The Drive-By Truckers’ Family Part II – Scott Baxendale
The word “family” is applied to many bands but oftentimes isn’t much deeper than lot swag or a drunk fratboy’s “I love you, man” hug.
But in the case of the Drive-By Truckers, the family is real. The Truckers themselves will tell you: beyond the core band (guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and John Neff; drummer Brad Morgan; bassist Shonna Tucker; and keyboardist Jay Gonzalez), it’s a family effort that keeps things rolling. Some are family by blood or marriage; others crossed paths with the Truckers and their music at some point and couldn’t turn away. In the end, it’s the efforts of all that define the band’s sound, vibe, and soul. We’ve chosen three key DBT family members and over the course of the next few weeks will be sharing our conversations with them Click here to check out our conversation with Wes Freed.
Eddie Kramer was the man who knew how to capture Jimi Hendrix’ sound in the studio without taming it. Tom Dowd was key to the classic Allman Brothers’ recorded history. The Truckers have David Barbe.
As distinctive and easily-recognizable as Stanley Mouse’s artwork for the Dead was – and in the same way that a Phish show is not a Phish show unless it has a Jim Pollock poster touting it – artist Wes Freed’s album covers and posters have become part of who the Truckers are.
And as Paul Languedoc is to Phish and Doug Irwin was to the Grateful Dead, the Truckers have guitar builder Scott Baxendale.
Scott Baxendale is a survivor of the highest order. As gifted a craftsman as he was a guitarist, Baxendale dropped out of college in 1974 to become an apprentice luthier at Mossman Guitars in Winfield, KS. 12 years later he owned the company; 6 years after that, he’d crashed and burned at the bottom of a flaming, dope-fueled nosedive that found him running with a very, very bad crowd. That could just as easily have been the end of Scott Baxendale’s career as a custom guitar builder, but the sentencing judge sensed that he was worthy of one – and only one – chance to clean up and get his life back on track.
And Scott Baxendale did exactly that.
Settling in the Denver, CO area, Baxendale opened the Colfax Guitar Shop in 1998, his reputation for no-compromise custom work drawing in business from all over the country. (As we shall see, it didn’t hurt that Denver was a hub for bands touring the US – including the Drive-By Truckers.) In March of this year, Baxendale moved to Athens, GA, looking to immerse himself in the area’s art and music scene. He opened Baxendale Guitars in Athens this past June.
Scott was kind enough to share some of his day with us recently to talk a bit about his role in the Drive-By Truckers’ extended family.
BR: Thank you for making the time to talk today, Scott.
SB: Oh, my pleasure.
BR: Now, listen: if you’re in the middle of gluing something together, don’t let me frig it up.
SB: (laughs) No, we’re good.
BR: What’s a typical Tuesday at Baxendale Guitar like? What’s on the bench today?
SB: Well, I’m finishing up a 12-string that I’m building for a guy in Iowa … and re-setting the neck on an old vintage Kay mandolin. My apprentice is working on an old Kay archtop that he rebuilt. And Damon Scott, who techs with the Truckers, is in here doing some repair work, as well.
My wife Pamela is here, also. She does a lot of the setup work – restrings, setups, and tune-ups – stuff like that.
BR: Oh, that’s cool that the two of you work together there.
SB: Yeah, she’s awesome.
BR: And what was the guitar that you e-mailed me the picture of?
SB: That’s a small-bodied one we’re building for Luther Dickinson. It’s not really a parlor guitar; it’s more of an orchestra-style model.
BR: Cool – it’s beautiful. Before we get into your relationship with the Truckers, let’s talk a little bit about your approach to guitar building and repair.
SB: As an artist myself, I’m creating a work of art that another artist uses to create even more art. I think that connection is what makes it all go, you know? I don’t build guitars in the traditional way that most makers build guitars: each individual guitar is one piece that I’m making and every single piece on the guitar is individually made by hand for that guitar.
Most guitar builders – even guys on this level – make 50 necks, make 50 fingerboards, make 50 of this and 50 of that … and then they try to reproduce the same basic guitar over and over again. They try to improve by improving their construction methods or becoming more efficient in the process and thereby increasing their profit or whatever.
I have the complete opposite approach: I’m taking it as if I’m making a sculpture that’s also a device to inspire the artist who plays it to create new art based on that inspiration. That comes back to my definition of what a great guitar is, whether it costs 50 bucks or 5 million bucks: a great guitar is one that when a person picks it up inspires that person to play something that they never would have played or they wouldn’t have thought of had they not picked up that instrument. If you walk into a guitar store and you pick up a vintage Gibson archtop, it compels you to play differently than if you were to pick up a Strat or Tele, you know?
SB: And that’s why great guitar players have a Strat and they have a Tele and they have a Les Paul and they have a 335 – they have one of everything because each one has its own unique quality and its own unique ability to inspire you to do something in a different way. I want to build a guitar that when someone picks it up, the tone, the sound, and the vibrations that come out of it are so overwhelming that it compels you to play it and to play things that you wouldn’t normally play if you picked up another guitar.
That’s kind of what my whole mission is. One of the reasons I moved to Athens is to try to focus more of my attention on that aspect of it and less on the day-to-day grind-it-out repairs. I feel like here I’m more directly connected to the pulse of the arts scene – and more accepted as an artist, for that matter. A lot of people over the years have looked at me as a guitar maker – a woodworker who basically recreates stuff you buy at Guitar Center and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I can’t even disconnect making a guitar from my performing or my recording or my filmmaking; to me they’re all facets of the same art projects or the overall big picture. They’re all connected.