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A TN Guitar Builder’s Revival Culminates In GallagherFest

My hero Doc Watson did everything a bit differently than those around him in the folk and bluegrass world of the 1960s and 70s. He didn’t play in a band with a banjo and fiddle. He sang every kind of roots song from early blues and gospel numbers to contemporary pop and folk. And, to the puzzlement of many newcomers to the magical mystery tour of trad/bluegrass guitar, he didn’t (generally) play a Martin guitar. Because Martins were in the hands of Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin and even Tony Rice, a lore emerged that the Nazareth, PA company made the proper guitar for flatpicking. But check out the cover of Doc Watson On Stage from 1970 on Vanguard Records, and Doc’s cradling an acoustic dreadnought style guitar with a gothic letter G on the headstock.

The G stood for Gallagher Guitar Co., a boutique luthier owned and operated at the time by one J.W. Gallagher in the tiny town of Wartrace, TN, sixty miles southeast of Nashville in Bedford County. J.W. and his son took some of their guitars to the Union Grove folk festival in 1968 and hit it off with Doc and his son Merle, personally and instrumentally. Doc played the guitar he acquired that day on Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972, and he began playing Gallagher guitars almost exclusively, collaborating with J.W. on a Doc Watson model in 1975. You can see it immortalized in Doc’s bronze memorial statue in Boone, NC - or you can buy one from Gallagher today, though you may have to get on a waiting list.

Roll the clock back to 2017 though, and it looked like there’d never be another Gallagher made. The shop was trashed. A car had run into one wall. Machinery and wood sat dusty and quiet. “A really sad, dilapidated scene,” is how current owner David Mathis remembers it. Somehow, in passing the company on to a third generation, things had gone sideways, and the entire operation seemed destined to be a historic note.

David Mathis

Mathis seems to have found it an unacceptable state of affairs, because in 2019, the Middle Tennessee native and his wife Reina bought the company and its equipment with the mission of restoring it to its former glory. They’ve made great progress in a short span of time, with a new headquarters just off the square in Murfreesboro and a small team of luthiers on track to make about 200 instruments this year, more than any in the company’s history.

“I was ready for a new challenge,” says Mathis, a long-time Gallagher guitar player/owner and a career clinical psychologist who left his practice in early 2023 to focus on building out the shop and its team of craftspeople. “There was no way I could have anticipated a pandemic, or the other many challenges that come with a new venture that I was not firmly rooted in. And so it's been quite the growth experience.” He told me he regards Gallagher as a startup company with a legacy to carry on. “The history is very informative, but it's also very motivational for us.”

Another manifestation of Gallagher’s rebirth isGallagherFest, coming up on Saturday, May 4. It’s a day-long gathering on Walnut Street in front of the guitar factory featuring roots performers including Gallagher guitar pickers Jim Hurst and Chris Jones and open-to-the-public contests on guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. WMOT is a media partner in the event, and I’ll be the emcee. In full disclosure, I’m being paid a fee to do so, but I’ve been following the Gallagher story for many years and I’m sharing it here because its rescue is a significant development for roots music culture in Middle Tennessee.

Shop manager Austin Derryberry (L) watches another Gallagher guitar being built.

I asked Chris Jones, a multi-award winner in bluegrass music and a veteran band leader, songwriter, broadcaster and guitarist, what he thought about the recent emergence of Gallagher 2.0. “It’s been really exciting for me to see the energy and resources that David Mathis and his team have brought to the storied Gallagher name,” he wrote back. “I thought it was really important that the new phase of the Gallagher company began with respect for the family and its legacy, and that the Gallaghers were also happy and hopeful about the new chapter. In other words, it wasn’t just a faceless buyout by a larger company. It’s the continuation and expansion of a great guitar-building tradition.”

Jones will be performing in a duo he’s been pursuing on the road with resonator guitar player Paolo Ercoli. Jim Hurst is a veteran of bluegrass as a band member and solo performer who twice was named IBMA Guitar Player of the Year. Other artists on the free daytime stage are: Scott Heuston and Erica Flom, Asher Cataldo and Bryce Reeg, Kristen Ford, and David DeVaul and Jesse Black. Tennessee old time string band Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny will close out the street festival with a 5 pm set. Doors open at the Walnut House next door to Gallagher at 7 pm, with a double bill starting at 7:30 - the duo of Josh Rinkel and Laura Orshaw of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys followed by the Dan Tyminski Band. Tickets for that intimate event are here.

Other indoor daytime events include a discussion of Gallagher’s history with Don Gallagher and David Tipton, a guitar workshop with Jim Hurst, and a songwriting workshop with Chris Jones and Scott Heuston.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org