You may not know Marty Lanham’s name but he’s an important part of Nashville’s music community. He’s an esteemed luthier and he’s worked with people like Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart and Steve Martin.Lanham has been playing and working on instruments for three decades. Along with his wife, Charmaine, he opened Nashville’s legendary Station Inn. He’s also performed at the Grand Ole Opry and is the owner of Nashville Guitar Company. Most recently, Lanham added teacher to his resume. Nashville Noise recently sat down with the talented man.
Nashville Noise: First of all, how did you get into music?
Marty Lanham: Hearing Earl Scruggs was really what triggered my interest in music. I got interested in the five-string banjo after hearing its place and function in bluegrass bands. Even as a kid, I liked working with wood, building balsa wood model airplanes and also checkering gun stocks. I started playing the five-string banjo back in the 1960s while living in the San Francisco Bay Area… I met Richard Johnston and Frank Ford before they started Gryphon out in Palo Alto. Those guys got me interested in making and restoring instruments. I played a lot in the Bay Area for a band called Styx River Ferry.
Many people may not understand what a luthier is. How would you describe your job in layman’s terms?
My job runs on two tracks. There’s the building of instruments and the repair and restoration of existing instruments. On the building side, I build instruments of my own design, my own ideas. And I build custom instruments for customers who have something they’d like made to their specifications. The art of luthiery for me involves building the best instruments I can by hand.
You have a choice of working for a big company where you would be totally focused on one tiny aspect of production, like a tiny cog in a machine. As an individual luthier, you do everything from start to finish, starting with raw wood and ending with the finished product. As an individual, you have to learn all aspects of the craft. It’s a lifelong pursuit. I think of it the way the medical folks do — it’s a practice. You’re always trying to improve and learn from what you do.
How did you officially become a luthier?
When I was beginning my involvement with the craft back in the 1960s, there weren’t any formalized schools. You’d have to go around and seek out people who knew the craft and individual makers and learn from them. The Irving Sloane book “Classic Guitar Construction” was one of the few available to us… Today, schools like Musicians Institute Guitar Craft Academy Nashville, where I teach, allow fledgling luthiers to take courses where they learn from professionals. By doing it this way, you eliminate a lot of the mistakes and dead-end paths that you can get on as an individual, and really shorten the process. You learn the proper way to do things. It avoids a lot of wasted time.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
For me, I spend about half my day in my shop working on vintage instruments. I do restoration rather than repair. It’s a specialty. Vintage instruments are of such a high value these days that it’s really significant who works on them. They can be devalued greatly by an inexperienced hand. I work on instruments for Nashville musicians like Marty Stuart and Sturgill Simpson who have requirements more stringent than the average musician. I do repairs for museums and collectors as well, and I also create custom instruments. Finally, I have instruments that I build from my own ideas that I want to try.
Restoration of instruments is a very creative process. You wouldn’t think so, but every instrument has a unique history and unique value. You have to have knowledge of the way it was made, the materials used and how it’s going to be used by its current owner. Every instrument offers the opportunity to come up with some unique solutions.
Your resume is so impressive. You’ve worked with so many talented people. Do you have a favorite memory from any of them?
I suppose that my favorite association is with Marty Stuart. He came into town when he was 13 and had already become a very good player. He had befriended a musician here called Roland White, who was in Lester Flatt’s band at the time. Watching him progress since then has been fascinating and he’s become a great friend. Besides his stellar musical ability, he has a collection of great instruments, some of which belonged to Johnny Cash. It’s been a privilege to work with instruments of that stature. He can write and he’s a great photographer as well — he’s a renaissance man, really.
You recently also became a teacher, as we briefly discussed. Have you seen any undiscovered guitar talent lately that we should keep our eyes on?
One of our first graduates, a student named Ben Burrows. Ben came to the Academy on scholarship from Australia. I’ve seen a lot of guitar players in town and he’s a fantastic guitar player. He’s making his way as a luthier as well.