and Instrument Repair
I met Simeon Daley and his wife Renee a few years back at a jam session at a church in Knoxville, Tenn. It instantly struck me as interesting that this banjo player with a British accent, and the word "Bluegrass" tattooed across the back of this hand, would be so knowledgeable and excited about bluegrass. (They're both fine pickers. Renee, also known as Missy, plays fiddle and sings, and Sim is a tasteful, driving banjoist.)
Sims comes from a little fishing village in southwest England,and has only been living America for about seven years. I interviewed him at IBMA week this past year, early on Friday morning - in fact, he did some quick setup work on my mandolin beforehand.
"I got nagged into going [to America] by some friends of mine," he says. "They finally said, 'Would you just go? We're sick and tired of hearing about it!' "
"I'd go up to the Edale festival once a year; it used to be the biggest festival in England. (Sim won the banjo contest there one year.) And I used to play banjo in a group called the Wild Turkey Band, and it was kind of an interesting little fusion; I'd play bluegrass banjo, and there was an acoustic guitar, and more of a folky ballady guitar, and a Celtic fiddle.
"But really, me and a guy called Richard Barrett were the entire bluegrass population for the county of Cornwall. I met a guy called Bill Peck, who had moved to L. A. from England, at Edale one year, and he let me videotape him for hours while he played tune after tune. I always remember he had this wad of photographs he'd pull out of his case; it was him with Bill Monroe, him with Ralph Stanley, and him playing Allen Shelton's banjo — I was green with envy!"
"I had a started building mandolins in England," he recounts. "Actually, the Scruggs book got me into it, but I could never afford the parts to build a banjo, so the next best thing was to build a mandolin. And I went into the woods after there had been a gale and some trees had blown down. I'd cut the ends off the trees, hauled them out of the forest to the sawmill, and got them cut up, seasoned them out, went down to the shell shop and got busted old shells for the inlays. The top of my first mandolin was the old back door of my friend's house-it was Douglas fir. I made three while I was over there."
When he finally journeyed to Nashville for his first visit, he didn't know anyone other than Curtis McPeak. Curtis happened to bring him by the Gibson Factory, where he met Ed Webber, who shapes the banjo necks at Gibson and who played in a band with Missy. The bass player in that group introduced him to Charlie Derrington, the legendary mandolin repairman, who at that time was still working at National Guitar Repair. Sim loved it in Nashville and was instantly at home here. He flew back and forth for a while and finally decided to stay.
"I proposed to Missy and we got married a year later," Sim recalls.
His first real job in the states was working for Charlie as a repairman. Not too much later, Sim says, "Gibson bought Charlie out. I think they kind of wanted him to spearhead the whole Opry Mills Bluegrass Showcase thing.
Charlie said, "You've got to hire Sim, too, or I'm not coming."
"So I went to work for Gibson. I went into the banjo division first, and completely revamped the whole resonator building operation back to the way they did it in the 30s — put it back on the lathe. It just streamlined the whole operation. I probably spent a year in the banjo department. Then I went into custom repair, down on 12th. They were going to have a customer service department where they would repair any instrument, kind of like Charlie's Shop (they just moved it into Gibson) to where you could bring in a Gilchrist mandolin or a Martin Guitar [that service is no longer available].
"It was at that point I first took Jimmy Martin's 1945 Herringbone and fixed it for him. It's funny. I used to listen to bluegrass tapes, being a commercial fisherman [In England], I'd be out about 30 miles from land, two o'clock in the morning listening to my Jimmy Martin tapes, never realizing I'd get to meet the guy."
Now Sim works exclusively on Jimmy's guitars and mandolin. In fact, Sim credits Jimmy with giving him the original impetus to come to Nashville. That 1974 album of his was the only album he could get.
You know, bluegrass isn't readily available in England-and I thought, I've got to find out where that comes from."
Eventually, Gibson needed a supervisor for the mandolin division and had trouble finding anyone who was willing or able to do what they wanted.
"I had some experience building in England and from being around mandolins with Charlie and really studying the Lloyd Loar mandolin, so I said I'd have a go at it."
Initially, his job was to keep production flowing.
"I took the division from building three or four mandolins a week to four a day, and that was through the retooling process. We completely scrapped the whole mandolin line and redesigned it back as close as we could get it to the 1923 Lloyd Loar signature model. And Charlie [now head of research and development at Gibson] did all the R &D on the actual top and back plates and sides. Basically, he gave me a bunch of parts and I had to figure out how to put them together in a timely fashion; and I put the dovetail neck joint back in from dimensions I had taken from the Loars. The last month I worked at Gibson we put out ninety-five mandolins. I believe it was Stan Jay at Mandolin Brothers who said they're the best Gibson had built in fifty or sixty years."
Sim was working sixty-plus hours at Gibson, and had little or no time for anything else, like his picking, or making instruments, so he left to open is own repair shop.
"A lot of Charlie's clientele came to me; I even do Charlie's fret work - he never trusted anyone to do that before."
Sim's shop is in his house.
"We had built a two story garage. The whole top story is what I work in. We're kind of out in the boondocks, but when you've got Jimmy Martin's guitar or Sam Bush's mandolin, you don't really want to lock up in downtown Nashville and leave that fifteen minutes from your house."
It's kind of low-key, low-profile. His clientele has expanded to include many familiar Nashville names — Sam Bush, Ronnie Bowman, Aubrey Haynie, Butch Baldassari, David Grier, Roland White, and Dan Tyminski and Ron Block (of Allison Kraus + Union Station), to name a few.
"I even played Ron's old Granada for two years (he was using his Rich and Taylor at the time), until he needed it back to use in Oh Brother. He's one of my all time favorite people. He's really helped me out, and he's one of the best that ever was to strap the banjo around his neck.";
It's still a humbling experience for Sim to get to work on the instruments of musicians he's admired for so long.
"It's pretty wild meeting these people I'd only read about in books and in BU back in England."
Sim works hard to adjust his repair shop work to the musicians needs.
"Especially with road musicians, but pretty much anybody, I try and work around their schedules, not nine to five, or you're last in line, you've got to wait six weeks. For example, Karl Shiflett come through two days before he had to play Bean Blossom. Someone had told him he'd have to have his guitar retopped, and he was nervous about it. But that serious an operation wasn't necessary. I fixed it within 24 hours, and it's still holding and sounding better than it ever did. He was tickled to death."
Most recently, Gibson has contacted him to contract out some of their repair work, something he's especially excited about. And he and Missy have joined forces musically with multi-talented Nashville musician Tony Wray on guitar, formally of the Adairs, in the Tony Wray band.
But the most rewarding thing for Sim is that he's finally at the point where he can work on crafting Daley guitars and mandolins.
"I'm working with a guy in Nashville, Mike Long, and we're starting to make guitars together. Long's guitars have already gained repute in Nashville as great-sounding, affordable instruments. Mike studied old Martins for years. I was already doing the necks and the setup on Mike's guitars, so putting a hand in making them was the reasonable next step. "
Sim intends to streamline the process like he did at Gibson, to keep the prices down.
"There are all these companies that spring up before you know who they are, and they're building good guitars, but then you can't one for years! So I figure build a reasonably-priced guitar, because usually these [other] guitars run $6000 or so. And there's very few people building guitars the way Martin did back in the 1930s and '40s. People generally make them a little heavier to have a little more structural integrity. The guitars I'm building are going to be like racecars as opposed to Model T Fords. It's not going to be a guitar you can knock around. It's delicate, basically like a prewar Martin as near as you can get. That's the goal, and the same thing for the mandolin — like an old Loar."
There's no doubt the Daley name will be around for a long time as both a well-respected repairman and luthier.
I just had to ask about the tattoo.
"There's a comedian in England named Billy Connelly. He had gotten a banjo tattooed on his hand. It was in the newspapers." Laughing, he adds:
"The guy I went to
said a banjo would look like a spoon in a couple of years.
So I decided on the word 'Bluegrass', which pretty much says
—Reprinted with permission from the March, 2002 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited