The axe as art

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Invitational Luthiers’ Showcase reminds us that guitars – especially acoustic guitars – are objects of art and vessels of cultural history as well as instruments. It is also a kind of last stand of traditional values in a world that is now desecrating guitars for fun and profit! When Kurt Russell unknowingly smashed a 145-year-old Martin to pieces during a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, the many complex resonances of guitars as art, artifact and changing American symbol were called into play. It formed a neat metaphor for a culturewide devaluation and reassessment of the instrument and its myths.

Russell, it is said, was unaware that the priceless original had not been swapped out for a copy, which he understood to be the plan. Scene co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh, it is said, was aware that the swap hadn’t taken place, and her filmed reaction was genuine horror at the destruction of what she knew to be an irreplaceable treasure. Tarantino, it has been suggested, may have plotted the snafu by design, pulling strings, disclosing and withholding information just so, to capture and co-author a moment of emotional reality regardless of the cost; and Tarantino, some have suggested, should be jailed for this if it is true.

But Tarantino, at least, recognized and leveraged the cultural worth and weight of the instrument in his own dubious way, cashing it in for his own gain and his art’s (and I can hear my theater friends secretly applauding him for this “by any means necessary” pursuit of a fleeting flash of truth in Leigh’s face). Elsewhere in the culture, the irreverent treatment of guitars is banal and commonplace and old news.


This is a weird time for guitars. They have more or less vacated the Billboard Top 100 and taken refuge in the large-niche markets of metal, roots, jam, country and blues. What guitars remain at the top are just as likely to be sampled as real, or else chopped and formed in the lab with less regard than Tarantino and deployed as modular carriers of guitarness in the referential weave of modern commercial music. While the culture still produces a handful of mainstage guitar heroes, many share the sentiment of perhaps the chief among them, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark: a wonderfully imaginative player and composer who has stated that she likes her guitars to sound like anything except guitars.

Clark’s abrasive and intermittent bursts of artfully dissonant, Berklee-schooled fuzz, often wrought from fantastically overvalued Harmony Bobcats and other pawnshop treasures, can be read as a more damning attack on the traditional (and traditionally male) values of the guitar world than Kurt Russell’s Townshend moment – or, indeed, than most of Pete Townshend’s Townshend moments. But see, this is good. The guitar isn’t going anywhere. It’s a beautiful and necessary instrument, and never doubt it. But it is due for a cleanse and a down cycle. Just get used to the fact that it is no longer definitive and monolithic, that it is a symbol in flux and renewal, that it has gone back underground.

I have always thought that the worst gig in the world (or maybe the best) would be to play one of the stages at the NAMM or AES conventions, where all the world’s audio snobs and gearheads convene to geek hard. At every show anywhere (even Snug’s), there are a few cats in the back with their arms crossed in knowing skepticism. Sometimes it is just me on an off night.

Now imagine playing to a homogenous arena of same. But then it dawns on me: In a room full of experts, all are beginners. In a room full of nothing but jaded insiders arguing over the last ten of a 192,000-samples-per-second, everyone, it turns out, just likes music and can’t even really explain why. How easily the worst gig could become the best and most affirmative.

Imagine, now, performing on acoustic guitar at the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers’ Showcase. Damn, your guitar better sound good. What community could possibly be more tradition-minded and exacting in its judgments than that surrounding the building and sale of boutique acoustic guitars?

But our narratives of tradition and revolution are often contrived, and the truth, in the eyes of the future, often turns out to be the opposite of our perceptions. Consider the case of the contemporaries Wagner and Brahms: the former a self-styled revolutionary and envelope-pusher known for radical innovations in orchestration and novel, programmatic structures, the latter perceived in his own day as the stiffly conservative torchbearer of the Classical/Romantic tradition and forms. Yet when the early-20th-century composers Berg and Webern – radicals who really took music into the rocket age – were asked to identify their models and inspirations from the past, they pointed unambiguously to Johannes Brahms, whose revolutions were all internal and had nothing to do with ascots and rhetoric. We need to be smarter than our coarsest narratives, now more than ever.

The mainstage performers at the Luthiers’ Showcase are about as high-end and recognized as you can get; but what interests me is the truth beneath the veneer of traditionalism. The duo of Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge is anything but a stiffly conventional torchbearer of roots, swing and bluegrass traditions. Lage is one of the true superstars of the acoustic guitar: a fluent jazz and swing player who is never content and staid within that discipline, aligning himself just as often with iconoclasts like Nels Cline as with the always-lively community of Django swing revivalists. The only commonality across Lage’s huge and growing body of work is a jaw-dropping, singular excellence. He is a rare kind of player.

Eldridge’s virtuosity is best-known for being sublimated, essentially, somewhere in the virtuosic cascade of the Chris Thile-led band the Punch Brothers: a quintet of absolute acoustic shredders who willingly restrain their blazing individual skills in favor of spectacular and genre-defying ensemble effects that often sound like nothing Doc Watson would recognize as music, let alone as bluegrass.

On the surface, the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers’ Showcase looks for all the word like a last stand of traditional values in the electronic and cut-and-paste age, but what goes on under the covers may actually be more radical in its treatment of the acoustic guitar than Kurt Russell.

Supporting their exceptional 2017 duet record Mount Royal, Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge headline the String Sampler Concert at the Woodstock Playhouse on Saturday, October 28 at 8 p.m. The keynote concert of the Showcase, the String Sampler Concert also features sets by the Simon Shaheen Trio and Woody Mann. Front Row seats cost $65, the Gold Section goes for $50 and the Blue & Green Sections cost $40. Tickets are available from the Woodstock Playhouse box office at 103 Mill Road in Woodstock.

For complete information on the dazzling Woodstock Invitational Luthiers’ Showcase, its many presentations, workshops and guests (including C. F. Martin’s archivist Dick Boak, who served as Martin’s spokesperson during the Tarantino debacle), visit