Lost in the Nashville flood: Musical instruments galore

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Anyone who knows the feeling of becoming intimately familiar with a particular musical instrument can’t help but sympathize with all those musicians who lost prized pieces of equipment during the recent floods in Nashville.

I reached out to several to ask whether they’d been affected by the wall of water that submerged Soundcheck Nashville, one of the key musical equipment storage facilities there. A lot of people think of instruments as little more than furniture that’s easily replaceable, but that notion quickly fades when you hear a musician talk about a favorite piece of musical equipment. And even for those instruments that might be in good enough shape to repair, the chorus from those dealing with them was remarkably consistent: ‘They’ll never be the same.’

Brad Paisley had all his guitars and other equipment he uses on tour at Soundcheck because he and his crew were rehearsing for a tour that opens May 21 in Virginia Beach, Va. Ironically, it’s “The H20 Tour” from the track “Water” on his latest album, recorded long before the flood.

“It was under the Cumberland River,” Paisley told me by phone from his home in Nashville. “I don’t know what was in that water, but it was bad. There were spiders, snakes, it was just awful….The bridge on my Telecasters -- they’re fairly new guitars, and they’re chrome-plated. Some of them are titanium, and they had corrosion that looked like they were 50 years old.”


Paisley’s equipment was insured -- many musicians’ gear wasn’t -- but even so, he notes that several of his favorite guitars that were destroyed were vintage instruments 50 or 60 years old that can’t be replaced.

“I called Vince [Gill] right afterward and said, ‘Tell me your ’53 Tele wasn’t in there.’ That’s the one guitar you most associate with him. He said, ‘It wasn’t -- actually, everything I tour with was in a truck that couldn’t get back to Soundcheck because of the rain.’ He just had his collectible stuff there, which is just as bad. Keith [Urban] and I were just the opposite. Everything we have that goes on the road was in there.”

Keyboardist John Hobbs told me about the Hammond B3 organ he’s played on innumerable recording sessions and live performances: “My B3 I bought from a lady in Ohio who bought it new in 1955. She had nursed it, and it had the maintenance record taped to the top of the bench: ‘Cleaned and oiled, Feb. 1, 1956…Cleaned and oiled Feb. 1957.’ Unbelievable. I had it all cherried out with the very best tubes to get it sounding great. I even had a name for it, I called her Nellie Belle. Anyway, it’s a hit, it’s a big hit.”

Guitarist John Jorgenson just returned from a tour through Europe, “which had its own challenges with the volcano, immigration issues, etc….’

Back in Nashville, he said, “My home, family and pets were all OK, but not so much my instruments. My basement flooded with all my vintage Vox amps, and once I was able to get them recovered I found out about Soundcheck, where I indeed had a lot of instruments and amps stored -- most of the ones I used on tour with Elton, and all the ones I’d have taken to sessions, many one-of-a-kind, specially made for me, the others vintage.

“It was of course horrible to know that they were all sitting in water for days and I was in Europe and could do nothing about it, although no one else could either, as the whole building was inaccessible. [I’m] back home now, and dealing with the massive amount of ruined gear and instruments ... they were much worse than I thought, as all the guitars spent days submerged in water containing diesel fuel and sewage.”

Then he ran part way down the laundry list of his damaged equipment:

“Monteleone mando[lin] is toast, Gibson A2 [mandolin] went into a bag in so many pieces, ’61 Les Paul SG [electric guitar], ’64 SG Custom, ’70 Les Paul Custom, Yellow Submarine Casino, Hank Marvin Strat ...four vintage AC30s [Vox amplifiers], 2 JJ Matchless [amps] ... A dozen amps and about 25 guitars, plus cases, trunks, rack units, pedals ... incredible.”

I mentioned to him that Keith Urban and Vince Gill, both of whom lost a considerable amount of instruments and gear, opted not to do interviews out of respect for musicians who were in far worse shape.

“I understand perhaps why some others don’t want to speak about it,” Jorgenson said, “but it certainly is an aspect of this whole story that many don’t understand.”

Joe Chambers, a musician who opened the Musicians Hall of Fame about a year ago, put it this way: “This is a very personal thing. An instrument becomes an extension of you. Music itself is all mental. Personally, somebody could hand me a yellow guitar with pink polka dots on it, and I couldn’t be very creative with it. I’d reject it. By the same token, it could be a guitar that’s not necessarily a brand name, but just one that sounded good in the right hands and it makes beautiful music.

“You could take a really nice instrument, but it might not lay in your hand right, so you’re not going to play to the best of your ability,” Chambers said. “For songwriters and musicians, these things are not tangible.”

Paisley said the guitars he’s lost represent more than just physical objects -- “It seems like they become old friends.” At the same time, he said, “They are just guitars. I haven’t had time or an inkling to be sad or complain about anything…. I think the silver lining is that we’ve seen a side of Nashville you only see emerge in this kind of adversity, and it’s a fantastically graceful place. No one’s looking for a handout. No one’s even angry.

“They just instantly went into this everybody-needs-help-and-we’re-going-to-help-them mode,” Paisley said. “This is a small town basically, and it’s small enough that it’s hard to look the other way.”

-- Randy Lewis

For more on the story

Top photo: Dave Nokken, left, and Patrick Earle look through the equipment of musician Steve Earle as it dries out in a warehouse with equipment belonging to other musicians on May 10, one week after floods hit Nashville. The equipment was stored at the Soundcheck Nashville storage facility, which is near the Cumberland River. Credit: Mark Humphrey / Associated Press

Center photo: Brent Ware pulls a 1952 Gibson Les Paul valued at $100,000 from Soundcheck Nashville on May 7. Credit: Jeff Gentner / Getty Images.