They might not recognize it on sight, but fans of Raul Malo and his group The Mavericks will know it when they hear it: the beautiful, unmistakable tone of Malo's shiny white Gibson L-5 Studio, complete with gold Bigsby tremolo and a black-and-white speckled pick guard.
That guitar has long been one of Malo's favorite instruments, he says. "Like any instrument, when they come into your life, sometimes you end up using them a lot for whatever reason," he says. "You bond with them, they inspire a song or there's just something about them."
That was certainly the case with his Gibson. Malo used the guitar when recording his 2001 album Today and at one of The Mavericks' most famous concerts at Royal Albert Hall in London in 1998. "It looked fantastic on stage, and it sounded great," he says. "I loved playing it, and it always inspired a melody."
So it was a tragedy when the devastating floods that hit Nashville in 2010 all but destroyed it. That spring, heavy rains triggered massive floods in Tennessee and neighboring states. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry was swamped, as were other landmarks. Then there was the Soundcheck warehouse near the Cumberland River, long considered a safe location for storing musical instruments. It was flooded, most of its contents going underwater — including Malo's prized Gibson.
Enter Nashville luthier Joe Glaser, who had been tasked with restoring and repairing hundreds of damaged guitars salvaged from Soundcheck. Glaser estimates the instruments had been submerged in floodwater for three days. "It was an extremely discouraging time," he says. "It smelt bad. This was the river, this was diesel and sewage — You can just imagine."
But Malo wouldn't give up on his guitar. "The white L-5 would have been a basket case, except Raul's a sentimental, soulful character," Glaser says. "And he came over and said, 'Pal? Can't we do anything about the white L-5?'"
Now, seven years after the flood, Malo has gotten his Gibson back. After receiving the Glaser treatment, Malo says it sounds not just as good as new, but better.
"I think it really shows that there is a life to these instruments," Malo remarks. "They are changing, they are evolving. As instruments get older, they sound different. And when they've been through something as traumatic as this — I know this, because every guitar that's come back to me from the flood has a newfound life, has a newfound vigor to it."
Glaser says everybody who got their instruments back from him has had a similar reaction: "'Man, something's changed. This guitar's the best it's ever been.'"
"I saw that so many times from so many disparate people and I just believe that things happen to wood and glue, stuff loosens up," Glaser notes, "the same way that Stradivari violins are considered to maybe be affected in sound by the fact that the wood was floated down from the mills."
That realization even spawned a joke: "If I'd known this, I'd have thrown my stuff in the Cumberland years ago," Malo quips, laughing. When reflecting on his "new" Gibson, he says: "I love how the color has faded, I love how the paint has chipped away. It's like the old Confucius saying: Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. And she's certainly a diamond with a flaw — several of them, but a diamond no less."
Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THE MAVERICKS: One, two, three, four.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Hey, I get to play country DJ here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THE MAVERICKS: Come on, everybody.
GONYEA: You're listening to Raul Malo with his group The Mavericks playing London's Royal Albert Hall in 1998. In his hands, a big Gibson L-5 studio guitar. It's shiny white with a gold Bigsby tremolo and a black-and-white-speckled pickguard. Now, flash forward to the spring of 2010. That's when heavy rains triggered massive floods in Tennessee and neighboring states. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry was swamped, as were other landmarks. Then there was the Soundcheck warehouse near the Cumberland River, long considered safe keeping for hundreds of musical instruments. It too was flooded, most of its contents underwater and all but destroyed, including Raul Malo's prized Gibson. But now a happy ending. He recently posted a photo of his treasured guitar lovingly repaired by Nashville master instrument builder Joe Glaser. Raul Malo joins us from the studios of WPLN in Nashville. Welcome.
RAUL MALO: Hi. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GONYEA: And also with him is the true hero of this piece, Joe Glaser. Hi, Joe.
JOE GLASER: Glad to be here.
GONYEA: So, Raul, let me start with you. What was special about this guitar that you absolutely had to have it repaired?
MALO: Well, I think like any instrument, you know, whenever they come into your life, you know, sometimes you end up using them a lot. For whatever reason, you know, you bond with them or they inspire a song or there's just something about them. And this one, it looked fantastic on stage and it sounded great. So it - there was just something about it. I just loved playing it. And it always inspired a melody, just inspired you to play.
GONYEA: So, Joe, why don't you tell us what happened to the guitar, what kind of shape it was in when it was brought to you.
GLASER: Well, these instruments set in a storage area submerged for three days probably. The heat and cooling was off in the Soundcheck building where all the storage for all these bands was. And, you know, we opened the cases, took them out and took them apart. And it was a extremely discouraging time. You know, it smelled bad. This was the river. This was diesel and sewage. And you can just imagine. When we took them apart and tried to triage, I ended up with about 150 of them back at my shop. And a number of them were Raul's. The white L-5 would have been a basket case except Raul's a sentimental and soulful character. He came over and said, pal, can't we do anything about the white L-5?
(SOUNDBITE OF RAUL MALO'S "SINCE WHEN")
GONYEA: Raul, we're going to play a little music here, one of your recordings from an album called "Today," which is a great Cuban-themed record that you've put out some years ago. And it features the guitar. Let's play it, and I want to hear you talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAUL MALO'S "SINCE WHEN")
MALO: Clearly, this is pre-flood sounds, you know (laughter). So you can hear how beautiful - that beautiful tone, that unmistakable Gibson jumbo body tone, you know. There's not many guitars that sound like that. And I dare say it's even better now.
GONYEA: So how is that? How was that possible?
MALO: Well, I have a theory. I mean, I think it really shows that there is a life to these instruments. They are changing. They are evolving. As instruments get older, they sound different. And when they've been through something as traumatic as this, and I know this because every guitar that's come back to me from the flood has a newfound life, has a newfound vigor to it.
GONYEA: Joe, what's your take on that?
GLASER: Well, you know, you said, how can it be good as new? And actually, instruments get better the moment they're not new. And they - this has been true of violins. It's true...
MALO: Pianos, drums, everything.
GLASER: And partly it's because they get played in. As far as the water goes, I was joking around with one of you guys about the fact that we have a bath tub at my shop, and we're thinking about filling it with water and peeing in it and putting some motor oil in and seeing. But everybody - high-level studio guys and artists - when they got their instruments back, which they knew very well and recorded with, said, man, something's changed. And this guitar is the best it's ever been. I saw this so many times from so many disparate people that I just believe that things happen to wood and glue and stuff loosens up. And in the same way that Stradivari violins are considered to maybe be affected by - in sound - by the fact that the wood was floated down from the mills. The river processing - particularly Nashville river processing, by the way - is very good for sound.
MALO: I know. We were joking, if I'd have known this, I'd have thrown my stuff in the Cumberland years ago, you know.
GONYEA: So we want to hear the guitar. I understand it's packed up and buried in a tour bus.
GLASER: That's right. She's back on the workforce, man, you know (laughter).
GONYEA: But your road crew sent us some audio, so let's give a listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
MALO: I love how the color has faded. And I love how the paint has chipped away. And like the old Confucius saying, you know, a better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. And she's certainly a diamond with a flaw, several of them, but a diamond no less.
GONYEA: Raul Malo and Joe Glaser from the studios of WPLN in Nashville. Thanks very much, guys.
MALO: Thank you.
GLASER: Thank you. My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAUL MALO'S "SINCE WHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.