A Visit to Carter Vintage Guitars
By Scott Tichenor
March 3, 2014 - 2:00 pm
Mother Maybelle Carter towers above us as we pull into the parking lot of Carter Vintage Guitars. She makes eye contact with her famed Gibson arch-top guitar in hand, the instrument that introduced the song Wildwood Flower to so many and inspired a generation of guitar players.
Her likeness spans the entire height of the building and provides our introduction to Nashville's hottest new music store, owned and operated by vintage instrument power couple Walter and Christie Carter.
The other side of the building hosts an equally impressive likeness of a modern Gibson electric guitar stretching 150 feet from alley to street.
Nashville's downtown which we just drove through on the way here is sadly starting to more closely resemble Branson, Missouri with abundantly more tourist honky-tonks. We find the quality of artwork in this public space a breath of fresh air in the city that is the home of country music.
In tow with me on this two-day getaway is Kansas City musician friend Glenn Bradford, known to many from the earliest days on the mandolin listserv CoMando as "Snapple."
Glenn likes owning great mandolins. The list of instruments that have passed through his hands includes Chris Thile's famed Dudenbostel #5. Chris ultimately hunted Glenn down when Nickel Creek came through on tour in Kansas City and bought it back. Fine instruments move in and out of his home at an impressive rate. He's a lovely guy, one of my best friends, and our mutual interest in owning fine mandolins is a concern to our wives who stayed home for this trip. As the founder of a law firm that bears his name, music is his escape, his passion. We share this in common along with Kansas University season basketball tickets and frequent lunches at Kansas City's finest BBQ haunts.
We enter the store to be greeted by staff member Carson Royster who chats briefly with us, asks if it's our first visit and where we're from. She seems genuinely welcoming and interested in our arrival, a scenario that plays out dozens of times a day with visitors. "Feel free to play any of the instruments," she tells us. The store is clearly in good hands at the entrance.
Part of one of the two 150 murals on the Carter Vintage Guitar building. Photo credit: Jenna Colt.
Entering the main instrument room is a real eye opener with probably 200-300 instruments in view. The interior is modern urban, open, unfinished concrete floors, subtle lighting, open duct work, partitions separating storage areas and seating for trying out instruments.
It's Monday at 1:00 p.m. and the store is hopping. Walter and Christie move from customer to customer throughout the store chatting with visitors, asking if they have questions, delivering and picking up instruments, offering coffee, soft drinks or beer and wine for those that have been here awhile. At least two other store employees are doing the same.
There are a few small "quiet rooms" for the private testing of instruments, one of which is in danger of imploding during our visit as a middle-aged guitarist unleashes his cache of poorly interpreted Lynyrd Skynrd licks, volume set to 11. Walter briefly makes eye contact with me smiling, but there's not a hint of disapproval.
In the same instant I overhear a visitor introducing a friend in tow to one of the staff members as "Taylor Swift's bass player." He smiles, shakes hands and asks if he can try out an instrument. A Google search on my iPhone turns up the name Amos Heller, standing 20 feet in front of me.
Business as usual in Nashville, but for me the experience is surreal.
There's an abundance of comfortable seating throughout the store, but no chairs with arms, thank you, and a leather sofa Christie tells us Vince Gill tries to buy every time he visits. "I keep telling him, Vince, it's not for sale," she says.
Adam Steffey and Frank Solivan
Adam Steffey and Frank Solivan play two Gibson Lloyd Loar-signed mandolins while visiting the store. In this clip Adam is playing a 1923 and Frank is on a 1923 Loar with original Virzi.
Main Showroom Floor
Right side of main showroom floor, Carter Vintage Guitar. NOTE: this photo was taken a few months earlier. When we arrived there were 21 mandolins in this same spot, up from the 14 shown here. There are many more located throughout the store.
Photo credit: Daryll Wolfe.
Glenn and I concur: customer service at Carter Vintage is impeccable and like few other music stores we've visited. Later that day after he posts on Facebook about our experience one of his followers says it best: "The Carters are more like hosts than folks running a music store." Open well short of a year, they already have a reputation, the kind any retailer would love to own.
Christie tells me someone had interviewed them just prior to the store's grand opening and asked what set their store apart from others in the area. "I hadn't really thought that aspect of it out but I told them we would feature more vintage instrument videos on our web site than anyone else."
They certainly do, but it's more than that. What sets the store apart from others is how visitors are treated.
Carter Vintage Guitars murals
The building-length murals that grace both sides of Carter Vintage Guitars are the creative work of Nashville's Vermillion Atelier.
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.
Above: iPhone 5 panorama camera setting. Click to view larger photo. Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.
To the left as you walk into the central area of the building where most instruments are displayed is a smaller room the Carters affectionately refer to as "the second floor." It's at least a single foot above the the main showroom. I suspect this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the offices at the store of their former employer. This is the room reserved for some of the finest and most expensive instruments, only you don't have to beg an appointment or display your vintage instrument credentials to enter.
It's here we plant ourselves here for a good part of the afternoon.
Want to know where most Loar and post-Loar era F-5 mandolins for sale in Nashville reside these days? They're right here, and within an hour of our entrance I've likely played a half million dollars of mandolins and I have even touched the guitars.
Long black rectangle cases with bright green interiors are flying at me at an alarming rate. Just because I run a loudmouth mandolin web site doesn't give me the right to engage in this kind of experience and quite frankly, it's humbling. I head outside for some air and a chance to gather my wits.
The experience is dizzying enough, and then I meet the mandolin known as "Mildred," a reference to Mildred Byram, the original owner of a fine 1927 Fern shown in the 1930 Gibson catalog. Her photo graces the wall, and playing her mandolin while she holds court is a powerful experience.
Mildred can be yours for a mere $87,500. For those that dabble in mandolins in this vintage that's fair market price. Unfortunately, Mildred will not be making the trip home with us, but that doesn't stop us from lusting over the instrument or wondering what kind of music she would have played in the day.
For mandolin players it's not just all about Loar era Gibsons. Many builders are represented by not just one, but several of their instruments. There are fine mandolins by Duff, Gilchrist, Nugget, Monteleone, Collings, Stanley, Ellis, Elkhorn, Wiens, Kimble, Brentrup, Flatiron and many more. There's also a selection of new and used entry level priced instruments including a superb 1924 Gibson A Jr. Glenn and I agree was one of the best sounding opportunities in the store for its relatively low price.
1927 Gibson Fern
The other 1927 Gibson Fern available during our visit, Serial #84468.
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.
We'd both been in stores that had as many mandolins, but never one with so many truly fine models, and surprisingly, most were in tune. There's probably a joke in there somewhere.
At the end of the day a 2001 Wayne Henderson A model at $10,500 turned out to be our pick as the most surprising. Nothing particularly impressive to look at but off the charts in tone and character. Very few A model mandolins ever achieve this kind of sound and we both concur: it's a masterpiece, reminiscent of the Griffith A model Loar.
The afternoon slipped by and the shadows were starting to fall. Mentally exhausted from the afternoon, we retreated to our hotel to rest up before meeting Walter and Christie and CVG staff member Joshua Alexander for dinner at the music venue 3rd and Lindsley. In concert tonight, The Time Jumpers, the other reason we've traveled here. They're Nashville's 11-piece super-group made up of the finest support instrumentalists for tours, A-list studio musicians, staff Opry band members and the legendary Vince Gill on guitar and vocals.
The Time Jumpers play what they call timeless music, the kind Nashville has largely forgotten and is rarely heard on commercial radio. The venue sells out every Monday for the band's regular gig. Look around the audience if you come. Country Music legends and Opry Stars stand in line and pay to see them.
I've been to this town enough times to know you just run into a lot of well known musicians, and one of my favorites is at the show taking in the music. The great mandolinist and band leader Frank Solivan is here with his wife and fellow band members. It's great to catch up and meet those whose work you admire.
Up to this point the trip has been without incident, but things take a precarious turn at 12:45 a.m. on the way back to the hotel when Glenn and I pull into Krystal Burgers for a dozen minis with cheese and fries to go (Nashville's version of White Castle). Sounded like a great idea. Memo to self: bring Tums next time.
Glenn Bradford gives one of several Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolins a spin on the second floor of Carter Vintage Guitars.
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
Tuesday evening we return to the store to catch Mike Compton's project band Helen Highwater in concert on a small stage in back of the main room. A crowd of about 40 show up to see Mike on mandolin and vocals along with Artistworks School of Bluegrass instructor Missy Raines on bass, Shad Cobb on fiddle and vocals, and legendary guitarist David Grier.
Simultaneously, Chris Thile is playing a solo show at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center less than a mile away. I'd love to have seen both, but sitting 10 feet in front of the greatest Monroe stylist on earth fit my musical needs better than I could possibly imagine. Compton and Thile are a galaxy apart in style and approach. I love them both but tonight I'm in the company of friends and there's something special about live music in a room surrounded by so many great instruments.
Glenn and I agree, a return trip needs to be in our future. For me personally it'll likely be part of a break from the Summer NAMM show in July. What would we change if we returned? Very little. Flight into Nashville, grab a rental car, some lunch and head directly to Carter Vintage Guitars. If it's a Monday, spend an evening with The Time Jumpers. And Tums.
Full-time retail store, part-time live music venue, a little bit of home. That's Carter Vintage Guitars. You might enter as a stranger but you'll leave as a friend. I strongly suggest next time you're in Nashville you pay a visit to see what all the fuss is about. Or do what my friend Glenn and I did and make an excuse to simply get here.
Mother Maybelle will be waiting.
- Carter Vintage Guitars is located at 625 8th Ave S., about a mile south of Downtown Nashville.
- Carter Vintage Guitars YouTube Channel
- Carter Vintage Guitars on Facebook
- Hours: 10:30 - 6:30 Mon-Sat; 1:00-5:00 Sun
- Phone: (615) 915-1851
It's not her personal guitar, but she plays one. Carson Royster may be the first person you meet when you enter Carter Vintage Guitars.
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
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I'd like to add my voice to the chorus of enthusiastic support for Walter and Christie Carter, and Carter Vintage Guitars. I was in Nashville for the very first time last September, and I paid a visit to their shop myself. Actually, it was more like making a pilgrimage: it was a life-transforming experience for a mandolin player. First off, Christie and Walter could not possibly have been nicer or more gracious! They didn't know me from Adam, but they gave me the complete run of the place, and let me play every instrument that I could lay my eager fingers upon. In fact, I could just reach up and take the instrument down from the rack myself, and then sit down and play it. No one one stood closely by over my shoulder, or pressed me for a response. No one told me what I could, or couldn't, touch. Not a single mandolin was locked up behind glass, including more than one Lloyd Loar F5. Amazing! It was a quiet, warm and relaxing playing experience. (No one was banging out chords to "Stairway to Heaven" in the background! Whatever other music I heard was well away from me, and played softly by knowledgeable musicians). I went there with a local musician friend, and we 'tasted' the finest mandolins for hours. It was, by far, the most memorable trip I've ever had to a music store, and no former experience even comes close.
Second, Walter and Christie could not possibly have amassed a more impressive set of instruments, or so it seemed to me. Nearly all the very greatest luthiers, and many of the others whose names come up so frequently at the Mandolin Cafe, were represented. In the space of an all-too-short, 3-hour (!) visit, here's what I got to play:
1) 1 1924 Loar mandolin (priced at $175k)
2) 1 1924 Loar mandola (being sold the next day to Ry Cooder)
3) 2 Gilchrist F5s (both x-braced, one was blonde and designated "classical", F5C, and formerly owned by Charlie Derrington)
4) 2 Hendersons, an F5 (from Alan Bibey), and an A5
5) 1 Monteleone 10-string mandolin/ola
6) 1 Brentrup mandola
7) 2 1927 Gibson F5s (both post-Loar Ferns),
8) 1 Mix New-Mad carbon fiber F4 (I finally tried one of those)
9) 1 blonde Nugget F5
10) 1 Dan Voight F5 (his #9)
11) 1 Duff F5
12) A whole bunch of Elkhorn F5s
13) A whole bunch of 60-80's era Gibson F5s
14) A few 1918-1922 Gibson F4s
...and I'm sure I left a few out. Wow, is all I can say. Actually, words cannot express this experience.
I was fascinated to hear Scott Tichenor call out the Henderson A5-model there as a great mandolin, and something of a dark horse. It's going to sound like I'm making this all up after the fact, but that's EXACTLY how I felt (and reported) at the time! Let me quote here from an email to a friend that I sent on Wednesday, Sept. 11 (yeah, it was 9/11), 2013:
"IMO, the two standouts were – drumroll --the X-braced Gilchrist F5C (good G*D what an amazing mandolin!) and, improbably enough, the Wayne Henderson A5 model.
Yes, the 1924 Loar was great, but hey, not that great, when you consider the price differential. And the two 1927 Ferns were just wonderful, too, but not that wonderful. I only wish I'd had the Altman with me to compare directly. But I sure had enough other great instruments for comparison purposes."
For me, the best deals in the whole store were Charlie Derrington's Gilchrist F5C and that incredible Wayne Henderson A5. Actually, I thought the Henderson A5 sounded significantly better than his F5, in fact. And it put some of the vintage, Loar-era Gibsons to shame.
While in the store, I also ran into Nashville luthier and mandolinist Dan Voight, who was hanging out there for a time. We had a really nice conversation, and he showed me a top he was carving for his next mandolin, as well as his finger planes and customized scraper. I learned a lot about his perspective on voicing and tuning the wood of a mandolin. Then, he put down his tools and played for a while (he's a great musician, to boot). One of his instruments was there hanging on the wall. A very innovative thing he does is to attach his truss rod covers with tiny (and invisible) rare earth magnets, set into the headstock itself and into the underside of the cover. These are super-strong, and the resulting look is clean and fabulous, and much better than those ugly screws you usually find, even on the prettiest instruments. It would not surprise me if more instruments take advantage of this same technology in the future.
All in all, I did a lot of ear training -- and careful listening! -- that afternoon. I now feel that I am much better "calibrated" when it comes to high-end instruments. This was very valuable training for me. Not to mention FUN!!
Alas, I didn't get to buy an instrument that day (too poor, and my tastes are too expensive), but I re-doubled my resolve to save all my pennies for the instrument of my dreams. And after this incredible experience, I would not hesitate to do business with Carter Vintage Guitars. It's, hand-down, the most amazing instrument shop I've ever visited. And the owners were such nice people. My faith was renewed.
We probably shouldn't derail the conversation with food and drink from this point forward although there are few things I love talking about more. Go for coffee/espresso at Crema, 15 Hermitage Ave., one of the best in the U.S. in my opinion.
Unsurpassed as countrys foundational early country stars.
Just returned from Nashville and the Nashville Mando Camp with Megan and Adam Chowning and intended to stop and see the Christies in their new digs! Thanks to your enticing report, I must make the 9 hour drive again! (can't carry enough trade bait on an airplane!)
I haven't played many Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolins in my life, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good their F-5 was. I thought it was the best mandolin in the store.
I did not buy it.
My input to the thread is that Walter was great to deal with for an out-of-state purchase. He accepted a proposal to buy one of his mandolins (a Poe A style) with payments spread out over two months. Responses to emails were always quick and friendly.
The experience went so well that I added a Carter Vintage Guitars shirt and hat to the final order. The package arrived within a few days of the Carters receiving my last check.
it may just be too ambitious a price...
Actually, eadg145, I think you may have misunderstood what folks are saying. I, for one, was not the least bit surprised that Wayne Henderson makes a fine-sounding mandolin (or guitar, for that matter). After all, he has a well-deserved reputation for being a great modern luthier. The SURPRISE -- for me, anyway -- was that his A5 model sounded so much better than his F5 model (formerly owned by Alan Bibey), which was hanging on the wall right next to it. I did some pretty careful A/B comparisons on these two Henderson instruments (fiddle tunes, scales, chops, tremolo, stuff up and down the neck), but you could hear a distinct difference right off the bat. Furthermore, that amazing Henderson A model sounded better than a whole bunch of hugely more expensive instruments from other makers (again, in my subjective opinion!), all costing in excess of $20,000 -- including at least one Gilchrist, one Nugget, and several very old Gibson F5's. So, dollar-for-dollar, I'd have to say that it was the best value in the store, measured in units of sonic fabulosity per simolean!
Of course, all this is totally subjective, so please don't shoot the messenger!
It's because there are so few people that build great guitars and great mandolins. Most people specialize. Played several henderson guitars, and they're the bomb. Just didn't know his mandolin would be too.
My ear really loved the Nugget, but I left it there. Maybe another visit next year.
On topic, I'm really impressed with what I've seen from Carter Vintage since they've opened. I don't know if/when I'll get to Nashville, but that destination is at the top of the list if I do! From out here in Northern California, the two things I appreciate most are the two-mandolin comparison videos and the general good vibe that gets spread a little farther every time someone visits their store and writes about it. Like bluegrasser78 I've found the"Mildred" Fern absolutely glorious from the video, and I'll have to wait to visit until she's safely in the hands of a new owner. That's one fine instrument, even only on video! I absolutely desire to visit this fine merchant, and to meet the pleasant staff who make this happen.
On a final note, I really like the units of "sonic fabulosity per simolean". We should calibrate this and adopt it as an international standard!