Bryan Sutton’s flood-damaged guitar to be restored

Bryan Sutton is on most everyone’s list of favorite flat pickers. His several recordings and prominent supporting roles put him in the forefront of modern acoustic guitarists.

Sutton’s remarkable technique and deep musicality won him raves during a brief stint with Ricky Skaggs in the late 1990s. But the constant touring didn’t appeal to the fiery young guitarist, and he opted for the life of a first-call session player, and reliable short term sideman in Nashville. He performs as a member of Hot Rize on their occasional reunion shows, and has been seen on stage and in the studio with everyone from Béla Fleck and Earl Scruggs, to Dolly Parton and Chris Thile.

Bryan was also an early adopter of Bourgeois guitars, and one in particular, a 1995 Slope D model, has developed its own fan following after being dubbed a “Banjo Killer.”

“I remember the first jam session I played this guitar. This was a SPBGMA hotel jam, and I loved how I could hear the guitar over the two banjos in the jam circle. It was more of a macho volume thing, and I think the name was just a sly, silly comment that somehow got picked up and repeated.

I know a lot of bluegrass guitarists struggle to be heard. This guitar really was able to rise above the noise!”

But, sadly, the Banjo Killer fell victim to the disastrous Nashville flood in May 2010. Like many Music City pickers, Sutton stored his instruments at what everyone thought was a secure location, The Soundcheck facility, beside the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville.

“I had two rolling trunks, full of the instruments I use in recording sessions. There was a Taylor 12 string that was beyond repair, and a mid 30s Gibson L-4 that was trashed.

With the Bourgeois, the braces were totally warped. There was significant finish damage and the binding was coming off. Basically, every glue joint was compromised.

I had to pour water out of my guitars.”

An effort is now underway by Dana Bourgeois to repair and restore the guitar, and he is blogging on the progress on his web site.

Bryan said that he is quite thankful for the various luthiers who have helped bring his damaged instruments back to life, and hopes to see the Banjo Killer again this summer.

“Andy Todd is my go-to guy in Nashville, and has done a great job with three older Gibsons that were damaged. Sim Daley also helped out by re-backing an octave mandolin, along with some other repairs.

Robin Smith helped make a banjo out of parts of two that were damaged. I knew that these ones weren’t trashed.

I sent the the Bourgeois up to Dana, not sure of what could happen, but hopeful he could turn it back into something.

I’m looking at this as just another day in the life of a great instrument. I’m really grateful that all these guys have helped me feel like I’m coming out of this situation as well as I can.”

At the Borgeois facility, the guitar was allowed to dry out thoroughly in a climate-controlled room, while Dana and his team determined how best to tackle this tricky restoration.

In the end, Bourgeois said the plan of action would be to tear the instrument back down to its component parts.

“The approach we decided upon is total disassembly, then reassembly of the guitar. That’s the only way to know for sure that every glue joint will be 100% viable.”

The  process had been delayed while Bourgeois looked for a opening in his schedule when he could dedicate the necessary time for the tedious and detail-oriented work required for a project of this sort. Fortunately for both he and Bryan, Japanese guitar restoration specialist Shin Ichikawa agreed to spend time this July at the Bougeois shop in Maine, where he will oversee the process.

Dana says that he has the right man for the job.

“We have a lot of confidence in Shin’s talent. In many ways, he’s the perfect guy to handle this. If we do the job right, there is every reason to expect the Banjo Killer’s original voice to return.

This is going to be a lot of fun for all of us.”

Follow the restoration on the Bougeois site.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.