The turn off Harpers Ferry Road onto Bittersweet Lane is hard to spot at 50 mph. I make it, but with a perturbed driver sneering in my rearview as I brake hard. Fifty yards down Bittersweet I spot a warning nailed to a tree which, in essence, tells anyone on this narrow private mountain road to turn around and get the hell out. But just below that portentous sign is a much smaller one for Fairbuilt Guitars. Since that’s my destination, I ignore the stern retreat warning and continue on.
Bittersweet narrows and steepens the further back I go. My instructions are to follow it to its end and not be intimidated by the road’s poor quality.
It’s actually quality that has brought me up this mountain road to Fairbuilt Guitars. By way of two separate referrals, I’ve been told that Marty Fair is the man for me – the expert in repairing old, neglected mandolins. And that’s exactly what I have with me – a 1918 Gibson Style A mandolin. It belonged to my grandfather and I’m charged with keeping this tangible bit of ancestral history in the family. And with giving it the TLC needed after many years of neglect and disregard.
As I step out of my car, two handsome black retrievers approach. A few barks at first, then some timid tail wags and a sniff of my crotch. Marty too welcomes me, but in a succinct way. He’s a man of few words and fewer smiles.
After leading me upstairs, he scrutinizes the mandolin quite attentively, seeing things I’d have never spotted. I then authorize all of Marty’s suggestions: re-fretting, new bone nut, a set of strings, and a new case. I’ve never met the man before today but find him easy to trust. His deliberate demeanor, cramped but organized shop, and weathered hands all lend credence to his recommendations.
The repairs should be finished in four weeks, which means another trip down Bittersweet Lane and another crotch sniff. It’ll give me a chance then to see how my marginally adequate guitar skills transfer to the mandolin. (I’m not expecting miracles.) More importantly though, the repairs mean a tangible link to my grandfather will be revived and ready to be passed on to the next generation.
As I get older, the value of generation connections means more and more to me. Making music with the same mandolin as my grandfather (and assuring that my descendants will as well) is quite a meaningful way to connect our generations, and a charge I’m honored to take on.