Champ’s Shop Talk: Diesel smoke and dangerous curves

devin champlin aug 19 web

by Devin Champlin

“The Tetons are unique because there’s no foothills.” This information was offered up by the owner of Fremont Music in Landers, WY.  “They just pop up out of nowhere.  Also did you know we just have two seasons in Wyoming?  Winter and road construction.” Fortunately for me, I didn’t encounter much of either season on my drive through.

I closed up shop last month to pay a visit to my family in Illinois. I’m not very fond of flying, and felt I could afford the time, so I put my futon mattress in the back of Cheryl, my Honda Odyssey, changed the oil, and packed myself some extra socks and a thermos of coffee.  I decided to keep to the smaller roads for the majority of my trip, staying off the major interstates in favor of state highways and county roads. With a crisp 2020 edition (futuristic!) of the Rand McNally Road Atlas and my intuition to guide me, I set off on the road in a vaguely easterly direction.  Although the primary purpose of this trip was to get some quality time in with the folks who raised me, I got to visit some record stores and guitar shops on the way and meet up with some swell people.

The above mentioned shop in Landers was a gem.  The selection was limited, but there were some unique instruments in stock and the proprietor was incredibly friendly and proud of her town.  Next door was an excellent coffee shop which besides great strong coffee, offered up a really tasty breakfast burrito. It felt eerily familiar, like a cafe that would be in Bellingham, but plopped down in a small town in the middle of Wyoming.

One of my favorite spots to visit in my travels is The Record Exchange in Boise. It’s the best kind of independent record store, with a huge selection of vinyl, CDs, books, gizmos, turntables, frequent in-store shows, and super friendly staff.  This visit was brief, but still fruitful, coming away with a record, and catching a live performance.  If you go, be sure to say howdy to John-O, and tell him I sent you.

Just before crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, I stopped in a humongous old house that was converted into an antique mall in Clinton, Iowa. I nearly got lost in the two stories of piled high stuff.  A stack of old Railroad magazines leaned against a glass case containing matchbooks, pocket watches, silver spoons, pocket knives, and unidentified machinist’s tools of old. There were western shirts, iron pans, oak tables, and a Snoopy doll sitting atop a Victorian lamp. Behind a box filled with all Elvis LPs sat an old Kay guitar, and a beat up looking banjo. After a little haggling I maybe spent a little bit too much on both instruments, but with the satisfaction of knowing that I can restore them to full playing glory someday. Right before I got through the door, the shop keeper said “You shoulda been here last week.  We had a 1930’s Martin guitar here for $150.” Yes indeed.  I shoulda been there last week.

After my family visit, I made a slight southern detour to Louisville, Kentucky, so I could say hello to ex-Bellinghamster Thomas Deakin (Deakin Hicks, Yogoman Burning Band, Mingish, etc..) and the incredible Stephanie Nilles. They are living there together in a small, rundown but beautiful shotgun house next to the railroad yard.  We enjoyed a humid evening of conversation, sipping wine, laughing, and generally catching up, barely interrupted by the occasional, thunderous crashing of train cars that shook the walls and rumbled my toes. In the morning Thomas was off to his carpentry job, while Stephanie and I played through a handful of tunes on mandolin and fiddle, before I had to get on the road again.

In Springfield, Missouri I found not only great coffee, but a great record shop. The clerk at Stick It In Your Ear was super friendly and let me dig through the crates of unmarked 78’s they had behind the counter.  I came out with a few gems, and walked down the street for a perfect cup of coffee and one of the tastiest muffins I’ve ever had from Mudhouse.  Satisfaction in Springfield.

Coming back across the plains on a 95 degree day, I stopped in a junk shop in Hugo, CO, population 730. The first thing I noticed in the tiny, one room shop was the five guitars hanging above the counter. Behind the counter was the uber-friendly Helena, and it happened to be her 68th birthday. She was all smiles as she told me that earlier that day a guy stopped in who happened to be friends with Billy Bob Thornton, and he was texting with Billy Bob about maybe buying one of the guitars. The deal ended up not happening, but she was thrilled all the same, just beaming. We chatted about music for awhile and I gave her my band’s CD for her birthday, and I was about to leave when she asked if her daughter-in-law could interview me for the local paper. I didn’t think I was very news-worthy, but she insisted and I obliged and now you can read all about it in the Eastern Colorado Plainsman.

I came back from my trip with a few more guitars, some records, and a whole lot more stories than I can fit into these pages here. My eyes are tired, the pages of the atlas are wrinkled, and my heart is full.

Devin Champlin is a stringed instrument builder/fixer/player in Bellingham. Message him at champlinguitars@gmail.com or visit champlinguitars.com.