Thursday, December 11, 2014

Would-be burglars beware

So you have a guard dog, do ya? Pit bull, maybe? Well, I guess I'd be more impressed if I weren't greeted every night by the sight of the LION that keeps vigil over my apartment building. Day and night, hot or cold, rain or snow, this faithful sentinel is on duty. And clever, too; dig how's he's disguised himself as a common garden hose.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

There's just something women like about a pickup man

Happy to report that I have completed installing a new pickup system in my guitar with no injuries to myself OR the guitar (other than one tiny imperceptible 1cm scratch by the end jack where no one ever looks but me anyway). And it works!

I'm not a handyman by any means; as a result, I don't jump into projects without careful consideration. It also means I don't always have the right tool for the job. But I'm not totally inept, either, and I like to do the occasional project just to remind myself of that. Saving money is a nice benefit, as well. As necessity is the mother of invention, I did a little improvising. It wasn't always pretty, and I was glad not to have witnesses, but it's the result that counts.

It all started at the birthday writers round I hosted in admission of my 50th birthday. I went first to make sure everything was working properly...and it wasn't. My amp (our sound system) was issuing some terrible sounds, like a mix of hard static and extreme white noise, when I hit the louder volumes. We checked cords, bypassed the mixer, etc., and determined (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the amp was freaking out. It's been around a while, like me, so that kind of made sense. So we replaced the amp with one Gary Talley happened to have with him and I limped offstage in defeat (since it was time to move on through the performing roster). I tried to shake it off (I could've used Taylor Swift's video) but of course given my obsessive nature, I was not completely successful. I suspect everyone had a better time than me. Oh, well, there's always next year (Lord willing).

Started looking at sound systems, and happened to plug in to my cheapo little amp I sometimes use as a monitor, and got the same effect: distortion only on the low E string (the thick one). Whoa...same problem, same guitar, two different amps? After testing on my little mixer with headphones and on yet another amp, I realized it wasn't the amp after all; the problem was with my guitar pickup. An Equis Silver system, no longer made by Washburn. Good news/bad news, indeed.

I took it to Nashville Used Music where the tech could not bring himself to get involved, given the multiple possible sources of the problem and the likelihood of not being able to find and fix it. No man savors the thought of failure. Not SUCH bad news, really, given that I live in a guitar-rich town, and had considered maybe it was time to get a new one (i.e., good used one), make a new start and put this ugly episode behind me. So I went guitar-shopping/browsing, and searched the internet for pickup solutions. Maybe one with a microphone to get that acoustic sound? Opinions are divided on that. Saw a couple of good affordable guitars...and also some that cost more than three times what I paid (uh, am paying) for my car. ("Thirty thousand, huh? Does this come with a case?"). The latter were at famous (and friendly) Gruhn's Guitars. They have a nifty room containing a chair, an amp, and three guitars in which multiple pickup systems are installed, with the end jack (the hole where the cable plugs in) for each labeled, so you can compare them.

Naturally, after careful consideration of the alternatives and the price of each, I went with the cheapest option: order a used pickup system online and install it myself or pay someone to do it. Found a good one on (referred via a message board thread, maybe on the Washburn site?) made by Alvarez. It had the basic qualities I liked about my old one: easy exterior placement, volume knob (not a slider), EQ and Presence controls. And as a bonus, an on-board tuner. Nifty. And less than $50 including shipping.

Both parts of the new system that attach to the outside wall of the guitar (preamp and end jack with battery) were smaller than the existing holes occupied by the former parts, but I could see that it could very well install into the old brackets, with some careful cutting. Explained this to two or three guitar shop folks but they seemed skeptical toward my vision. The aforementioned tech at Nashville Used Music had just gone on vacation (to avoid me? I hope not, but it worked out well for both of us). I got a quote from another pro who wanted to create new brackets out of rosewood that would fill the old holes and look nice. It was a very fair quote given what he proposed, but a couple hundred bucks could've put me halfway to a decent replacement. Plus, I wanted to try it myself.

After viewing a few "how-to" videos (thanks, Youtube!), I launched into it by taking out the old preamp and tearing out the innards to leave just the plastic external brackets. I don't have a small enough screwdriver for the job, so I used the little hard-rubber screwdriver bit holder from my drill set (still in near-mint condition, btw) as a handle, with the one bit in it, to turn the screws manually. This gave me better control than the drill would have allowed. (I became less careful as I proceeded). I glued a paper template on it, then I cut (and sawed, and filed, using the less-than-ideal tools on hand) a hole for the new preamp. Messy but effective. The old piezo pickup (a thin little stick that hides under the saddle, changes vibrations to electrical pulses and sends them via a little wire inside the guitar to the preamp) had a plug that pretty much matched the new one. I thought I'd leave it in place, so as not to disturb the setup of the strings, etc.. I checked the new preamp by connecting it all up, putting in a battery, and playing it through an amp. Yep, it worked all right. I colored over what was left of the old silver markings on the bracket with a black Sharpie.

Next step was making the hole for the new end jack and battery unit in the old hard plastic bracket; fortunately the old system had both a 1/4" plug and an RCA plug (the latter of which never worked for me), so it was bigger than the usual deal. Not having a tool to cut hard plastic, I borrowed the idea from one of the videos to use a drill to perforate the cut line and a box knife to do the rest. First, though, I taped the bracket securely to a box in lieu of a clamp (since I don't have the latter) and also taped over the cut areas and drew the cut line on it. Then I drilled the screw holes to match those in the new piece. Once the large hole was made, I used the tiny file on my fingernail clippers (the only file on hand) to enlarge it further. This took a long time, especially, I kept having to exchange drill bits for screwdriver bits. But I'm a single guy, it was a Saturday at this point, so no problem there.

Once I put the new end jack unit in the old, newly-modified bracket, I still had to cut a notch in the existing hole in the end of the guitar to get it all in. I marked the area to be cut, and not having a jig saw, and because the area included part of a bracing element, I thought maybe I should take it to a pro. Or at least someone who has access to a jig and knows how to use it. But, after some thought, I figured I'd give the old box-cutter a go at it. It was only a small chip off the bracing, and even if it would leave a small structural "gap," that would be covered by the bracket. So more cutting and chipping and filing ensued. Inefficient, yes, but again...single, Saturday, etc.

I hooked up the system and plugged it in for another amp test. Here's where I made an interesting discovery: I still got the distorted sound on the bass string. So the problem was probably with the piezo pickup alone the whole time. Oh, well, it's been fun, anyway; the new system didn't cost much more than a new pickup, and now I have an on-board tuner.

So I replaced the old piezo pickup with the new one. This was a matter of loosening all the strings (with a piece of tape to hold them all together), unhooking them from the bridge, pulling out the saddle, pulling out the old piezo, and dropping the new one in (after carefully and with some trepidation filing the slot to accommodate the wider new pickup), then restringing and testing. Beautiful. Except now my action was too low and strings buzzed midway up the neck. The new piezo is flatter than the old one, so the saddle sits lower in the slot. I recalled that the old one had a filler piece, apparently for that purpose. So, we take the string ends out again, take out the saddle (it falls out, actually, which is not ideal), and pop the filler in over the pickup, then replace everything...and realize the filler was UNDER the pickup, not on top. Strings back out (fortunately not having been tightened up yet), saddle out, and that piezo is NOT coming out again in one piece. So, hey, let's hope it won't make a difference; it's all vibrations traveling through pieces of solid stuff anyway. So back on everything goes, with restored action that is low but not buzzy, and I'm happy again.

Somewhere in the amp testing phase, I noticed there was a light knocking noise whenever I moved the guitar. It turned out to be the wire that connects the piezo to the preamp. It's sensitive to any rubbing or striking against the inside of the guitar. So I rather clumsily taped a long section of it to the nearest bracing piece inside, and that stopped the noise. At least until the tape gives out, but that'll be a minor thing.

Next challenge: making the pre-drilled screw holes in the new piece fit the holes I'd drilled in the old bracket. They weren't far off, so a combination of reaming the holes bigger with the drill, and yet more filing of the cutout area, did the trick. Of course I went too far with one hole and now the screw slipped through. I half-filled it with a tiny bit of rolled-up tape and flat tape covering the hole, and went in fresh. This held the screw well enough, though it may need more attention (or super glue) later.

Awesome! We're done! I can clean up all the various tools (and things used as tools) in my living room. Exceeeeeeept...the new preamp juts out just a wee bit more than the old one (having been made to be put on the upper bout and having been put on the lower), and it's a tight squeeze in my fake-fur-lined case. So I retrieve the box cutter, cut a patch out and glue that next to the bare patch to push the wall of the guitar away from that side. Then I glue a patch of thin foam padding to fill the area to add some protection to the unit.

NOW I'm done.

It was just that simple! If you want to hear the results, check my schedule to see where I'll be performing next.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bennett, Stonehill, and Storm: Keeping the faith and staying in tune

Looking forward to seeing these guys in the town of my birth and sometime residence. Two of the three are musical heroes of mine since decades past (and I'm sure Buck Storm is great, too). But this isn't just about nostalgia. The kind of talent and insight these artists offer is timeless, and besides, they've been working at their craft all along. I'm sure it must be an effort to create new work when so many of your target audience members just want to relive the good times and tell you how that song you did 30 years ago changed their lives (wonderful in its own way, but also a burden of responsibility, to respond with appropriate enthusiasm and humility and to continue to achieve that level of artistry). I'm one of those fans, frankly, but I try to keep it on a general level of adulation to preserve their freedom and a modicum of my dignity. But it's tough to be cool about your heroes.

Along with the pic here in some cases, below is what I sent to some local press.

Noted singer/songwriters Bob Bennett, Randy Stonehill & Buck Storm will do an all-acoustic concert on Saturday, November 8, at Metropolitan Tabernacle in Chattanooga. Some of their songs reach back to the days of the Jesus Movement, but all are as relevant as today's headlines. The music begins at 7pm. Admission is free and a love offering will be taken.

Bob Bennett, an early and influential figure in contemporary Christian music, is a master guitarist and storyteller. CCM Magazine acclaimed his 1982 album Matters of the Heart as "Album of the Year," ranking it among the top 20 contemporary Christian albums of all time. His poetic lyrical talents, fingerstyle guitar expertise, and often self-deprecating humor have won him loyal fans as well as opportunities to work with the likes of David Wilcox and Nashville hit writer Don Henry.

GRAMMY-nominated artist Randy Stonehill, known as much for his manic onstage patter as his popular folk/rock songs and blistering guitar work, was a true pioneer in the CCM world. His 1976 album "Welcome to Paradise" is noted as a landmark release in the genre, and his career has involved collaborations with other CCM talents including Phil Keaggy and Amy Grant. Stonehill is still as passionate as ever about sharing truth through music.

Buck Storm, the "young pup" of the three, is recognized as a songwriter’s songwriter and has become a favorite both as a concert performer and worship leader in venues around the world. "I like to write songs about cities and small towns, the ghosts that hover around the edges, dreams and dreamers, families, broken and whole, sin, redemption and the struggle in between, love, squalor, motels, churches, kings, and the common man.... Whatever it is it's from the heart and as honest as I can make it."

Metro Tab is located at 2101 West Shepherd Road, near Exit 1A off Highway 153.

More info:

Call presenters J103-FM at (423) 892-1200.

You never can tell with these things; sometimes they are completely ignored and sometimes they're printed verbatim. We'll see how this one is received.

Want to help spread the word? Join and share this event on Facebook. Download this pdf, print it out, and post it around town. Call and e-mail your friends, and offer to bring them!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Don't expect quick results at the peace talks

Here's another silly visual comparison to serve as a break anyone might need from the current batch of bad news (never in short supply, is it?). I figured it was just a tad too obvious for me to have been the only one to notice the resemblances between Treebeard and John Kerry, and I was right (see how I turned unoriginality into a boast? I got skills!).

This post from 2008 takes it farther than I would have been capable of, so hats off and a laurel wreath (with permission from the laurel, of course) to the wit only known as "Writer the Geeklette."

[The Geeklette's post is a tongue-in-cheek apology for making the comparison previously.]

John Kerry and Treebeard are, certainly, not alike. In fact, there are a few glaring differences between the two:
  • First, John Kerry is a tall, lanky human being. On the contrary, Treebeard is a tall, lanky member of the Ent clan of the Fangorn Forest, encased around the River Entwash.
  • John Kerry is a wounded Vietnam Veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart after bravely enduring gunfire while captaining a Swift Boat. Treebeard, on the other hand, awakened the Huorns who decimated an entire army of orcs during the Battle of Helms Deep.
  • John Kerry has an intelligent, well-traveled wife. Treebeard, unfortunately, lost his wife along with the other Ent Wives after they crossed the River Anduin in search of better fruit pastures during the First Age of Middle Earth.
  • John Kerry is known as a nuanced speaker who parses his thoughts carefully. Treebeard, on the other hand, spoke Entish, and anything spoken in Entish is only worth spoken when one takes the time to speak it.
Seriously, I wish Kerry the best; he has a job in which victories are few and temporary.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Voices from the past

I ran across a college classmate on Facebook and reminded him (it was long ago) that he did an interview with music artist Billy Crockett in 1986 for the radio show I produced at the time on WUTK-FM. This mostly-student-operated station blasted music across campus and beyond (but not far beyond) at a blistering 128 watts. Our show, which I had inherited from previous hosts Lonnie Raper (manager of the local Logos Bookstore) and John Travis (then a student, now a math professor), was called "Music from the Heart." It featured, not romance music as the title (also inherited) may have implied, but rather progressive Christian rock (and some not so progressive, but still good).

Billy Crockett had recently released the album Surprises In Disguises, and I was captivated by the John Mellencamp-ish track "41 Lawnmowers." The other songs were good, too.

We arranged for Russ to interview him before a concert in the area, and I used portions of his comments to intro the songs during a show featuring the new album. It turned out really cool. I don't think I have a tape of the final show, but here's the raw 7-minute interview taken from the original cassette:

Billy Crockett interview by Russ Hollingsworth (mp3 6MB)

NOTE: This is not the same Russ Hollingsworth who had a career as a singer, in case you were a) fairly knowledgeable of 1980's CCM artists and b) curious.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The remarkable Nikki Mitchell

The world said goodbye to a remarkable lady in 2013.  Though I only chatted with her briefly, I feel privileged to have met her.

I was introduced to Nikki Mitchell in 2011 by phone.  A college buddy of mine, Norris Carden, called me and said he was visiting the River CafĂ© in tiny Normandy, Tennessee.  He had noticed the restaurant featured live music, and kindly thought to recommend me to fill an open date.  He had no doubt decided to pursue this idea in the middle of a conversation with Nikki, the owner, because after a brief introduction he put her on the phone with me to book the one open date they had.  Past experience with Norris indicated to me that he had probably not left her with the option to decline politely, which worked out fine!  Thanks again, Norris!

Anyway, I got to meet this sweet lady in person when I played the gig in November, and got to hear a little about her life, including her battle with cancer, her work with Waylon Jennings, and her adventures in flight in the former Soviet Union.  I still remember how her eyes lit up when I mentioned my own visit to Minsk, Belarus, to do mission work.  I think it was also this conversation when she mentioned her plans to spend a couple of weeks with a hunter-gatherer tribe in Mongolia…you know, “as one does!”

So after playing solo to a small crowd (it was post-Thanksgiving weekend, she explained) with much encouragement from the staff, all the while feeling I had stepped through a special portal into a saloon in the middle of Texas, I resolved to return if at all possible, and bring friends.  I did that the following July, bringing Charlsey Etheridge, Kim McLean and Devon O’Day to do a fun show.
Nikki is the one on the far right, in the funky apron.
Though Nikki is gone, the restaurant is still in operation, and more importantly, through the Nikki Mitchell Foundation (actively pursuing early detection and cure of pancreatic cancer), her visionary life continues to have its impact, especially on all those who were as fortunate as I was to cross paths with her.

Below is a tribute to her from the December 26 issue of the Nashville Scene


1954 -2013
Waylon Jennings' business manager; pilot; adventurer
By Kim Green

Nikki Mitchell fell in love with things. A lot. First, it was horses; then drawing and painting; then flying.

In 1991, Russia ensorcelled her. She learned that three regiments of Soviet airwomen had fought in World War II. Knowing no one, Mitchell visited the USSR to hear the women veterans' stories and find a way to honor them.

In 1998, Mitchell, a private pilot, and Rhonda Miles, flight instructor, corporate pilot and confidante, flew Mitchell's hardy little single-engine Maule to Russia. They traversed Siberia with a team of Russian airwomen and airplanes to commemorate a famous 1938 flight by pioneering Soviet aviatrices. Many things went wrong. One day, a Siberian fog clung so low that a controller guided Miles (without radar) to land by listening to the sound of her engine. "I drank a bottle of Champagne that night," recalls Miles.

While president of country artists Waylon Jennings' and Jessi Colter's enterprise for 20-plus years, she co-founded a women's fly-fishing club and annual fishing retreat for breast cancer survivors, and bought a historic building in Normandy, Tenn., opening her dream restaurant, the River Cafe. All while plotting her next journey — to Mongolia.

The Mongolia adventure was not to be. Last summer, Mitchell called her friends to the cafe to say goodbye. After 31 months of treatment for pancreatic cancer, she told Miles — her caregiver those last months — that she wanted to disconnect her feeding tube. "Are you doing this so I don't have to decide?" Miles asked her. Mitchell just smiled.

The day before Mitchell's memorial service, Miles quit her flying job to pilot the Nikki Mitchell Foundation, which supports research into early detection of pancreatic cancer.

"She left me a notebook full of stuff to do," Miles says. "She was my adventure soul sister."