Gregory Dennis: Days and nights with a naked lady

I’ve been playing a lot lately with a naked lady.
Well, she’s not completely naked. She’s wearing a G string. Also A, D and B strings, and a high and low E string, too.
When the Montreal-based guitar company Mackenzie & Marr decided several years ago to honor folk and western singer-songwriter Ian Tyson with a signature guitar line, the Ian Tyson Limited Edition quickly sold out.
So they decided to try the same thing with Tom Rush. Until recently a Vermonter, Rush is a singer-songwriter who is still going strong more than 50 years after he rose to prominence in the Cambridge coffeehouse scene.
When I had the chance to chat with Tom a few years back, before his show at the Vergennes Opera House — and then saw him play a Naked Lady at his 50th anniversary concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall — I knew I had to have one.
So when Mackenzie & Marr offered one of these dreadnought-style guitars on sale as a blemished model, I jumped at the chance to buy it. I’ve yet to locate the blemish on the lady. She’s a beauty, with the neck of the guitar adorned by inlay of a shapely woman covered only with a serpent that is gently entwining her body.
It’s not as if I needed another guitar. I already owned two dreadnoughts.
But when it comes to a certain type of player and certain guitars, we’ve left rationality and landed squarely in the realm of the delusional.
Opiates got nothin’ on a guitar addiction. Your fingers can itch for a needle or a guitar, but it’s basically the same itch. It’s just a lot healthier to scratch the itch to have a particular guitar in your hands.
Tom Rush lost the original Naked Lady in a New Hampshire house fire in 1990. Now he plays the new signature model, faithfully reproduced with inlay of said lady and serpent, to perform songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” and “Urge for Going.” (He introduced those two songs to the world as the first to record them, along with songs by two other then-unknowns by the names of James Taylor and Jackson Browne — all on one shining LP).
As with every new-to-you car over the years, every new guitar comes with a story.
I bought my Canadian-made Larivee maybe 20 years ago from my buddy Bob Page at his guitar shop in Leucadia, Calif.
I’d made the mistake of trading in a fine old Guild guitar for an Ovation (and boy, do I wish I still had that Guild). Bob consoled me by enticing me to buy a Larivee, and all was again right with the world.
Bob was the type of guy who, if he knew you liked the Kingston Trio, would call you up when he heard a Trio original member, Nick Reynolds, was about to come to the shop to play an old Martin four-string tenor guitar that the shop had for sale.
Bob called me, I jetted over to the shop, and I got to hear Nick play. Never mind that it was 2 p.m. on a weekday and he was deep into his third Coors of the afternoon. Ah, retirement.
I once saw Nick perform with John Stewart, who also first made his name in the Trio.
Nick played those old Martin tenors standing up and without a strap. In his excitement midway through a song, he dropped the guitar three feet onto the floor. It bounced back up into his hands and he went on playing as if nothing had happened, missing nary a chord.
One needn’t be on stage to show off. Guitar shops tend to be a place for the understated display of your chops.
But for the store owner, listening to the same rifts played over and over can get a little annoying. So much so that Bob Page once posted a sign warning his patrons that if they pulled a guitar off the rack and played either “Blackbird” or the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” they would be ejected from the store.
A few years after acquiring the Larivee (which now lives at C.’s house so I have something to play on weekends), I was driving back to Middlebury and stopped along Route 30 in Pawlet. A guy there had painted a giant portrait of Willie Nelson on the side of a yellow barn. We got to talking music and he pulled out a Martin Backpacker guitar.
“If you want to see some nice real Martins,” he said, “head up the road to the Danby Four Corners Store.” I drove up there on a lark and, an hour later, was the proud owner of a Martin cutaway.
Inevitably, any owner of several guitars has to compare them. But it’s a bit like comparing past girlfriends: You don’t want to say how much you loved one of them, lest you hurt another’s feelings.
The Larivee is the steady no-drama woman who’ll stick by your side no matter what. The Tom Rush model chimes like a 12-string even though she has only six. She’s an exuberant filly straight out of a John Stewart song. “Naked in the sun, that’s how she runs, rockin’ my heart like the beat of a drum.”
But the Martin – ah, the Martin.
I want to love the Naked Lady better. But it’s the Martin that’s the queen.
She’s mature enough to have lost her flightiness. Her rounded, mellow, woody sound recalls every winter night by a comforting fire, every promising kiss, every moment when the sweet turns ecstatic. She brings me to the same place as “Hello, Hurray” by Judy Collins: “Ready as the rain to fall, only to fall again. Ready as a man to be born, only to be born again.”
That’s the power of the guitar. To make even the most modest player feel, when he picks up the instrument, born again. Only this time, even better.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. He loves to sing and play guitar alone and plans in another life to perform at an open mic night. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis

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