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The master craftsman
Bloomingdale's resident instrument maker Randy Wood is famous the world over
Detail of the inlay on a Randy Wood mandolin. - photo by Bill DeYoung

    How much wood would Randy Wood work if Randy Wood could work wood?

Truth is, Randy Wood does work wood, and he works it remarkably well. Georgia's master luthier reckons there might be as many as 3,000 of his hand-crafted instruments in the hands of acoustic music aficionados around the world.

The humble and hardworking native of Coffee County is famous for his beautifully inlaid guitars, mandolins, banjos and dobros - new or vintage, they fetch a pretty penny - but considers himself a repairman who happens to build instruments as a sideline.

"It's a lot easier to build an instrument than it is to repair one," he confesses. "I've always said that any competent repairman can build an instrument; there's very few builders that can do competent repair work."

At his compound in Bloomingdale, a few miles to the west of I-95 and Savannah, Wood might crank out 15 stringed instruments per year, pre-ordered and pre-paid and destined for the hot little hands of some picker in Nashville or Nagasaki.

Repair work, however, is the bread, butter and cheese grits of Randy Wood Guitars. Thousands of musicians, from bluegrass pros and high-profile country stars, to local heroes and back porch amateurs, bring their stuff (or ship it) to Randy's for tune-ups, top-offs and tinkering.

"In order to be able to repair the instrument," says Wood, 65, "you've got to know the inner workings - you've got to know how to take it apart, and put it back together. How it works. All the little idiosyncrasies of wood and everything.

"I can teach somebody in a week how to build an instrument. I've been doing repair work for 40 years, and I'm still learning."

One of six children, Wood got his first pocket knife at the age of 4 or 5. His daddy was a farmer, and a carpenter, and he played a little music on the side. Every kid, Wood recalls, had a pocket knife and knew how to whittle.

For his part, young Randy also loved to draw, and had his sights set on a career as a draftsman. "But my life's dream, I guess, was to have access to a woodshop," he says. "Where I could build cabinets or furniture or whatever."

In the Army, he was stationed in Hawaii, and ran the base woodshop. It was the early 1960s, and the folk music revival was in full swing, so he built himself an autoharp and started playing a few tunes - "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" and "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley," stuff like that - around Waikiki.

The soldiers' favorite local band was an R&B outfit called the Swamp Men, and when Wood returned to Georgia, he and his twin brother started their own group - Randy played guitar - and gave it that moniker. The Swamp Men were, briefly, the hottest thing in Brunswick.

It was at this point Wood began his obsession with bluegrass music. He started making frequent trips to Atlanta, because that's where the musicians were, and eventually he and his new wife, Irene, moved up there. He got a job drafting pipelines for a sewage treatment facility.

At a pickin' party, he met a dobro player named Tut Taylor, a sign painter by trade, who lived an hour away in Milledgeville. The two shared an interest in vintage acoustic instruments, and became fast friends.

"When he mentioned that he had a woodshop, I told him that if he'd find me a job down there, I'd move down," Wood says. "So he found me a job - and we packed up and moved down there. By then we had a 6-month-old girl, too."

After their respective work days, Wood and Taylor would stay in the woodshop until 10 at night, tinkering. Their specialty was hand-crafted banjo necks, which they sold at bluegrass events all over the south.

It was in Milledgeville that Wood built his first mandolin, the famous F5 model. "Nobody was building mandolins at the time," he shrugs. "And the ones that Gibson was making weren't very good."

He began to get more repair work than he could handle. "I thought I was the only one doing repair work in the country," he says. "I was just kinda learning on my own. But I had enough common sense to look at something and be able to figure out what it should be like, or what it originally was like."

Wood says he's always been self-critical. "I think that's healthy," he suggests. "Nowadays, there's a mandolin builder on every corner, next to the gas station. But in looking at most of ‘em, the workmanship is just atrocious.

"I thought that I was bad when I built my first mandolin. I wasn't very accurate. But it was a lot closer than the stuff being built nowadays."

He finally gave up drafting after he moved his burgeoning instrument business to Muscle Shoals, Ala. With Raul Yarborough, who was at the time Bill Monroe's banjo player, he opened a shop near the city's legendary Fame Studios. Wood's legend had grown, and players from far and wide began to seek him out.

One regular visitor was Hank Williams Jr., who would show up once a month with a backseat-full of rare instruments that needed work. "Lock the door," he'd say as soon as he walked in. "We're going to go eat."

And he'd treat everyone - Wood, the staff, anybody who happened to be in the shop at that moment - to lunch at a nearby barbeque joint.

In the early months of 1970, with third partner George Gruhn, Wood and Taylor opened their first shop in Nashville - then, as now, the center of the country and bluegrass music industry. They called it GTR - George, Tut, Randy.

GTR (yes, it looks like "Guitar," too) was Nashville's first vintage instrument store; Wood thinks it might have been the first such establishment in America.

Everyone in the music business, it seemed, either shopped at GTR, or came over to hang out. The business shared an alley with the Ryman Auditorium, where The Johnny Cash Show was filmed on Thursday nights.

Before and after rehearsals, Monday through Wednesday, Cash's guests usually found their way over to GTR. When Eric Clapton was appearing on the show with Derek & the Dominos, he and Bobby Whitlock were like kids in Randy Wood's candy store. Neil Young came over while he was in town recording tracks for Harvest.

In 1972, with their new partner Grant Boatwright, Wood and Taylor took their business a few blocks over. With its attached performance space, and walls lined with acoustic guitars, mandolins and fiddles, the Old Time Pickin' Parlor soon became the go-to spot for musicians and fans alike.

"Tut ran the downstairs, so he was in control," Wood explains. "And the repair shop was upstairs, so I never saw anybody. I just worked."

In time, the performance space was expanded, and twice a week featured the best acoustic performers around (John Prine, for example, was a regular). In fact, many performers got their start at the Pickin' Parlor.

Michael Martin Murphey, John McEuen, Norman Blake, Townes Van Zandt, John Hartford, Guy Clark, Clarence White, Larry Jon Wilson, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Vassar Clements and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons were regular customers. Keith Richards and Eric Clapton bought Randy Wood instruments. The Eagles dropped by when they were in town. Elvis Presley had Wood custom-craft some guitar inlays.

Sharon White, of the singing White Family (and later, Mrs. Ricky Skaggs) bought the first guitar Wood ever made. She still owns it, and plays it, to this day.

"I've made guitars for a lot of famous people," Wood says, "but the people that I work for are mainly the weekend pickers. They're the ones who got money. A lot of the stars don't have money, and the ones that do don't want to pay you anything!"

By the mid ‘70s, mostly through word of mouth, the Old Time Pickin' Parlor was the center of the acoustic music universe. "The reason why, I think, was because at the time we were the only game in town," Wood says. "And that was true from Atlanta to Milledgeville to Muscle Shoals to Nashville ... we were always the only game in town."

He bought out his partners - it wasn't fun, and it wasn't pretty, but Boatwright and Taylor survived the defection and are still major players in acoustic music.

His legend firmly cemented, Wood sold the business in 1979 -- and he and Irene moved back to Georgia. For 22 years, they lived on the Isle of Hope; Wood considered himself semi-retired, and ran a woodshop, and a small mail-order business, out of the garage ("As long as UPS can find me, I'll be all right").

As more and more people moved into the area, however, he began to yearn for something more "rural." Ten years ago, he bought four acres on Highway 80, built a house, a workshop and a retail store.

Later came the 100-seat performance venue ("Randy's Pickin' Parlor") where some of the best bluegrass, country and acoustic musicians like to come and play - mostly because they know Randy Wood, and his reputation, and they know that wherever he is, there'll be lots of people in the audience who love and appreciate top-quality acoustic music.

Every Saturday afternoon, there's an informal jam in the store; pickers come from all over Georgia with their guitars, mandolins and fiddles.

Randy and Irene recently added a barbeque restaurant - it's called the Pickin' Pig - and on really busy days, the master instrument maker is in the kitchen, slow-cooking the ribs and chicken.

"I stay broke, but I've always eaten good," he laughs.

"I've made a decent living, and that I'm thankful for. I've been able to do something that I've always enjoyed doing. I can't remember a day that I haven't looked forward to getting up and going to work, and that's something very few people can say."