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  • Bart Blankenship

Planting Seeds

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Kenny, the Market Underground's bass player taking my dobo for a test drive.

Even back when I was young I was fascinated with planting seeds. My first garden was when was in 4th grade. I remember two things: that my cantaloupes cross pollinated with my cucumbers and trying to kill a mole as it burrowed under my garden with Dad's 22 rifle, without permission. I also remember that as instructed we planted more seeds than we needed expecting many not to grow. And, knowing we'd have to pull out some if they grew too close together.

Last year I gave away seven guitars. Some, I gave just in appreciation and to encourage young musicians. Some, because I'd just had a fight with my sister and felt bad about it. Weird reason, I know. Others, I gave because I thought these folks were playing out in clubs and that demand would increase for my homemade instruments if folks saw great musicians playing music with my guitars.

I've also taken to playing at open mics with my guitars. This has been interesting, and scary and exposing. The open mic I've started playing is at St. Pete's Iberian Rooster. It's in the basement and you have to sign up a week in advance. The lineup is fantastic. In almost every way, the performers are above my league. I'm more used to playing around the campfire with friends and family where any live music brings nods and smiles.

At the Iberian Rooster there is a great sound system and backup drums and bass. The MCs, Alex and Chelsea give you an awesome introduction. And then I come up, the oldest in the room by at least two decades, and something that might pass for a guitar in Armageddon built out of a broken oar, or discarded cigar box and start playing Lynyrd Skynyrd. I can't hit the high notes, and usually play in keys way lower to give me a fighting chance. I sweat bullets. People clap. My week seems over in my given 15 minutes, but I'm elated. Under pressure and standing up to the mic, I always sound better than when at home. All that practice pays off!

When I worked at risk courses in Utah, we'd have daily AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings. I learned from the NA book that if you want to succeed you should hang out with recovering addicts who have been sober longer than you. It makes sense. Same with anything. If you want to climb better, rock climb with better climbers than you. And playing my broken oar guitar at the Iberian Rooster certainly inspires me to be better.

Now that my kids are raised and not needing money from me, I have the luxury of being able to work part time, mostly for Outward Bound. But as before mentioned I'm working hard on my guitar, banjo, and now mandolin building business. I figure the better I can play the more people will want my instruments. And so if I'm scheduled for the Iberian Rooster, I actually spend much of my week learning three new songs. Last week it was “99 Problems” by Hugo, “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray, and “Come Together,” by the Beetles. The last one gave me the most problems. First, that cool bass part. I actually built a guitar just for it which has one bass string. The other three strings are strung just like a “regular” cigar box guitar, which is open. Usually, it's an open G. But since “Come Together” is in D, I was able to lower it to D, and wow, that low D does thump. You can feel it on high volume in your chest! But there were a lot of lyrics that I struggled to memorize.

When I played it for Jen with both my normal 3 string and this beast, she felt it sounded better with the former. But when I performed it at the Rooster, I asked Anthony, the sound man to play the bass part which he did and crushed it while I did the rest. Even though an octave lower than Paul McCartney does.

After my three songs were up, I still had my table to tend which had over a dozen guitars and one banjo. People would come over and put on the headphones and test them out. They were connected to an amp and using the headphones, the music being played on stage didn't interfere and vice versa.

Toward the end of the evening, at around midnight a lovely fellow came over and started playing my “Dobo”, the one with the bass string. His smile was amazing. Using the glass slide, he went up and down the neck. I believe there is heaven here on earth. For me, it's eating stone crabs or getting a good grip on a lobster while snorkeling. This fellow sure seemed to be there. He just kept being surprised at what he was playing and would burst into laughter.

In the end, he said he had to have this guitar. I said I'd intentionally built it quick and ugly to make it affordable. I'd wound the pickup from scratch and so had only spend around $35 in materials and a day's time. I even used a rusty shackle off my anchor to fasten the strap to the neck. And the strap was an old anchor line unrove and rewoven flat. It was that kind of personal instrument. The strap still smelled like barnacles and the sea.


$150 I told him. He said he definitely had that, and I said to take it and pay me later. He said that he might have to start another band just to accommodate this guitar. He said it was made for Limp Biscuit. His enthusiasm was contagious.

Leaving the restaurant with all those guitars, left me feeling like this was the wrong place to sell my instruments. And it didn't help that all of a sudden my dash lights stopped working so I couldn't tell how fast I was going on the highway. But I got home OK and the next day built another Dobo, to make me feel better just in case, my new friend was going to stiff me of my 1.5 boat units. (Danny, my brother says it's better to call $100 that you spend on your boat 1 boat unit. It's less painful that way to take away all those zeros.) I feel it's a good idea to use that logic on my guitars.

Building the second Dobo, did take some of the edge off the days to come where I wouldn't hear back from my friend. I'd check my back account and there wouldn't be that expected deposit. I even looked him up via some of my new Iberian Rooster Facebook friends and found him. He's an active fellow, with a lot going on. A pretty serious musician and a good writer.

Jen has been wanting to take me to the River Hawk Music Festival and this past weekend we went. It's just north of Tampa and at a youth ranch. There was RV and tent camping. We took our tent. I'd guess there were 2000 people there. Some great bands. Three stages. Acoustic, electric. Folk, bluegrass, covers of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. On the smaller stage called the Jam Shack, one group unplugged and performed walking down the isle between the rows. Their harmonies were fantastic.

She had told me that there were a lot of informal jam sessions around campfires where we could walk up and join in. That sounded great to me. She thought I'd also be likely sell a few of my guitars even though I really wasn't registered as a vendor.

And there were a lot of campfire jam sessions going on. But, we're both also introverts. And so we didn't join and I didn't sell any of the guitars I'd brought. There were two Cigar Box Guitar booths and it was fun to see the competition. I learned a thing or two. Just like at the Iberian Rooster, I felt like the bar was high even in the informal jam sessions. I think it's why so many folks only sing when they're in the shower. Basing your worth on your performance for others is a very tight room full of mirrors. I came away with the thought that I was never going to perform at least on stage at any music festival. And that all my life, I've worked at getting normal people to surpass their expectations. Working at schools like Outward Bound, it's been my job to get students up difficult rock climbs, down challenging rappels into canyons, or night navigation through the maze of Florida's 10,000 Islands. In that moment that they succeeded, they were a rockstar. They had touched the greatness that was inside of them. It's like that sometimes if your jump is perfect, you can touch something pretty high.

The day before the festival, I decided to build a 4 string cigar box mandolin. Actually, I thought I'd just mark the fret board where I should saw the grooves for the frets. But one thing led to another. I already had a neck partially finished that I could saw off and in building the mandolin, I did a poor job packing for the camping trip with a cold front coming. I didn't bring long pants or anything warm! Really, I had only shorts, t shirts, one long sleeve, and my brother's clammy leather jacket. I had to get completely inside my sleeping bag and have the draw string cinched up while folks were out dancing.

“Come on out and move around instead of sitting in that bag,” one said.

I also didn't bring a gas camp stove but brought our wood fired grill but no lighter fluid. All, just to make coffee!

That little mandolin has plenty of mistakes. The bridge, I realized from looking at mandolins in the festival is usually in the center of the body and mine is on the third. The distance was too high for the strings in the notches in the bone nut. I would have to slowly take the notches deeper so that when fretted, the string wouldn't be too sharp especially at the first fret.

So, instead of drying out the tent and totally cleaning out the car, I started taking down the notches in the bone nut a little at a time. If I took too much, the string would buzz on the fret, or it would be flat when fretted at the first fret. If the notch is too flat, the string will buzz too. Well, I've almost got it where I want it. I also, replaced the bridge, which was a bolt with a wood shim, to some kind of super hardwood. And in doing so, the A string is sounding very harsh. It's volume seems twice as loud as the D string, and four times as loud as the high E string. I took the single coil pickup out and set it an an angle with foam under it at the top where the G string is and foam on top of it where the E string is. Still, that A sounds harsh. I've switched amplifiers thinking perhaps that A pitch is no longer working on my little amp. And it could be the pickup. It could be the string. I could be that this cigar box resonates in A.

And meanwhile, my room is a mess. My shop is a mess. My car the same. It's a beautiful, dry, cool day outside. But I'm fixated on an A string that is too loud, and wondering if my first Dobo went to a beautiful con man.

Stalking him on his Facebook page, he shared a quote saying something like, that when you're bummed about something happening to you, that it's really that what is making you upset is how it makes you feel about yourself. There is truth in that. I do now question my innate trust in others. And I have made a living that if I believed someone could do it, say the rock climb, that they could do it, and then I'd see them do it. I don't want that to go away just because he hasn't paid for the guitar.

Back in July, I went down the the Keys for the two day sport lobster season that opens before the regular season. I was the guest of a fine captain who was treating several disabled Veterans to the trip. Two were missing one leg, and one was missing both. We used his boat, his gas, his home. No charge. We caught a lot of lobsters. Or they did. I caught two. When he suggested I give them mine. I was caught short. Sure, I didn't fit. Even though I was also a Vet, I wasn't wounded. I just couldn't do it. I told him about the guitars I'd given away. But I liked to choose when and what I gifted. He got it and didn't push it. I guess, I really wanted those lobsters.

Back to planting seeds. When Jen and I were in the Bahamas we learned of a new fruit, called a Sopadilly. I think the Spanish call it a Sopadillo. It looks like a Kiwi, but tastes like a pear dipped in brown sugar. I kept the seeds from some fruit we'd been given and planted several. But after a few weeks saw that they'd all been dug up and taken. So I planted again in a cup.

Once they started sprouting, I transferred them into a flower box in Mom's backyard. After a few weeks, one was pulled up and the seed eaten. I gently soaked the stalk with it's two leaves and put it back in the soil next to another that was unmolested. I looked at them today. The other plant had been pulled up and the seed gone! They must be delicious to a mouse or squirrel or opossum. I'm going to have to start over and keep the seeds inside until they become trees.

I think I need to look at the instruments I'm building like seeds. Most will never be rock stars. And none will become sopadilly trees. Maybe they will make someone besides me connect to the great in themselves. I enjoy building and playing them. I have enough to give away and to not cry over a little theft if that's what my friend has done. They're a good reason to learn “Come Together”, and “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting”, and “Drift Away.”

And this morning a fellow who camped across the road from us who gave us a CD he and his wife had made, texted me saying he had several unfinished lap steel guitars and parts that he wanted to give to me. Tonight at 6:30 I'm going to pick them up.


PS Now it's one month since I wrote this piece and I wanted to add this new conclusion. Finally, after asking my friend if he intended to con me out of the guitar he responded saying he was sorry, that it wasn't his intention, and that I could come get the guitar. We finally met and a hard rain was falling as we walked the long row to his storage unit and he gave me back the guitar. He even returned the glass slide I'd given him to play it with.

I put the guitar inside a trash bag to keep it dry and we walked back to the car. We were soaked. I did most of the talking. I said, he was welcome to come build a guitar with me and that he probably could find the parts and we'd wind the pickup and that it wouldn't cost hardly anything. I said I hoped we'd get to play together and become friends.

He didn't have a car and friends had dropped him off. I gave him a ride to a gas station where he said he'd get home from there.

I'm sad writing this realization that this man with the contagious laugh doesn't want to be my friend. Back home I looked down at the glass slide he'd returned. Now I saw it had a big chip on the top and a fatal crack running the length of it. It might work for a little while, but could split and cut me. Gently, I dropped it in the garbage.

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