Barry Lawson was a twentysomething in graduate school for computer science when he struck up a friendship with a fortysomething computer programming teacher, Jack Cowardin. The latter moonlighted as an instrument repairer and builder, and the academic side of the relationship grew into a musical friendship based on their shared love of guitars, mandolins, and bluegrass.
As often happens among guitar-playing buddies, Cowardin began working on Lawson’s instruments and serving as a kind of advisor and foil. Eventually, Cowardin set up shop as Restoration Music, in Richmond, Virginia, to focus on building and repairing stringed instruments, while Lawson continued his career in academics.
Not long ago, the younger player commissioned Cowardin to build an instrument to complement his 1938 Martin 000-18. From the luthier’s stash, they picked out a piece of red spruce for the top and beautifully figured Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides. Lawson wanted an understated 000, so he settled on a Style 21, which traditionally represented Martin’s least expensive rosewood models, instead of the more common Style 28 models.
Following the long history of luthiers leaving little messages inside instruments they’ve built or repaired, Lawson asked Cowardin to leave a special message inside. And as a surprise, Cowardin left a nod to a non-traditional song they played together in a string band. He inked the first two lines of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” along with a personal note, “For my great musical pal, Barry Lawson,” signed and dated by the maker.
“For me, this build is about our 25-year friendship—playing in bands together, going to festivals, seeing him through a divorce, me through the loss of my father—not about the actual guitar itself,” says Lawson. “There are so many personal elements in this guitar… I’ll cherish it no matter how it sounds.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.