From the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY NICK MILLEVOI
Wilco guitarist and master improviser Nels Cline is drawn to a guitar that’s lived a life and has a story. Each of his instruments—from a reconstructed 1940s Harmony Sovereign to a 1959 Fender Jazzmaster, which recently required the two halves of its body to be glued back together—seems to have a colorful background, and every time Cline cracks open another case, I get the full rundown on what’s inside.
I’m visiting Cline at his Brooklyn, New York, apartment on a late-May afternoon so we can select the right pair of instruments to use for Cline’s upcoming concert “Lovers (for Philadelphia),” where he will premiere a new set of Philadelphia-specific material with his 17-piece Lovers project band. Cline and I will perform a duo version of Eddie Lang’s “April Kisses” and we need to get just the right sound. This leads us to the “mystery Dobro.”
“Nobody knows what it is,” Cline explains. Built in the 1930s, the small-bodied resonator guitar sounds like a cross between a banjo and a tin can, and sports an Art Deco–style paint job. Cline bought the guitar in an unplayable state and had luthier Tom Crandall bring it back to life at his Manhattan shop, TR Crandall. (See a profile of Crandall in the May 2018 issue of AG.)
This instrument is part of Cline’s current fascination with the resonator guitar, which kicked into high gear when he bought his “Curtis Rogers” resonator at TR Crandall four years ago. “I joke that if they know I’m coming, put some really distressed-looking guitar up in the store and I’ll ask about it,” he says. The allure of this instrument led to the creation of a new project, the Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Excursion, which he premiered at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. The Excursion isn’t Cline’s first acoustic project, so he and I took this opportunity to discuss his relationship with the instrument.
What can you tell me about the Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Excursion?
I’m going to play the whole gig on this old National that once belonged to a man named Curtis Rogers, who was some kind of traveling-cowboy troubadour kind of guy. I don’t know if cowboy is the right word, but more of a dust-blown guy than a blues guy. There’s not much known about him—he didn’t record or anything; he just put his name, Curtis R, on the neck of the guitar.
I acquired this guitar completely unintentionally when I saw it hanging at TR Crandall guitars, where Tom Crandall had rather obsessively and amazingly re-created its fretboard. There’s a blog about this guitar on their website. It describes all the rebuilding Tom did, including going out and finding the sequins that go on it to try to exactly match the neck on the old fingerboard. I saw it and just thought, “What the hell is that?” It’s the most amazing-looking guitar I’ve ever seen. I played it and it has the most amazing sound.
This guitar was so rusted out in some areas that Rogers would paint it gold over the rust and then that would rust. There’s also a painting of his wife on the guitar; it’s sort of disappearing and it looks amazing. The guitar still has the jute strap, the string that he used for a strap, that Tom very lovingly left on.
I feel like in order to justify owning this fabulous instrument, I should probably make a record just on that guitar. So it’s having these thoughts in my head that I came up with this idea for Newport: what if I play the whole set on the Curtis Rogers guitar and just dedicate the whole set to him, to his memory, whoever he was, and play some material that he may have played or been in his wheelhouse?
Have you ever done a project like this—inspired by a specific instrument?
I created a six-piece resonator-and-banjo ensemble last summer at [New York concert venue] the Stone, so I would say the instrument of the resonator guitar inspired at least some music, but not one particular instrument. I didn’t play the Curtis Rogers because I was doing guitar preparations and beating the hell out of my Supro Folkstar. I didn’t want to destroy the frets or anything on the Curtis Rogers.
What drew you to resonators in the first place?
My initial interest in resonator guitars was really the square neck, the slide. I went for the square neck first just because I play a lot of lap steel with Wilco. When we play acoustic sets, sometimes there are four acoustic guitars playing, so rather than be riffing away like everybody else, texturally, I think the slide really stands out.
Early in your career you played a lot of acoustic guitar.
I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar at that time, inspired by Ralph Towner particularly, but also classical guitar, even though I don’t play classical technique. So I was listening to Julian Bream, Egberto Gismonti, Baden Powell, Bola Sete, and then John McLaughlin—Shakti, My Goals Beyond, those records—and Bill Connors’ Theme to the Guardian. These were important records with important sounds.
Quartet Music was one of your early groups that was all-acoustic.
I was in an acoustic duo with [bassist] Eric Von Essen that turned into Quartet Music with [violinist] Jeff Gauthier and [Cline’s percussionist twin brother] Alex and existed for about 11 years. That was completely acoustic, with all kinds of attempts at making the acoustics audible while still making them sound acoustic. Through the ’80s that was pretty difficult, but we had some pretty outrageous attempts. I had this little saltshaker microphone that I snapped onto all my guitars, then I had a volume knob on a direct box, then that would go to the PA.
We had our own monitors that we would bring with us that were two Auratone speakers stuck together that were behind our heads so that we didn’t have to have a wedge or anything. It actually worked really well, but you know, the whole problem with acoustic music is that it’s a loud world and I don’t favor the sound of pickups in acoustic guitars. I think that it’s always a disappointment, no matter how fancy, or no matter how well-installed. It’s an approximation.
What was your guitar with that ensemble?
For a high school graduation present, I got a little Kazuo Yairi student model classical guitar. I still have it, along with my Martin 00-17.
Talk about your history with the Martin.
In the late ’70s I wanted/needed an acoustic steel-string, so I went to Fred Walecki’s Westwood Music [in Los Angeles.] Back then, the guitarists I admired—primarily John McLaughlin and Bill Connors—played Ovations. I tried one and didn’t like it; tried a couple of dreadnoughts and wasn’t into them, either. Fred was stringing up this beat-up little Martin and suggested I play it. The action was sky-high. It was what some folks might term a campfire guitar—never played above the fifth fret. The tuning pegs were bent, rusty, trashed, and the case was for a much bigger guitar. But I loved it. I borrowed $250 from my parents and bought it. Thank you, Fred!
Later you were in the Acoustic Guitar Trio.
I made friends with this man Jim McAuley in the ’70s. He was really fascinated with microtonal music and with [iconoclastic American composer and instrument inventor] Harry Partch, and owned some unusual instruments. Then I heard Rod Poole, who played a 00-18 that had been re-fretted to play in just intonation. I became a huge fan of his music. I thought, “We’ll see if Jim and Rod and I can get along and create a trio of improvised music.” We started playing together and—I don’t know if we ever discussed this—we would create an open tuning on the spot for every piece. We would tune until we would get to a space where we thought, “This is a good start.”
So you would all play in different tunings?
Any tuning, completely random, and then start playing. I would do most of my playing in that band on this early Baby Taylor. I was doing all these weird tunings and beating the hell out of this guitar. I was literally drumming on it—prepared guitar, wooden dowels under the strings—and I didn’t have another acoustic guitar other than my Martin. I would play my Martin when I wasn’t doing some destructive or prepared-guitar thing. The Baby Taylor got played more often because of the fact that I was doing mostly open tuning and preparation and on-the-spot false bridges, all those kinds of things. That guitar eventually just fell apart. All the bracing just collapsed inside. It saw some action, that’s for sure.
So that was what the Acoustic Guitar Trio was. We did it until I joined Wilco, and then I was gone so much that our plans of world domination certainly fizzled. It was a really hard thing to do just because nobody was particularly interested!
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Not many YouTube videos of Nels playing the Curtis Rogers guitar (yet), but here’s an audience-shot one (sorry!) from this year’s Newport Folk Festival, with Warren Haynes playing slide and singing, backed by Nels (who does not play slide on it, but still sounds good!).
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.