By Kim Green
Behind a weathered brick storefront in tiny Wartrace, Tennessee, generations of Gallaghers assemble far-flung ingredients from alien landscapes to craft an entirely familiar object.
For 45 years, Gallagher Guitar Co. has connected this sleepy Southern town to the wider world. The small family operation fashions exquisite handmade guitars from exotic woods like Sitka spruce and rosewood (from the Pacific Northwest and Brazil), inlaid with shining bits of coral, seashell, and abalone pearl from distant seas. And the finished product reaches as deeply back into the world, shipping to customers from locales as widespread as Japan, Sweden, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, and Saudi Arabia.
Three Generations of Gallaghers
“It’s funny how things evolve,” muses Don Gallagher, as the second-generation guitar-maker shows off a custom piece he’s been working on for months. He’s talking about the evolution of one of his special inlay designs – a popular Celtic knot pattern idea that germinated when an Irish customer placed an order. But Don Gallagher could just as easily be referring to his life’s work, one taken up by his father before him, and recently, by his son Stephen.
Don’s father, a fine-furniture maker named, J.W. Gallagher, started building guitars in 1965 – a prescient career shift, just as the guitar began to transcend its second-fiddle position as bluegrass backup instrument and to sing its own solo notes in an emerging folk-music landscape. Don grew up making toys in his dad’s woodworking shop, then worked there during his summers off from college. After graduate school and a stint as an industrial psychologist, he found his way back home and took up his father’s craft.
“There’s something appealing about making something…that’s going to be here for a long time,” he says, his blue irises pensive.
Leaving a Legacy
Every few minutes, a solemn whistle wails, as a slow train rumbles through downtown Wartrace – a brief run of lovely old storefronts and a few blocks of shady residential streets. That trainsong speaks of history, and continuity – values upheld in large measure by the Gallagher family, who settled in the area in the early 19th Century. Don Gallagher talks about the importance of leaving a legacy, as he pages through one dusty ledger after another.
Each ledger represents one of the 3,500 or so guitars the company has produced, recording its serial number, describing its materials, and tracing its ownership as it passes from one doting musician to the next. Those yellowed pages list legendary Gallagher Guitarists the likes of Doc Watson, Charlie Daniels, and Hank Williams, Jr.
Ironically, Don Gallagher’s 31-year-old son Stephen is the first Gallagher company man to experience the family’s creations as craftsman and musician. A burgeoning roots, blues, and Celtic picker, he sees the guitars he builds with his father as more than just a product. “It’s a tool for artists,” he says, bright blue eyes blinking in the sunlight behind the shop. He says building guitars opens the bluegrass world to him in a way he might not experience if he weren’t a Gallagher. “Like…as a kid of Doc Watson coming over to the house and playing,” he recalls. “Just a legend, an icon!”
Stephen Gallagher brings a music-lover’s ear and a musician’s connections into the mix. He travels the festival circuit on the company’s behalf and befriends touring musicians who’ll become Gallagher Guitar customers. And despite all that old-world heritage, Gallagher, father and son, understand the need to innovate. As a small company, they’re speedboat-maneuverable, layering new-world techniques over the traditions they’ve cultivated – innovations like using software to draw and cut out intricate inlay designs more efficiently, and employing an updated finish technique that uses UV light to cure lacquer.
Artist and Craftsman
Don Gallagher proudly brandishes a fretboard he’s labored over for uncounted hours: it’s a custom piece commissioned by the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, as a prize for their 40th annual flat-picking festival. The neck tells a story in miniature: tiny figures of polished stone and mother-of-pearl fiddle and pick mini-instruments; golden plumes evoke fields of Great Plains grain.
Although Gallagher Guitar launched its enterprise with two basic guitar models, the company has adapted to a changing market, moving towards more customized instruments like this one. Stephen asserts that many musicians are turning away from all things mass-produced. “Used to be people would just want a Doc Watson model because Doc Watson played it,” he says. “Now what people want is something that was individually made for them…They want something with feeling, emotion, personality.”
If Don Gallagher’s spreading grin is any clue, there’s no shortage of feeling in this custom work-in-progress he’s holding. He beams as he points out the tiny bits of color pressed into the neck and explains where each shiny puzzle piece came from. He says he loves blending the craft of building a beautiful, working instrument with the artistry of personalizing each one with its own story, from a Trail of Tears memorial guitar he once made to a rendering of one owner-to-be’s dog.
Two things all Gallagher guitars have in common, whether stock or custom, are bell-clear sound and the trademark French curve and old English “G” on the headstock – the mark of an unbroken line of Gallaghers whose hands have for more than six decades molded fine woods into instruments of musicmaking.
Stephen feels that powerful pull of history: “Just knowing that hundreds of years from now,” he laughs, “stuff that I worked on, somebody might pick up and try to figure out, ‘Who built this?’ ”
Gallagher Guitars is located at 5 Main St., Wartrace, TN 37183 (about 30 miles south of Murfreesboro). You can find them online at www.gallagherguitar.com or reach them at (931) 389-6455. As always, please call ahead before driving long distances.