In our cookie-cutter world where gratification is instant (depending on your service provider), it’s refreshing to know that Freeman Vines is out there taking individuality to the limit – and beyond. For 50 years in and around his Fountain, North Carolina home he has hand-carved guitars with a planer. Using an electric planer, the job could be done in seconds. Mr. Vines patiently sands his guitars, by hand, for nine months.
“The wood speaks to me,” he says. “It has character.”
Indeed. He would know.
Vines scours the countryside in search of scrap wood from old barns. His favorite is wood from mule troughs. (“When the mules slobber it works as a preservative. I made a guitar from it and it sounded pretty good!”)
Vines is a former touring gospel musician who did prison time as a teenager for moonshining. He learned to read in prison from a Captain Marvel comic.
Somewhere along his journey, in church or maybe in a dream, his answers vary – he heard a singular guitar tone that became his life’s mission to replicate. He’s been chasing that perfect sound ever since.
His neighbors in his east Carolina county knew of his work and often offered him wood. Photographer Timothy Duffy began photographing Freeman and his guitars in 2015 and the two became friends. Their friendship became a detective partnership when an older gentleman from the county appeared and offered Freeman a pile of black walnut wood but with an eerie caution.
“You may not want it,” the old man told him. “This wood came from a hanging tree where a black man was lynched.”
And thus began a multi-year odyssey for Vines and Duffy to figure out what happened, to whom, why and where? Freeman debated using the wood but eventually decided to go ahead and create art from this murderous bundle, eventually producing four guitars.
“He honored the blood in the wood,” Duffy says.
Through Duffy’s tenacious leg work, (“Tim deals in facts!” Freeman exclaims) the two discovered there indeed was a hanging – and more. They uncovered the grisly truth and even had themselves driven out to the actual location where Wilson and Edgecombe Counties meet.
All this (and more) is documented in their new book, Hanging Tree Guitars (Bitter Southerner). The book contains the best of Duffy’s tint-type photos of Freeman’s miraculous creations along with interviews with Vines and text by folklorist Zoe van Buren.
Vines’ guitars are otherworldly especially in the hands of Duffy whose old-timey techniques give the images a spooky, hardscrabble beauty.
“The guitars are alive with their past purpose,” van Buren writes.
Mr. Vines and Duffy were gracious enough to be interviewed for this Saturday’s (9-26) Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. I was a little worried that Mr. Vines had had a hard life for 78 years and might be a little weakened or forgetful. Just the opposite. Tune in to hear this vibrant, forceful artist who is very much alive, very much in the moment, still creating and looking forward.
(You can hear one of Freeman’s guitars being played by one of his favorite musicians, Johnny Ray Daniels, on this gospel classic, Somewhere To Lay My Head).
Sometimes I really do love this job.
See you on the radio-
Saturday, September 26, The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour hears haunted tales of guitar ghosts in east Carolina, love songs from Texas and real-deal Memphis blues from Beale Street!
Guests: Artist and homemade-guitar-maker Freeman Vines with photographer/author Tim Duffy and folklorist Zoe van Buren; plus Austin, TX roots songwriter Rebecca Loebe and a special appearance by veteran Memphis bluesman, Earl “The Pearl” Banks
Hosts: Jim Dees and our house band, the Yalobushwhackers
Saturday. September 26 – 7pm (CT) Mississippi Public Broadcasting
9pm (CT) Alabama Public Radio
3 pm (ET) University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Thursdays 6 pm (CT) WUMS – University of Mississippi