April 2017

No Longer a Novel Curiosity, These Tiny Titans Are Now Creating a Big Noise

by Ted Drozdowski

If you’re a fan of live roots music, you’ve likely been to at least one recent concert where an artist has played a cigar box guitar—a homemade-looking instrument delivering a raw tone that tickles the auditory cortices and rings the funky chimes of history.

Little Johnny Kantreed ; Photograph by Michelle Stone

These creations, which often sport broom-handle necks, pencil-mark frets, and hardware that’s, well, literally hardware are part of a renaissance in primitive instrument building that straddles the worlds of music and outsider art.

Nashville is home to three of Tennessee’s more inventive makers of nuevo-archaic sound machines. Jonathan James Greiner, Little Johnny Kantreed, and Mike Windy have between them conjured a playable universe of one-, two-, three-, and four-string instruments that recycle the temporary housing of Montecristos and their kin and reach beyond the cigar box to make a joyful noise with the help of old stock pots, tobacco barn staves, tennis rackets, and even hog bones.

Greiner started much like the South African musicians who make guitars out of gas cans, the early blues players who imitated one-string African fiddles by nailing a snipped broom wire to a board, or the Appalachian settlers who cobbled whatever junk they had into makeshift banjos. He was broke and wanted to make music.

“All I had was $20, so I bought an eye bolt and wing nut at Home Depot, to hold and tune the string,” he recounts. “I used a broom handle for the neck and got a trash bag full of cigar boxes from my Bible study group at church. And in my tool box, I had some sandpaper, a few screwdrivers, a sharpened butter knife, a rusty mini-hacksaw, vice grips, and a drill bit.” From that assemblage, his initial hand-made instrument was crafted. The first night he busked in front of a local gas station convenience store he made $40. In a few months, he had enough money to fix his broke-down car and got a job delivering Chinese food to get back on his feet.

Photograph by Jerry Atnip

Hundreds of builds later, Greiner makes inspired-looking instruments that gleam in their lacquered finishes, sometimes boast fretted necks, and incorporate inviting flourishes like hubcap resonators, violin-style f-holes, inscriptions and decorative carvings. One of his creations pays tribute to Johnny Cash, with Cash’s Sun Records single “Get Rhythm” on its top and lyrics written inside. Another was recently on display at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show in Anaheim, California, where it was used to demo a new pickup built specifically for amplifying cigar box guitars. Despite the growing sophistication of his instruments, Greiner remains committed to hand-tool building—respecting a family tradition of carpentry and craftsmanship begun by his grandfather. His work can be found at the Shimai Gallery of Contemporary Craft on the grounds of the Loveless Café and at Fanny’s House of Music in East Nashville.

Kantreed has been selling his work at Fanny’s for years, in addition to taking commissions, which Greiner also does. His inspirations were historic bluesmen who started playing on one-strings—especially Texas’ Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi Delta players including Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. The latter adopted his name from the one-string instrument played with a slide called the diddley bow.

“The main reason for my builds is the musical side,” Kantreed says, “although people have bought them just to hang on their walls. There’s a revolution of cigar box guitar builders going on across the country, with numerous festivals dedicated to the cigar box guitar, and I see myself as part of that.

“It’s a very gratifying feeling to see someone actually making music with something that I’ve created,” he adds. “Josh Peyton of the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and Joey Fletcher [of the band Rhythm Kitchen] have some really great videos on YouTube playing my cigar box guitars.”

Mike Windy initially came to instrument building as a visual artist. He’s an accomplished painter and sculptor who also works in animation and has a Master of Fine Arts. Windy has studied with renowned sculptors Greely Myatt and Gregg Schlanger and teaches art at Father Ryan High School. But, he says, “As I have increasingly begun to work with more musicians and seriously make music and sound sculpture, the sound of the instruments has become just as interesting.”

He has fashioned some sonically and visually provocative objects: a diddley bow made from a five-gallon lobster pot, a bass one-string that features a 36-inch carved wooden mask and a chamber pot, and a two- string with a body made from a metal globe for Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He also spreads the recycled instrument gospel to his students, and 93 of them will be making playable one-of-a-kind one-strings this year, that they can take home.

“I want an instrument to have its own character. I want it to be alive. If it doesn’t say, I’ve been made with love and determination, I don’t want to do it.”

—Jonathan James Greiner Lucky Box Guitars

The website Cigarboxnation.com is a focal point for the worldwide outsider instrument community, and other notable Tennessee builders include John Lowe in Memphis and, in Nashville, Travis Bowlin and Printers Alley mainstay Stacy Mitchhart. If they have a mutual mission statement, perhaps it’s best summarized by Greiner when he says, “I want an instrument to have its own character. I want it to be alive. If it doesn’t say, I’ve been made with love and determination, I don’t want to do it.”

For more information, visit www.cigarboxnation.com, www.littlejohnnykantreed.com and www.facebook.com/ LuckyBoxGuitars.

Musician and author Ted Drozdowski; Photograph by Michael Kurgansky

Jonathan James Greiner; Photograph by Jerry Atnip

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