June 2017 Newsletter
Business Spotlight: Collings Guitars
Known in the industry as "the Steve Jobs of guitar makers," Bill Collings has organically grown Collings Guitars into one of Texas' great entrepreneurial success stories.
Within a few minutes of meeting the passionate polymath Bill Collings, you quickly come to understand why the best of the best guitar luthiers around the world know him as "the Steve Jobs of guitar makers." (Though a comparison to Antonio Stradivari might be more appropriate.) Collings is wicked smart, obsessive about tiny details that will blow past most people, well read, and he possesses a razor sharp sense - a gut instinct - on what works of design and engineering are "insanely great," and what is not. He's spent the last 42 years setting the benchmark for superior guitar making in an industry built upon obsession over minutia. Collings is a maker of things first and foremost, with an artist's dedication to finding the perfect sound from the manipulation of wood...and an almost spiritual devotion to crafting exquisite sounding machines that will outlive us all.
In the week that we interviewed Collings, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge (pictured with Collings at the Collings factory) had flown across the United States just to sit down, listen to, and compare guitar tones with Collings. A few days prior to that, Boyz II Men singer Shawn Stockman attempted to move heaven and earth to arrange a visit to Collings Guitars in his couple of hours of free time outside of his headlining gig at Austin's Frank Erwin Center arena. Pete Townsend, Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell, Eddie Van Halen, Lyle Lovett, Paul Simon, Brian May, and countless others...in search of immortality through guitar tone, they all have come to Collings to purchase instruments. "I can’t tell you how many people came through (Eddie Van Halen)," Collings explained to Texas Monthly a few years ago. "It was a word-of-mouth thing."
TMO Marketing Coordinator Marc Fort made the pilgrimage to Collings manufacturing warehouse in Dripping Springs in order to sit down with the master craftsman to discuss how it all started, the ins and outs of the guitar making business, and how the one man operation has grown to 90-plus employees, all attempting to fulfill the worldwide demand for "the Collings' tone."
This is Part 1 of a 2 part interview. Part 2 will be featured in the July 2017 TMO Newsletter.
TMO: You started Collings Guitars circa 1975. What were you doing before that?
Collings: “Well, I went to college. Out of college in 1972. Went to Ohio University. Never graduated. Just forgot it…because the last school I went to, the tanks came and they gassed us, just like they did at Kent State. But I had a job pre-1972 with a machinist. It was 1971 and I was like 21, or something like that. And I learned more from that guy than I did from anything else…in 3 or 4 years with him."
TMO: Were you studying engineering at school?
Collings: "I did a little. I started out pre-med, and then got lost with the war. Everybody on edge. The whole thing just…I wasn’t into it (school). I was just...confused. If I look at it today...it was a tough time. A real tough time.
"And so I followed my own interests! And they always kept me busy. They didn’t keep me doing anything wrong…they just kept me busy.
"And in 1971 or 1972 or so, even when I was younger…I was making parts for banjos and things like that. And I was buying shell, cutting shell up. And my friend said, 'There’s a place in Ohio, Stuart McDonald’s, that sells that stuff already processed.' I went, 'Really!?' See, I didn’t know any of this stuff. And it (the pre-processed wood and shell) made it a little easier to get going on stuff (I was building). I made necks. I made a banjo in that earlier period, and some other stuff…"
TMO: So you were in school, but because of the craziness going on in the world, you decided to follow you own path…
Collings: "It was crazy…I wouldn’t say that was the rhyme or reason, but that’s just kinda what happened. (laughs) That wasn’t a plan.
"So with my engineering-type background, which I actually inherited from my family...that’s my natural state: to develop, to make, to do something. I didn't have to go to school for that.
"I had to go to school for history. I had to go to school to learn to read. But I didn't need it for anything else."
TMO: If I understand correctly, you come from a family of engineers…going all the way back to a great uncle who worked and raced with Henry Ford?!?
Collings: "Goes back even before him. My people were Scottish. They were bridge builders. It went way back…forever. Nurses...and engineer-type people...where you’re in the quest to make something better, with your hands and your materials.
"...right at the birth of WWI...my family went from mechanical engineers to (working as) chemical engineers. The guy that raised my grandfather was Alexander Winton. And that was his uncle. And he invented the first car that sold for money in the United States: the Winton Automobile. The first year, he made 2 or 3 and sold them. How they did that, I don’t know. The second year, they made 80.
"I’m thinking ‘How the Hell did this happen?’ Well, everybody worked with their hands, and they knew what to do with them. Today, we don’t have that. It’s just not there. And that’s the hard part now. But then…we were trained for the (previous) 50-80 years to really make, measure, and learn to make stuff.
"So when my grandfather’s going to school, he worked back at Winton. He gets his chemical engineering degree...and he was the first person to make magnesium into a piece of metal."
Collings: "Yeah. So it goes back into those early days of people doing this stuff. And everybody was doing it in their garages, they were inventing and making stuff. So his car company was known as a real high quality car company. But he raced Henry Ford (pictured left: Winton racing Ford in 1901. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian Institution), they raced all those people. Winton and Ransom Olds (of the Oldsmobile) were the first people at Daytona. They would invite all these rich people from the North to watch the cars race around the beach. It was the only place they could run races in the winter. They didn’t have roads!
"So I have all these letters with my grandfather of him going to the races. It’s funny stuff! But he quit racing in about 1910 or 1911…saying that after the races, after the weekend, all your good people are worn out. And they needed to get back to production...
"Ford kept promoting racing. And he became faster and better at it. In fact, Ford asked for a job from my great uncle one time. And my great uncle turned him down because he thought he was stupid! (laughs) Isn’t that funny? There wasn’t much ‘stupid’ going on, but…
TMO: Were you the first in the family of makers to start making musical instruments?
Collings: "Yes. What happened in my family was we all grew up in that prosperous time, in the 1950s. My grandfather was the president of Dow Corning. And that was across the street in a conglomerate with Dow Chemical. And we all grew up in that."
TMO: Do you remember why you decided to come to Texas?
Collings: "…because I came down on vacation. And I really liked the people. They seemed really friendly and not cooped up. And I really like the sunshine. We had 100 days of sunshine there, versus whatever amount we have down here. And so that was a big part to me, the weather and the people. I just started out going down South to Galveston for a couple of days (on vacation). And then when I moved, I moved to Houston. And even that was friendly…compared to anywhere I was up North. Up North, you don’t get treated so well. Friends of mine come down from places like Chicago, and somebody stops on the side of the road to help them and they’re like, 'Get outta here, get outta here!’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about. They’re here to help you! And offer you a beer while they fix your car!’ (laughs) That’s why I liked Texas. It was awesome!
TMO: So you moved to Houston and…
TMO Outreach Around the State in May
May 2017 found Texas Music Office staff criss-crossing the state, connecting with new music businesses and continuing relationships with long-standing partners. Early in the month, TMO Director Brendon Anthony made his debut appearance on the Bad Truth Podcast, taping the segment at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley (pictured on right).
Anthony and TMO Program Manager Steve Ray also toured the Wittliff Collections at Texas State in San Marcos, and met with their staff concerning future collaborations.
Ray met with musicologists from around the United States who gathered in San Antonio for the Association of Recorded Sound's annual convention.
Additionally, Anthony made trips to Dallas to meet with the regional office of the US Patent and Trademark Office, and to College Station to meet with Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp to discuss potential music tech innovation competitions hosted by Texas A&M Engineering, the Texas Music Office, New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, and the Mays Business School.
On Thursday, May 18, Anthony also made a quick trip to Fort Worth to meet with their Convention & Visitor's Bureau about their becoming the first Texas Music Office recognized "Music Friendly Community."
Anthony capped off the month's outreach by presenting a proclamation to the Fredericksburg Music Club in honor of their 80th anniversary.
TMO Launches New, Responsive Website
This past weekend, the Texas Music Office launched its new website at texasmusicoffice.com. With a complete top to bottom redesign, the TMO has made it even easier to navigate, and find information about Texas music businesses, artists, radio stations, and annual events. The new website is responsive to mobile devices, and it is accessible for screen readers for the visually impaired.
Just a few of the website’s new features include a news blog, a searchable artist database, a searchable radio stations database, and a new events calendar. Look for new features – including more images, Spotify playlists, videos, and featured pages about economic development opportunities - to continue to roll-out on the website in the coming weeks.
In Memoriam: May Sees the Loss of Some of Texas Music's Finest Musicians
In what felt like the hardest month in a long time, May 2017 saw some of Texas music's brightest stars go supernova, as they passed away from this world into the next.
We'd like to recognize these amazing musicians we lost last month that all called Texas home.
Jimmy LaFave (July 12, 1955 – May 21, 2017): Born in Wills Point, TX, LaFave, went on to be acknowledged as one of the progenitors of the Red Dirt Country Music scene, as well as a prolific Americana songwriter. In 1996 he received the Kerrville Folk Festival songwriter of the year award and appeared on the TV show Austin City Limits. He recorded 15 albums and his 2007 release, "Cimarron Manifesto," reached the No. 1 position on the Americana Music Association album chart. He also co-founded the label Music Road Records, which released several of his albums.
George Reiff (July 16, 1960 – May 21, 2017): Bassist and music producer Reiff started as a New Wave bassist in Houston and Dallas, but went on to become one of the most sought after session players in modern Texas music history. He played with the same heart and soul during every show, whether performing to 100,000 people in Spain, opening for U2 on the Joshua Tree tour, or playing a tiny club show in his adopted hometown of Austin. Reiff played in an uncountable number of bands, including some high profile gigs with Charlie Sexton, Courtyard Hounds, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Joe Walsh, Jakob Dylan, Jayhawks, and Black Crows’ leader Chris Robinson...in addition to sharing the stage and forming a rhythm section with Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame drummers Levon Helm and Ringo Starr.
Kenny Cordray (July 21, 1954 – May 21, 2017): A gifted and eloquent musician, Cordray (pictured on right) shared the stage with some of music’s greatest artists including Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, Jaco Pastorius, John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, Billy Gibbons, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more. Starting out in the late sixties, a teenaged Kenny quickly joined The Children as their lead guitarist. Bass master musician Jaco Pastorius noted that Cordray "is one of the greatest blues and rock players I've ever heard."
Barbara Smith Conrad (August 11, 1937 – May 22, 2017): Born in Atlanta, TX, Smith (pictured on left) went on to become a mezzo-soprano opera singer of international acclaim. In 1957, she became the focus of a racial controversy revolving around her role in a student opera at The University of Texas at Austin. Pressure from the Texas Legislature forced her removal from the cast, and her story received national media coverage. Conrad went on to perform with Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Teatro Nacional in Venezuela, and many others. She complemented her performing activities with artist residencies and master classes, establishing herself as one of the foremost builders of voice both in the U.S. and abroad. She was the co-director and co-founder of the Wagner Theater Program, and maintained a private vocal studio in Manhattan.
Chris LaForge (March 7, 1975 – May 29, 2017): LaForge was well known throughout the Houston music scene - and around the United States - as the loud, rocking guitarist for the punk rock band 30footFALL.