Former Denver guitar maker Scott Baxendale has attracted some impressive clients in Athens

Categories: Profiles

Scott Baxendale performing at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia

Master luthier Scott Baxendale lives in Athens, Georgia, these days, but he still has Denver on his mind. In fact, he says he has plans to move back here at some point. Right now, though, the guitar maker and former Colfax Guitar Shop owner has his hands full in Athens, between running his latest guitar shop -- which boasts some high-profile clients, including Wilco, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Of Montreal, Buddy Miller, Justin Townes Earle and Steve Earle -- and teaching at the Athens Luthier Academy, which he founded.

See also: Denver filmmakers take to the road and Do It for Johnny

We caught up with Baxendale, a longtime veteran of the Denver scene, to find out what he's been up to since he moved. We also spoke with him about Bones in the Desert, the album he just released with Athens legend Jack Logan, much of which was written and recorded in Denver (Baxendale is a first-rate guitarist himself). He also gave us the scoop on what happened with Do It for Johnny, the documentary about getting a screenplay based on his life into the hands of Johnny Depp.

Westword: Tell me about the album you did with Jack Logan.

Scott Baxendale: Jack Logan is sort of an underground local legend. He did these comic books called Peter Buck comics in the '80s. He's just a really prolific lyric writer, and my music and his lyrics have gelled together for this record. It's been pretty exciting, because we just get to work at our own pace and get to draw from all these incredible musicians that we can bring in to do a track here and a track there. It's pretty fun.

I was reading about how John Neff, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, is his brother-in-law, and he introduced you two.

Yeah. John's two sisters are married -- one of them to Jack Logan, and the other is married to William Tonks, who plays in the band Bloodkin. And they both play in all kinds of other bands, too. William Tonks plays in about five or six different projects, as well. But they're all amazing. I met Jack through John Neff. Turns out, he was working in the same industrial complex where our shop is. He was working three doors over with this guy who makes these wax candle things that he sells.

So for the longest time John told me, "You need to give some of your music to Jack and let him write some lyrics to it." So I just compiled a CD of some stuff that I had been working on and just random stuff not thinking that he'd come up with anything -- just stuff to fill the CD up. Then, two weeks later or less, he came back with the first batch, and then he'd have like ten songs that he'd written lyrics to my music.

He just takes the demo track and he puts it on his four-track. He uses his four-track to come up two or three vocal parts that he puts on there with the lyrics. Then he burns that off on a CD and gives that back to me. I set up the master tracks and record the master tracks, or some of them have the master tracks recorded, but usually they don't.

So I set up the session, and record the rhythm track, and I'll get him to come over and lay the vocal on it. We'll do one song at a time, and he'll come over and do song, and then I'll do all the other producing and stuff. It just worked out fantastic.

I just sort of felt like his lyricism and his ability to write lyrics to my music just sort of legitimized my music, after a long time of wondering if it had any legitimacy at all because it was all instrumental. And it didn't really have an audience. This music seems to have an audience all of the sudden because of that.

Some of the demos you recorded in Denver, right?

Yeah. Maybe half the record I had either written the song or recorded the tracks in Denver before I moved. A couple of the songs, like that song "Run For Your Life," was virtually completely recorded in Denver, other than the vocal and maybe the bass part. Then, "Technical Difficulties," a lot of that was recorded, and "Erased," the rhythm track for that was recorded... and so I'd say maybe half the record was.

On some of them, I'd use just a portion of those tracks and then re-record a couple of them. The very first song on the record, "What Have You Been Up To," is one of those songs, and originally, it all these percussion loops and drum loops that were kind of the drum track.

I just had Brad Morgan come in play the drums to it, and I just took out all that stuff off. Because it was recorded in loop fashion it was really to record new rhythm tracks, which is kind of backwards to record. I was able to record new bass and drum parts to those songs really relatively easy, and it worked out really well I thought.

Brad's with the Drive-By Truckers, right?

Yeah. Brad Morgan plays drums on the record. And my shop right now is right next to Dave Barbe's studio. As we're talking, they're over there mixing their new album right now. I was just next door showing Patterson this new guitar that I painted green for him. It's pretty cool. With Barbe's studio next door, we get a lot of traffic from there because we'll loan them guitars to use, and they have several of our rebuild guitars over there that they keep in the studio. Eventually any band that comes in there to record ends up coming into our shop and usually having us do something or gets interested in some of our guitars that we do, the rebuild guitars especially.

It sounds like you guys have been dealing with some pretty big clients over the last few years.

As soon as I got here, I met DeWitt Burton, who has been the long-time guitar tech for R.E.M. Of course, they were basically breaking up, which is really just more of a restructuring of their business model more than it is they are actually breaking up. I have a feeling they'll be getting back together and doing something before it's all said and done, unless something happens to somebody. But I would imagine there will be some sort of R.E.M. reunion at some point. They just had too many people on their staff, and the record business is so different from when they were in power, so to speak.

They had a big staff of about fifty people, and so they retooled all of that. They kept DeWitt on. But I got a little sidetracked -- DeWitt got a temporary gig for the summer working for Wilco, and he took several of my guitars out there to their loft in Chicago. They fell in love with the rebuilt Harmonys. Jeff Tweedy just fell in love with one of the guitars that we did, and it became his main guitar, and it may still be. I hope it is.

Then Nels Cline had an old '40s Harmony that he sent to me after he got back because he loved what we did to them, and we rebuilt it for him. He says he loves it and that he plays it all the time. It's kind of interesting. Even though we're building custom guitars and I've got more orders now than ever, it's really the Harmony rebuilds and the Kays that really have the attention of the working class musician.

Why do you think that is?

There's two reasons why. One is that they're old and they have a really cool retro look to them. These guys now buy these new Fenders that are relic-ed in the factory to make them look old. These are really old guitars, and then after I rebuild them, they play and sound so amazing that they compete with guitars that were made by Martin and Gibson in those days, and, in fact, sometimes surpasses them. We sell them at a price that competes with stuff made in China and sold at Guitar Center.

We just finished up a Kay super jumbo for Buddy Miller, who's a big producer in Nashville. He loves the old Harmonys and Kays and old guitars and stuff. He does stuff with T-Bone Burnett and that kind of thing. So, Lera Lynn, who was in Athens, bought one of our Kays, and she just immediately started touring relentlessly with it. She got on Prairie Home Companion, and they gave us a couple of shout-outs on there. She talked about the guitar on there, and that got a lot of attention.

She's since moved to Nashville, and she's kind of become I think one of the darlings of Nashville at the moment. She's been promoting the hell out of us. It's just amazing what she's done for us. So it really couldn't have been a better move for what we're doing in terms of guitars to come here because it's really opened up the door. Surprisingly, I didn't think we'd start connecting with Nashville, but we really are starting to do a lot of business with people in Nashville.

Keep reading for more of our chat with Scott Baxendale

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