RANDY WOOD might be the most important Savannahian many of you haven’t heard of. A new book by Daniel Wile hopes to get the word out.
Though well-known and loved by generations of locals, luthier-to-the-stars Wood isn’t mentioned in the hype or brochures seeking to bring new people to Savannah to buy houses in Ardsley Park or patronize establishments in the Historic District.
From his current home base in Bloomingdale in semi-rural West Chatham County, Wood has brought in the premier names in bluegrass to his Old Time Picking Parlor, a humble spot right off Highway 80 (and itself named for Wood’s first such venue in Nashville).
Pre-pandemic, his gigs needed little promotion, as Randy has developed such a devoted client base over the years that they’d sell out almost immediately.
And Randy’s personality – understated, practical, down-to-earth – means he doesn’t always seek the limelight.
As Wile puts it, “One of the great ironies in Randy’s life is that this Georgia farm boy, with massive hands and pickle fingers, is capable of exquisite, intricate artistic expression, be it with pencil on paper or mother-of-pearl on ebony.”
But before becoming a leading national impresario in the bluegrass world, Randy Wood built a reputation as literally one of the world’s best luthiers — the craftsmen who build one-of-a-kind acoustic musical instruments, or “coercing a tree to sing,” as the author describes it.
The list of his clients and their instruments over the years is mind-boggling: Elvis Presley’s inlaid black Gibson Dove from the Aloha From Hawaii concert. Eric Clapton’s guitar on Unplugged. Bill Monroe’s and Marty Stuart’s favorite mandolins.
Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, Ricky Skaggs.... And that’s just a partial list.
Wile’s book is no mere catalog of the stars, however. It takes you back to Randy’s early boyhood outside Douglas, Ga., to his teen years in Brunswick, to his stint in the Army, to late nights at jukejoints in Atlanta, to Muscle Shoals, and into the very epicenter of the great Nashville country music revival of the ‘70s.
The key turning point in Randy’s life comes in Milledgeville, when he becomes an apprentice at the wood shop of Robert “Tut” Taylor.
Tut not only had extensive experience in woodworking to teach Randy, he had connections.
Wile describes a visit to the shop by the great Roy Acuff, who was trying to make a deal on a batch of Dobros.
“The deal never materialized, but because of the visit, Randy befriended Acuff and ‘Bashful Brother Oswald’ Kirby, the Dobro player in Acuff’s band,” Wile writes.
Wile’s book is also a great micro-history of country music’s glory days, when social crosscurrents met in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Classic bluegrass met the Bakersfield sound met the Nashville revival, and Randy Wood found himself in the middle of it all.
After moving to Nashville, Wood, Tut, and a Yankee named George Gruhn opened up a music shop and performance space called GTR, downtown right near the iconic Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry itself.
How near to the Ryman?
“Randy says, the back door of their building ‘almost opened up to the Opry back door,’” Wile writes.
With the Johnny Cash Show filming inside the Ryman, GTR was soon frequented by some of the greatest instrumentalists in country and bluegrass.
Because at the time the Ryman had no air-conditioning, visiting musicians didn’t want to hang out there any longer than they had to to film the show— and that meant GTR and its welcoming, musician-friendly space was their go-to spot.
In time, the group opened a new business nearby, the Old Time Picking Parlor. Wile writes:
“Randy maintains that their aim was to open a music shop that would sell and repair instruments. However, the chosen name insinuated this shop would be more than just a place to buy and sell. It was meant to be a place for hanging out and playing music.”
And that it was, becoming Wood’s peak presence in the scene. It was there that none other than the literal inventor of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, befriended Wood and allowed him to work on his mandolins.
Wile devotes an entire section to Wood’s friendship with Monroe, with a breakdown of individual instruments that passed through Monroe’s talented hands.
By the late ‘70s, Randy and family returned to his native Georgia, setting up shop – literally – at Isle of Hope.
For 22 years he lived and worked there, finally moving to Bloomingdale and the current location of the Picking Parlor in 1999.
When the pandemic is over, be sure and head out to Bloomingdale to catch a show, and hopefully meet Randy while you’re there.
Until then, Daniel Wile’s book is a highly recommended look at the life and times of this influential local resident.