John Partipilo/Courtesy of the artist
They might not recognize it on sight, but fans of Raul Malo and his group The Mavericks will know it when they hear it: the beautiful, unmistakable tone of Malo’s shiny white Gibson L-5 Studio, complete with gold Bigsby tremolo and a black-and-white speckled pick guard.
That guitar has long been one of Malo’s favorite instruments, he says. “Like any instrument, when they come into your life, sometimes you end up using them a lot for whatever reason,” he says. “You bond with them, they inspire a song or there’s just something about them.”
That was certainly the case with his Gibson. Malo used the guitar when recording his 2001 album Today and at one of The Mavericks’ most famous concerts at Royal Albert Hall in London in 1998. “It looked fantastic on stage, and it sounded great,” he says. “I loved playing it, and it always inspired a melody.”
So it was a tragedy when the devastating floods that hit Nashville in 2010 all but destroyed it. That spring, heavy rains triggered massive floods in Tennessee and neighboring states. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry was swamped, as were other landmarks. Then there was the Soundcheck warehouse near the Cumberland River, long considered a safe location for storing musical instruments. It was flooded, most of its contents going underwater — including Malo’s prized Gibson.
Enter Nashville luthier Joe Glaser, who had been tasked with restoring and repairing hundreds of damaged guitars salvaged from Soundcheck. Glaser estimates the instruments had been submerged in floodwater for three days. “It was an extremely discouraging time,” he says. “It smelt bad. This was the river, this was diesel and sewage — You can just imagine.”
But Malo wouldn’t give up on his guitar. “The white L-5 would have been a basket case, except Raul’s a sentimental, soulful character,” Glaser says. “And he came over and said, ‘Pal? Can’t we do anything about the white L-5?'”
Now, seven years after the flood, Malo has gotten his Gibson back. After receiving the Glaser treatment, Malo says it sounds not just as good as new, but better.
Courtesy of the artist
“I think it really shows that there is a life to these instruments,” Malo remarks. “They are changing, they are evolving. As instruments get older, they sound different. And when they’ve been through something as traumatic as this — I know this, because every guitar that’s come back to me from the flood has a newfound life, has a newfound vigor to it.”
Glaser says everybody who got their instruments back from him has had a similar reaction: “‘Man, something’s changed. This guitar’s the best it’s ever been.'”
“I saw that so many times from so many disparate people and I just believe that things happen to wood and glue, stuff loosens up,” Glaser notes, “the same way that Stradivari violins are considered to maybe be affected in sound by the fact that the wood was floated down from the mills.”
That realization even spawned a joke: “If I’d known this, I’d have thrown my stuff in the Cumberland years ago,” Malo quips, laughing. When reflecting on his “new” Gibson, he says: “I love how the color has faded, I love how the paint has chipped away. It’s like the old Confucius saying: Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. And she’s certainly a diamond with a flaw — several of them, but a diamond no less.”
Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.