not his preferred instrument to play but Poplar Bluff woodworker
and muscian Luther Medley has earned a reputation for building
stand-up acoustic basses for bluegrass musicians.
On stage Luke Medley
plays bass. But watch him wander among the impromptu jam sessions
at a bluegrass festival and you’ll see him play
just about everything else. His instrument of choice is the banjo but
he’ll pick a mandolin or guitar before he’ll pluck the
heavy strings of a bass.
boring,” he says. “I’d
10 times rather be playing the banjo than the bass fiddle.”
a guy who really doesn’t care for the bass, Luke sure spends
a lot of time on the instrument. A 10-year veteran of the gospel
bluegrass band Guy Stevenson and the Winning Team, Luke switched
to bass after losing the tip of a finger to a power tool and now
plays the instrument professionally a couple weekends each month.
As an instrument maker, Luke would like to build mandolins, guitars
and fiddles but spends almost all his time building basses.
reason I haven’t made more fiddles and guitars is because they
keep me so busy making basses. They’re sold by the time I get them
made and somebody’s wanting another one,” says Luke, 72.
has built 80 of the tubby instruments so far — each one bearing
its production number and the Medley name scrawled onto the heel of its
not for a lack of supply that bluegrass players keep Luke cranking out
basses. The market is full of low-cost imported basses designed for playing
classical music. But these instruments are made to be played with a bow
and not plucked with the fingers the way bluegrass musicians do.
rare that Luke has an inventory of basses but this year he
built six in anticipation of the Cross Country Trail Ride Bluegrass
Festival in Eminence. All but three sold in the weeks leading
up to the festival.
as well be an entirely different instrument, Luke says. “Those
basses are hard to play. They’ve got a big old neck like a two-by-four.”
basses have slender necks that are comfortable even for the smaller
hands of female musicians. Unlike orchestra basses, each string on
a Medley bass projects the same volume — and it’s a thunderous,
room-filling volume at that.
“I have perfected the bluegrass
bass,” Luke says without even a hint
In some ways,
Luke’s basses are humble offerings. He admits he
sand them as much as he should and it’s not uncommon to see
tool marks left in the surface of the wood. The instrument’s
scroll-shaped head is cut out on a band saw instead of carved.
But Luke’s basses have exactly
the sound and playability that bluegrass players want. The price,
too, is a hit with working-class musicians.
“I get $700
for mine. Lord, that’s about half price of what you can
get a foreign-made bass for.”
Luke says he can
appreciate the need for affordable instruments. He was raised on
a farm near the Black River and the first instrument that came into
the family home was a fiddle given as payment for farm labor.
He first took up guitar to accompany his brother on that fiddle.
By the time he was 16 he had a regular job playing a local
square dance. Recalling his excitement at the prospect, Luke says, “Man,
I’m a professional musician. I’m making $2 a week.
I’d never had $2 in my life.”
harmony in a falsetto tenor voice during a performance by the
gospel bluegrass band Guy Stevenson and the Winning Team at the
Cross Country Trailride Bluegrass Festival in Eminence. Originally
a banjo player with the band, Luke now plays bass. Although a
shop accident cost Luke the tip of a finger, hampering his banjo
playing, he still prefers banjo to bass.
to nearly full-time bass making began merely as a way to
pass the time. In 1989, he retired from his job as a lineman at
age 55 to fish and attend bluegrass festivals. When not on
the water or playing music Luke made craft items for his
wife in his woodshop.
“I was just
sitting out here making little what-nots and then I said, ‘I
think I’ll build me a guitar.’ I built a guitar
and a guy come along and he liked it and he bought it,” Luke
recalls with amazement. “I
thought, there might be some fishing money in this.”
was about then that Luke happened upon Harold McCoyn,
an old-time fiddle maker who lived just a few blocks away
from his home in Poplar Bluff.
Luke was walking
to the store for a can of chewing tobacco one winter day when he
spotted an old man sitting on a porch whittling what appeared to
be a fiddle neck. Luke invited the man to come work in his shop.
The two became friends and built instruments together.
Luke to carve the gentle arch into the fiddle top that gives the
instrument its sweet sound. After McCoyn passed away Luke’s
fiddle making caught the attention of the Missouri Folk Arts Program.
The University of Missouri program declared Luke a folk arts “master” and
asked him to teach old-time fiddle making to eager apprentices.
said it was a lost art,” Luke says. “I did that for
three years. They bought the materials. The apprentice got the
fiddle and I got paid. It was a good deal.”
asked Luke to make a bass. He almost turned down the job, knowing
he could never find wood suitable for carving such a large
instrument top. Instead, he decided to try to mold an arched
top out of thin plywood. Without a steam machine
to soften the wood he first tried shaping the top
using pressure alone — an approach that produced comical results.
made a mold and ran an old truck up on that board to hold it down.
We put rocks and everything else on top of it,” Luke says. “We
took it off the next morning and that thing straightened right out.”
sands the inside top of a bass. His instruments include a second
tone bar, one of many changes he’s made to traditional
designs in his search for “the perfect bluegrass bass.”
experimentation Luke learned to mold tops using heat — first
from a fire pit in the yard and later from the sun, or just his shop
woodstove. Not long after he made his first bass a bluegrass musician
brought Luke a supposedly fine bass he said was made for a New York
orchestra player. Despite the instrument’s
pedigree, both men agreed the bass lacked
told him I’ve
thumped on better-sounding watermelons than
that bass,” Luke says.
to improve the sound of that instrument
Luke began his quest to build a bass specifically
for bluegrass musicians. Since then, he
has settled on a design that includes not just
comfortable necks but also internal changes.
began taking his handcrafted bluegrass basses to music festivals
where word spread quickly. Ironically, Luke, who retired
with the hopes of becoming a professional
musician, is probably best known in bluegrass
circles as an instrument builder.
Not that Luke is
without success as a musician and songwriter. In 2000, “Bluegrass
Prayer,” a song he penned, was
nominated as song of the year by a
bluegrass music association. The walls
office are covered with photos of musicians
he’s known or shared the stage
with — bluegrass legends
Ralph Stanley, the Lewis Family, Jim
and Jesse McReynolds and others. Although
he never played with the father of
bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Luke says he
did meet him. Now, he attends Bill
Monroe reunions through his association
with Guy Stephenson, a member of Monroe’s
Blue Grass Boys Band in the 1970s.
|Luke plays banjo during an impromptu jam session at the festival.
elbows and, of course, playing music
with legendary bluegrass performers
comes easily for Luke, who says he shares
a common background with the giants of
the genre. “Every one of them is country folk,” he says. “They
came up like I did.”
roots and love for the music help
Luke keep his success as an instrument
builder in perspective. Although
dealers have tried to buy his basses
in quantity, Luke has steadfastly
“When I make
a bass, people buy them individually to
use and they love them. They
appreciate them. They’re proud of them
and they get out there in jam
sessions and play them.”
resists those who say he’s an American folk artist and should
don’t think of myself
as being an artist. I just
like making them and getting
a little fishing money,” he
says. “I want them to
be the best bluegrass bass
out there but I’m going
to hold my price down so people
can afford it.”
For more information
about Luke Medley’s basses call (573)