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Hanging Out In Shadows of Lloyd and Jesse

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 29, 2009 - 4:45 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Lloyd Loar never robbed or killed anyone, and Jesse James never built anything lasting from wood and steel.

Yet their legacies came together in a fine and fun moment recently in my living room, via a path through the Czech Republic. Reality carries Loar's gifts around the world, while James sails on myth.

Loar died in obscurity in 1943 without realizing how profound his influence on music and instrument design would become, and that people like Miroslav Vana would take detailed measurements of Gibson F5s mandolins that he had signed.

James considered himself a public hero and media star, thanks to a newsman's promotion of him and the boom in pulp western novels. Yet he probably never figured people outside of Missouri would remember him, and he doubtless thought it was all over when he heard the metallic click of a revolver hammer in the moment before "that dirty little coward" Robert Ford put a bullet in his brain in 1882.

I doubt that James ever imagined that three fellows from Europe visiting Missouri in 2009 would sing a song romanticizing his life and death and perform it in three-part harmony in the Czech language. But Miroslav Vana, Martin Krajicek and Jan Skovajsa nailed it. They say the American folk song is known by everyone in their home country because it's been adopted into their folk music tradition. A band called the Greenhorns had a hit song with it there.

Such is the power of myth.

The true history of James' Civil War era times and some brutal realities about his daily life and crimes are conveniently ignored by all but historians. Which is ok. He's long gone. I watched them dig up his bones for DNA testing in the early 1990s, and it turns out he really is buried in a Kearney, Mo., cemetery. His tombstone is not far from my house or his family's home place in the country.

James circles the world endlessly because his myth represents the freedom of the American West, freedom from drudge daily jobs and responsibilities, coupled with rebellion against oppressive establishment.

Loar's work, on the other hand, sets people free emotionally because his mandolins and other instruments produce beautiful sonic tones as real as the oceans are big. His influence has penetrated cultures throughout Planet Earth. Loar's F5 mandolin is not the only standard, but it is the benchmark standard.

It's funny how little pieces of culture stick together after they collide.

Vana, Krajicek and Skovajsa recently made their first visit to the United States and they kept encountering Loar or James along the way. Vana is a highly trained violin builder who has turned to building Loar-style mandolins. He crafts the Vana Acoustic Instrument line. Krajicek is a recording artist, music teacher and a tremendous mandolin and guitar player. Skovajsa sings and plays mandolin and served as the group's English interpreter.

The gents landed on the West Coast and then went to the Telluride festival. Then they headed back to San Francisco, where they got to meet the Dawg and other major players. They even got an overnight loan of Crusher so Vana could take the Loar-signed mandolin's detailed measurements.

"David Grisman is a very generous man," Vana said. "We are all very happy and grateful for everything he has done for us."

They then hopped in a rental car and spent three days touring and camping in Yellowstone Park. A long road trip later they passed through my neck of the woods. Then it was on Nashville, North Carolina and New York. Stops were made at epic instrument shops, such as Gruhn Guitars and Mandolin Brothers. They helped Jesse McReynolds celebrate his 80th birthday.

I feel like I'm pretty boring compared to that itinerary. So during their visit I brought up Jesse James as something interesting from my area. I met them in Platte City, Mo., and James' assassination in St. Joseph, Mo., occurred the day before he had planned to rob a bank in Platte City.

So we had that trivia to kick around as they unpacked four of the mandolins Vana has built. Skovajsa plays a lefty A model. Krajicek and Vana both played on an older A5 model and two brand new F5 models with the varnish still curing.

I considered it an unforeseen joy that luckily passed my way.

I'd written an earlier column about the international nature of mandolins, which was based on a Cafe thread about Vana mandolins and a gentleman in Japan who owned and admired them. But I never dreamed I'd get to play one.

Suddenly the three right-handled models were at my disposal. The A5 model was killer, the sound rich and deep. The F5s, including one with a Virzi, were beautifully made and sounded good, even though their sound is still developing as the finish cures. The one with Virzi was sweeter and the one without had more cut.

Friends came over and we had tunes. What a treat.

Vana, 32, taught himself how to do instrument repairs and then studied with some highly respected violin makers.

"I started playing in a bluegrass band," he said. "There wasn't a mandolin in the band so it's what I had to play. I didn't like the mandolin. But then I heard Sam Bush play with Newgrass Revival, and I liked it immediately. When I heard Sam Bush play, I realized the mandolin has very wide and huge possibilities in different music styles."

So Vana builds mandolins now, a handful per year, all with hand tools on his work bench in his home shop in a small town about 100 miles north of Prague. He builds them like the old masters built violins, the same way Loar thought mandolins should be made.

Skovajsa said Vana first saw plans for building Loars via Mandolin Cafe links. Lloyd's circling of the globe has sped up. But like the master, the good students keep searching for more knowledge. He showed me how he rubs a glass tube pressed against wood to create sound waves to measure wood thickness, an old violin method.

"Mira considers himself a researcher who is still looking for the best sound for a mandolin Holy Grail," Skovajsa said. "But it's a lifetime task, because all players will admire a slightly different sound, and mandolins will vary in different places and in different environments."

That's certainly a more honorable pursuit than robbing people at the point of a gun, or being an executive who upends peoples' lives by looting corporations.

Musicians and instrument makers are a rather lonely breed in these modern times.

Any yahoo can generate mandolin-like sounds on a computer these days, and copy and burn music without paying for it, and play that music at parties and weddings and in bars so that no one need pay for musicians or purchase musical instruments.

But some things have a realness that makes them endure, such as a fine mandolin in your hands or the open skies of the American West.

We're all riding the worldwide mandolin trail and meeting one another out on the range. Hearing my Czech friends sing "Jesse James" and play so well on their Loar-inspired mandolins is a summer highlight for me, as real as wind singing in the trees.

Links on the Czech trail:
Martin Krajicek MySpace

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