, one of Scott’s students who regularly works in the shop, says that the parallel between restoring guitars and restoring oneself is something to ponder.
“I think there’s something to be said for that — something that’s almost considered useless and taken out of function and comes back not only as good as it once was, but better,” Thomas says of Baxendale’s incredible backstory. “The knowledge that comes from the mistakes you made gives you the ability to transform something that was damaged into something amazing.”
Thomas, who is originally from Rhode Island, moved to Athens after touring the Northeast while performing in a number of bands. He says that he became a student soon after walking into Baxendale’s shop and showing interest in the trade. Thomas didn’t plan on becoming one of Baxendale’s students when he moved to Athens, but he’s earned a reputation as one of his best technicians after graduating from the academy.
Central to Baxendale’s pedagogy is a focus on repetition, says Thomas. Whereas many guitar building schools prepare students for the craft by teaching every part of the process in a linear fashion while having the student build a single guitar, Baxendale puts stock in the refinement of technique. “With Scott’s rebuilding program, each student works on multiple guitars and most of them build a custom guitar from scratch as well,” notes Thomas on Baxendale’s teaching method.
Although Thomas already had experience as a musician before joining Baxendale’s academy, Scott says that many of his students don’t have a background in building anything. Baxendale tells me he’s had students who could barely tell the difference between a hammer and a wrench.
While there aren’t prerequisites for enrolling in the academy per se (Baxendale jokingly tells me that “a check that won’t bounce” is the only requirement for acceptance into his academy), the program is long and rigorous.
Thomas says, “I think his program and the way he does it differs in a lot of ways. It’s a longer-term commitment than other luthiery schools. A lot of [programs] are designed around building a single guitar from start to finish and not as one-on-one. With Scott’s approach, it’s a little more ‘big picture.’ He’s a great teacher, but Scott Baxendale is primarily a musician. His end game is teaching the instrument as it is used by musician.”
Chatting with Scott, one gets the impression that he’s got a few issues with the teaching methods of guitar academies around the country. After all, it’s no secret that he does things differently at his own academy — he and his students will tell you as much. Though he’s got his opinions, Baxendale doesn’t come off as preachy or unwilling to have a dialogue. He’s just too damn busy working to be wasting time complaining.
Above the work station on the first floor of Baxendale’s shop is a makeshift recording bunker. Noise-cancelling panels and vintage microphones are within view of the room where Baxendale and his students apply coats of lacquer to finished guitars. When I tour this area of the shop after several visits, I find a guitar for Jeff Tweedy of Wilco awaiting restoration. A computer equipped with recording software displays soundwaves, suggesting that tracking sessions have recently taken place. Lyric sheets and chord charts adorn the walls of the enclave.
It is evident that music is made in this laboratory of sorts. It is not lost on Baxendale that Chase Park Transduction, a world-renowned recording studio, is just on the other side of the wall; he sometimes records drum tracks at the studio next door.
“I started out working on guitars to support myself as a musician,” Baxendale reminds me as he cues up a rough mix of a song that he wants to share with me (working title: “Reached for My Raincoat”), a dirge-blues number featuring obvious inspiration from Hendrix. Like the guitars he builds and restores downstairs, Baxendale does not hesitate to share works in progress. He’d rather someone hear what he’s been working on.
Scott is forthcoming about his frustration over how his reputation as a master luthier has precluded a career as a session player, songwriter and performer. One would be hard-pressed to accuse Scott of being bitter or jaded, yet he is reflective and honest enough to admit that he wishes things had gone differently.
On weekends here in his studio, Baxendale meets with Jack Logan, a stalwart of the Athens music and arts scene since the 1980s (who, despite his prodigious output, has no interest in live performances nowadays). Logan and Baxendale wrote and recorded “Bones in the Desert,” a damn good album featuring contributions from some of the finest musicians in Athens. Despite some positive local buzz, both Scott and I agree that the record didn’t receive the justice it probably deserved when it was released in 2013.
Baxendale has his theories for why the record didn’t garner wider attention, but modest record sales do not seem to bother him. He has two or more full-length records with Logan in the queue — a veritable archive of would-be rock standards. Logan tells me that he and Baxendale have co-written upwards of a hundred songs together since they met.
When I ask Patterson Hood if Baxendale should be upset about not getting enough credit as a musician in his own right, he has plenty of input.
“I think what he's overlooking is that there are a ton of fine guitar players out there and he is certainly among them,” Hood says. “What he does [with luthiery] is more like one in 10 million or maybe even more rare. To me, it's kind of like Picasso complaining about no one taking his ukulele playing seriously enough.”
Baxendale’s musical collaborator Logan has a different perspective. Logan likens Scott’s life to one of the “all-too-rare redemptive stories wherein somebody decides to get their shit together instead of continuing on a path of self-destruction.” While Logan admits that Baxendale is a great musician and luthier, “by far his greatest accomplishment is overcoming a lifestyle that was leading him to either prison or the grave.”
Baxendale also finds time to volunteer for Nuçi’s Space’s Camp Amped, a local suicide-prevention and healthcare non-profit program that teaches local youth to play rock music and stay out of trouble. His wife, Pam, donates her own time to photograph the kids during the summer camp.
“The best, most interesting, most exciting music that I see comes directly from Camp Amped,” Baxendale says when we talk about how the music being made in Athens today feels as strong as all the stuff made over the last three decades. “When I see those kids at the beginning and then see what they do two weeks later as an ensemble, it never ceases to blow my mind.”
Scott Baxendale is no stranger in his new hometown.
Baxendale Guitar’s successes are at least in part attributable to Scott’s wife and business partner, Pam. After a long career in the financial sector, Pam decided to leave work and pursue art — photography and painting, mostly. While killing time before meeting a friend for lunch in Denver, she entered Colfax Guitar looking for a ukulele and saw Scott at the front of the store. The two hit it off instantaneously and later decided together to move the shop to Athens.
These days, Pam serves as a gatekeeper between the storefront and Scott’s workstation. She tells me that she is the one who decides who is worthy of interrupting Scott while he’s working. She admits that she rarely calls Scott to the showroom if someone is there only to browse and knows to shout to him when someone important walks through the door.
Pam is hardly a receptionist, though you’re apt to catch her answering the phone the same amount that Scott does when he’s not in the back of the shop working. She is also Scott’s bass player when he gigs around town. She devotes her photography and art skills to Nuçi’s Space as a volunteer for their programs. Pam is as good a salesperson as Scott when it comes to convincing customers that a Baxendale custom guitar is well worth their investment. She has more than enough technical knowledge to manage the shop herself. They speak each other’s language.
Scott and Pam tell me that they don’t take work home with them and that they have a rule not to deal with clients when the shop is closed — although the front door does say that Baxendale Guitar is open by appointment on Sundays. It’s a good system, they say.
I reluctantly ask Pam if she had felt any trepidation entering into a romantic relationship with a man who was once addicted to narcotics. She doesn’t hesitate to respond. “Scott was clean for almost 15 years before we met. I knew that if I were going to be with him, there would be no chance of a relapse,” she says.
When I ask Scott how crucial Pam is to the operation, he does not hesitate to tell me that she is front and center for a reason. “In recovery, they tell you that you’ll get everything back and more,” says Baxendale. Looking at Pam, he adds, “And that’s true.”
Moving South seems counterintuitive to the American frontier myth. Yet, Baxendale’s pursuit of his own frontiers, after several years venturing further and further west, wound up bringing him to Athens six years ago. With the connections Scott made through the Drive-By Truckers camp, the Baxendales were confident that their move would be a good one, even if it wouldn’t be immediately lucrative. There was already a steady stream of clients walking through the door when they lived in Colorado. It stood to reason that their business could make it in a music town like Athens.
Pam suggests that the move south was finalized when it became clear that Scott’s son didn’t want to take over the family business.
“It’s less competitive down here,” says Scott. “Out in Colorado, I was training my own competition. My students would leave my shop and open up a storefront pretty close to me.” There’s no lingering resentment in Baxendale’s voice, though; guitar making and repair is a business.
His students agree that the South is much more hospitable to the business of guitar making and repair.
“Scott came into a market where there was really an opening in Athens with his level of ability and experience. He’s been at it for 40 years,” says Thomas. “It’s a little more relaxed down here… It’s pretty non-competitive.”
The guitar maker views the culture of the South as much more collaborative than out West. This is especially apparent in the way Baxendale interacts with other tenants of the Chase Park complex. Scott regularly lends guitars to engineers recording at Chase Park Transduction.
The man can hardly be accused of being selfish with his guitars, although many of them are priced north of $5,000. There is a sense that Baxendale gives quite a lot without the expectation of getting anything in return.
Should you ever visit Baxendale Guitar at the dead end on Winston Drive in Athens, you will not hear the preaching of any Old or New Testament parables about repentance and salvation from the mouth of its proprietor. You will very likely hear stories about guitars, and maybe a few about addiction, some funny and others terrifying, but you will assuredly not be subjected to lectures.
But if you look closely at what goes on in Baxendale’s shop, though, you will see the concept of salvation in practice.
You will see it when Baxendale moves from room to room carrying the detached neck of a guitar to his workbench or when he taps on the body of a gutted acoustic Harmony guitar to evaluate its tone.
You will see it when he passes knowledge to students in his luthier academy on how to readjust the bridge on a guitar needing repair.
You will also learn that Scott Baxendale’s history, like the history of his adopted home, is complex and difficult to encapsulate.
You will learn that recovery is a never-ending process, not an end in itself.
Watching Baxendale at work in his shop gives you the sense he is constantly on the hunt for his next creation. And that’s what he would likely want you to see.
After all, there’s work to be done.