Feeding the Australian jazz and hillbilly market

South Australian musician John Bridgland has published a new book, Bending maple, carving spruce.

South Australian musician John Bridgland has published a new book, Bending maple, carving spruce. The book celebrates the career of Mount Barker mandolin and jazz guitar luthier, John Liddy, who died a year ago this month. John’s small output of 20 guitars and 40 mandolins defines him as South Australia’s only craftsman in Adelaide living history who produced as many, at such a high level, of these styles. While other South Australians (Bryan De Gruchy and Jim Redgate) have achieved international renown with their instruments, neither addressed the styles to the extent that John did – especially his fine mandolins. The death of Adelaide mandolin luthier, John Liddy, 69, on 4 September 2013 may have inadvertently marked a peak in Australia’s musicians’ appetites for wanting to jam and perform bluegrass music, even though by that time the popularity of its apparently younger country cousin, ‘roots music’, was attracting large numbers of a new, younger crowd to festivals around Australia. It also probably page-marks the ageing towards-retirement of a generation of Australian string-band musicians who surfed an ‘Aust-grass’ wave that for about 25 years until the mid-2000s allowed Australian guitar and mandolin luthiers to feed their families – but only modestly. The formal demise in 2012 of the longstanding Harrietville Bluegrass Convention after 21 years under the same management – an event attended by John Liddy for at least six continuous years beginning in 2002 – also might be symptomatic of the end of one era, even though another group of musicians successfully managed its resuscitation in the same town in 2013, but at another site. Its features were different; the spirit was similar and augured well for another decade of such events. But only a few noted that John Liddy was gone. Some of that number would have been jazz guitarists coveting their 1940s-style arch-top instruments – the market John Liddy targeted in the mid-1990s when he first turned his mind to luthiery as a business. This was before a secondary business opportunity arose a few years later as he shifted to addressing Australian demand for the sought-after F model ‘Florentine’ mandolins, the darling of the Australian acoustic musicians’ cliques chasing their versions of hillbilly harmonies, better knownin the US as bluegrass. Once upon a time – decades past – output of Australian-made mandolins was largely restricted to that of a tiny number of Australian luthiers, mainly in the eastern states, addressing the relatively undemanding requirements of folk musicians. The exception, of course, is reserved for the renowned and widely acknowledged Victorian master luthier, Steve Gilchrist, whose fine bluegrass ‘Model 5’ mandolins emerged in the 1980s and by the mid- 90s were captive to virtually insatiable US-fed, bluegrass-focused, professional demand – and priced well beyond what many Australian musicians could afford. Other Australian luthiers, however, whose focus was exclusively on the local market, were not in the same league. Until John Liddy began applying his wood crafting skills to mandolins in the early 2000s, musicians seeking highquality instruments for the playing of bluegrass music were largely restricted to a small range of Australian produce of variable quality (with exception to the much more expensive Gilchrist mandolins) or cheaper Japanese, Korean or Taiwanese brands imported by the capital city music retailers. A third but risky option was to self-import US-made instruments at a time when the Australian dollar was well below parity with the US dollar – netting a result not as expensive as Gilchrist instruments– but not cheap – and risky because of the import complexities and the fact that one could not ‘try before you buy’. John Liddy was South Australia’s finest (and sole) mandolin luthier over a 10-year period to about 2010 that had seen him expand his small output from an original focus on arch-top (jazz) guitars. Upon commencement of his exploration into the mysteries of the mandolin, in 2000, he quickly created new and better opportunities for Australian bluegrass and folk musicians, because his mid-priced, professional quality mandolins filled an important market niche. The term ‘midpriced’ might require qualification, given that at the time of John’s death ‘cheap’ mandolins sold for less than $1000 but top-flight Gilchrist mandolins sold for up to $25,000. By comparison, Liddy instruments, selling between $3,000 (the A models) and $6,000 (the F models), fell into the category of ‘mid-priced’. Everything is relative… For most of his luthiery career John was based in the Adelaide hills suburb of Mount Barker, but he travelled regularly between Australian festivals and conventions in most states to exhibit and sell his instruments – especially mandolins. He had come from a fine-wood-furniture crafting background and had taken a sudden turn off the formal manufacturing highway to pursue a new, sole-trader existence: a diversion that led to a new crafting terrain, opening a fascinating new chapter in his life. In the early 2000s, Adelaide musician Paul Thompson interviewed John to create editorial content for John’s instrument website. It was at a time when John’s luthiery career was building steam, not only offering customer-specified arch-top guitars, but also flat-back mandolins in the American F model style at a time when demand was exceeding local supply. John told him: “I made my first guitar in the early 1990s for my young son who had just started to play. It was a [Fender] Telecaster copy and little did I realise the implications this project would have. The first arch-top guitar soon followed [1996]. The wood tone blew me away. I came from a background of fine woodworking. Suddenly, I was making things that were alive, rather than furniture whose destiny was to sit in a corner looking nice, waiting to be dusted every now and then.” To sum up a life of fine wood and quiet wisdom – between 2000 and about 2010 John shared highly respected space in the Australian mandolin luthiery galaxy with only a handful of ;other men scattered across Australia; not more than five. Now there is one fewer, and all of those remaining are close to or on the wrong side of 60. It’s a reflection of the times: the slow Australian demise of a 1970s Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs-inspired, finger-pickin’, fun-filled era when bluegrass music had significantly more fans attending significantly more festivals and concerts for that genre than today. Australian festival events continue, demand for mandolins is less, and the on-stage ‘roots’ practitioners – the singers and strummers – are more often of a younger generation. Moreover, thanks to the internet, the instrument range now on offer is broader, more accessible and, from countries north of Australia, a lot cheaper. Their quality, of course, is less, but it increases the competition for local remaining luthiers. Australia’s love affair with bluegrass remains, but the stage cast has changed and is now fully wired into the range of musical alternatives. Mandolin music remains popular, but survives on the back page of the musical menu. For every 1,000 guitars sold in the nation’s music stores, there might be one mandolin. Further, the heavy emphasis on banjo-oriented bluegrass the way that Bill Monroe arranged it – with mandolin sharing front-row presence and audibility – has changed. Monroe’s death in 1996 and the challenges of playing the little instrument has meant that younger generations don’t see the mandolin in quite the same light as previous generations of players. The repertoire has changed. Demand for the mandolin as an integral piece of the Australian bluegrass jigsaw is now relatively less than it was. Australian ‘roots’ musicians not well versed in the fundamentals of bluegrass still show an interest in the mandolin, but mainly for the wrong reasons. It’s seen as a ‘colour’ instrument, rather like the ukulele, a fun diversion between songs in a guitar-focused repertoire. Few musicians today exclusively play the mandolin and those that own one often unwittingly adopt guitar playing technique, side-stepping the approach necessary to allow the mandolin to best sing its own song. That’s an ominous sign for Australian mandolin craftsmen – other than Steve Gilchrist, whose enduring market has long been among well-heeled investors and high-salary ‘weekend warriors’ (amateurs) or US bluegrass professionals who know exactly how that song can be coaxed from maple and spruce and who might collect several over a career. But a legacy – not just of Liddy instruments – remains. Every Liddy instrument owner who purchased direct from John Liddy remembers his quiet, shy nature and his dry humour. He got a kick out of seeing and hearing his instruments played and, in the right hands, they will last generations because their construction is solid and clean and their intonation accurate. There were 40 Liddy mandolins (A and F models) made, but fewer than that are in Australian circulation today. There were 20 guitars, but significantly fewer than that in musicians’ hands today. Now, John Liddy’s brands are destined to be rare. You’re lucky if you own one, and so will be the person who inherits yours. But he or she will surely benefit, because they are destined to last generations and, with playing, grow ever sweeter in tone. Mandolin luthiery by Australians for Australians has not ended just because John Liddy has gone. But at John’s demise, something fine has been lost – a blend of time, place, selected maple and spruce, exceptionally skilled hands – and an eye and ear for the finer musical things in life. For more information on the book Bending maple, carving spruce: John Liddy, South Australian mandolin luthier, contact John Bridgland [email protected]

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