MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The flooding in Nashville last week claimed nine lives and caused nearly $2 billion in damage. It also took a considerable toll on the city's musical heritage and infrastructure. Some archives and instruments were destroyed. The stage at the Grand Ole Opry House was covered by two feet of water, and the Nashville Symphony lost two Steinway grand pianos. But the most significant instrument loss took place at a facility along the Cumberland River called Soundcheck. That's where hundreds of the city's professional musicians store their treasured guitars and other instruments.
Craig Havighurst has the story.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: Raul Malo, founder of country band The Mavericks and a widely respected singer and songwriter, opens up the case of his beloved 1962 Gibson J-45.
Mr. RAUL MALO (Musician): What? Oh, my god. How is that holding up?
HAVIGHURST: It's in one piece, but when Malo's guitar repairman turns it over, more than a gallon of water pours out of the sound hole onto the muddy floor.
Mr. MALO: That's like my favorite acoustic. That's the one I was, like, please, please if any acoustics make it, let it be that one. Look at that. How is that possible?
HAVIGHURST: Malo and a friend try the soggy Gibson and a waterlogged acoustic bass.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MALO: I think this one sounds better.
HAVIGHURST: Malo says about the bass.
Mr. MALO: If I'd have known that, I'd have dropped it in the Cumberland years ago.
HAVIGHURST: It's a rare light moment. The rest of Malo's collection didn't fare nearly as well as the Gibson. Guitar bodies have swollen up until their backs split in a lattice of cracks. Necks are twisted beyond repair.
Mr. MALO: Last night, I was sitting there with my wife, listening to my new album and I said, those guitar sounds that are on this record I will never be able to duplicate again because all of those guitars are gone.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MALO: (Singing) Just like the sun shining on a mountain top (Unintelligible).
HAVIGHURST: One of the most devastating losses was suffered by the Musicians Hall of Fame. Less than two months ago, it was forced to store its collection of historic instruments after the city acquired its downtown property to make way for a new convention center. Lost in the flood: a Stratocaster guitar owned by Jimi Hendrix. In all, the destruction at Soundcheck affected an estimated 600 musicians, from stars like Vince Gill to workaday professionals.
Soundcheck is far more than just storage lockers. It's a complex of repair shops, product representatives and rehearsal spaces where major country artists gear up for arena shows.
Last weekend, semitrailers idled at the loading docks while the crew for country band Rascal Flatts consulted with insurance adjusters and methodically photographed road cases full of instruments, wireless communication gear and racks of sound processors.
Soundcheck is also a so-called cartage company that delivers gear to the professional studio musicians when they arrive at recording sessions. That means a significant percentage of the great guitars in Music City were stored in the same place. And last week, that place was underwater.
Mr. BEN JUMPER (Facility Owner, Soundcheck): I should have brought some muck boots. It's really almost indescribable.
HAVIGHURST: Facility owner Ben Jumper acknowledges it's not comparable to the loss of lives and homes. But he says the music community is grieving.
Mr. JUMPER: I've seen tears. I've seen hugs. I've seen real, raw, human emotion that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
HAVIGHURST: At the same time, Jumper says it's not been a complete loss.
Mr. JUMPER: A lot of people had shelving in their lockers and their equipment was up on shelves and stayed above the waterline. From three and a half feet down, it's tragic. It's horrific.
HAVIGHURST: Jumper rented space at several nearby warehouses, where repair technicians set up a MASH unit for instruments. One wide-open space hummed with dehumidifiers spread out on tables and floor, gear and guitars belonging to Peter Frampton, Keith Urban, John Hiatt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Fogerty and others. Steve Farris, a session guitarist and a former member of rock band Mr. Mister, surveyed his collection like a musical autobiography.
Mr. STEVE FARRIS (Musician): That L5 over there I bought in 1975 when I graduated from high school and took it to Berklee College of Music. I also took that guitar to L.A. when I wanted to make it as a guitar player. I used to take that guitar down to Watts and sit in with jam sessions down there like an idiot white kid from the Midwest. But, I mean, that guitar's been all over the place with me. So these guitars have history. That L5, I think, is going to make it.
HAVIGHURST: Most of his collection was not so fortunate. In general, however, guitar repairman Ed Beaver was somewhat cheered by the survival rate of the vintage guitars he'd worked on.
Mr. ED BEAVER (Guitar Repairman): If you want to go mathematical, I'd say about 10 percent of the stuff that I have is tear-jerking, about 60 percent of the stuff I have is going to be reparable, it's going to be okay. It might bear the scars of the flood but, hey, so do we, you know.
HAVIGHURST: Instruments are a category of loss unto themselves. They are not alive, but neither are they lifeless. For their players, they are extensions of their emotions and intimate companions. Many will say years from now that in the storm of 2010, they didn't lose anybody, but they did lose close friends.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.
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