The Pervasive Influence of Randy Wood
I recently browsed the music section of a Barnes & Noble magazine rack and pulled a Fretboard Journal from the back row. There happened to be a feature article about mandolinist and Bill Monroe protégé Mike Compton that I immediately flipped to. The article contained a stunning, centerfold-style, two-page spread of Compton’s two-point mandolin that he calls his first “real” mandolin. It was built by luthier Randy Wood. This was a fitting encounter; Randy may not grab headlines, but if you know where to look, you can see his influence everywhere.
Randy Wood grew up on a farm in rural Georgia. In his early twenties, he befriended dobro legend Tut Taylor. Taylor convinced Wood to move to Milledgeville, Georgia, where Tut gave Randy unfettered access to his home wood shop. “If [Tut] had been building cabinets, I’d probably be a cabinetmaker today,” Randy says. Fortunately, Tut preferred working on musical instruments.
Randy’s work immediately attracted attention. Roland White bought Randy’s second mandolin and played it for much of his career. Bill Monroe bought Randy’s third and kept it for the rest of his life.
Randy then moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to work with his friend and banjoist Rual Yarbrough. One of his clients was a collector named George Gruhn, whom he had met on the festival circuit with Tut.
In 1970, George, Tut, and Randy opened a pioneering vintage instrument store called GTR in downtown Nashville. The shop backed up to the Ryman Auditorium and fielded visits from celebrities performing next door. “We usually had some good pickers hanging out [in the store] all the time,” Randy says. One of those celebrity clients was Eric Clapton, who bought several guitars, including a dobro with a fingerboard on which Randy inlaid an exquisite Tree of Life. Clapton played that guitar on his multi-Grammy-winning Unplugged album.
While at GTR, Randy also inlaid Elvis Presley’s name across the fretboard of the mega-star’s Gibson Dove. That guitar was on display for a huge audience during the televised concert, Aloha from Hawaii.
Tut and George eventually left GTR, and Gruhn renamed the operation Gruhn Guitars. Today it is a Mecca for stringed instrument enthusiasts.
Randy and Tut rejoined forces and opened The Old Time Picking Parlor on Second Avenue in Nashville. The place combined a music store, repair shop, and concert hall, and Tut and Randy opened the doors for visitors to sit around and jam. It was a popular hangout for amateurs and professionals alike. Careers were made inside the wood-paneled walls of the place.
Fiddle virtuoso Mark O’Connor was just a teenager when he and his family stopped by the Picking Parlor one night. Randy heard the youngster play and was so impressed that he called his friend Roy Acuff to meet O’Connor. “I told Acuff he can handle a fiddle,” Randy says. Acuff heard O’Connor and on the spot, invited the young kid to join him on the Grand Ole Opry stage later that week. Other bluegrass and country music notables, such as Sam Bush, Charlie Daniels, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Mike Compton—as I learned in the Fretboard Journal article— found inspiration and career guidance in the Picking Parlor.
Randy was the go-to repair guy in Nashville. When Tony Rice acquired his famous 1935 Martin D-28, he took it to Randy to replace the neck and make the guitar more playable. For many years, Bill Monroe trusted only Randy Wood to work on his mandolins.
The atmosphere in the Picking Parlor stayed young and funky thanks to apprentices who clamored for a chance to study the art of luthiery from Wood. One apprentice, Danny Ferrington, built an impressive list of celebrity clients of his own. In the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Keith Richards’s character was strumming a specially-built Ferrington guitar. Ferrington says of Randy, “I learned almost everything I know from him. Randy was a man of few words, but he had a kind of magical touch when it came to wood, and he was generous with his knowledge.”
Randy is now back in his native Georgia, running Randy Wood Guitars, a shop that has re-established the Picking Parlor triad—a music store, a workshop, and a listening room—in the small town of Bloomingdale. Like that Fretboard Journal I found at the back of the magazine rack, Randy’s shop takes some effort to reach. But don’t be fooled by the unassuming surroundings; Randy Wood’s impact is global. If you are a music fan, you have probably seen his work without even knowing it.
By Daniel Wile