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Seattle's Cat Fox on Three Decades of Repairing Guitars
At the Weiser Fiddle Festival in Idaho, a seed was planted in the imagination of Cat Fox. Some guy was repairing guitars out of a tricked out, converted sheep wagon he towed behind his truck from festival to festival. That brief visage held court in her young mind. Years later, Fox is driving around in her VW van, lost and bummed out, having recently dropped out of University of Puget Sound with a great scholarship opportunity. When it came time to mouth the inescapable question, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ she knew a few things. She liked woodworking, she liked to hang out with musicians, and she loved to party. And here again is the guy with the sheep wagon flashing front and center in her memory. Fox was going to be a luthier.
But women don’t build guitars! At the time, few women were playing guitars, let alone making them, but Fox’s gutsy resolve had taken root.
Upon graduation from the luthier program at Minnesota Technical College in Red Wing, with completed guitar firmly in hand, she packed everything into her VW van and drove to Massachusetts. She arrived at the door of Bill Cumpiano, world-renowned luthier and author of the definitive bible of the craft, Guitar Making Tradition and Technology. Fox recalls Cumpiano’s stern and uncompromising tone on the phone as he gives her an opening, “No guarantee I will take you on but I will observe your work.” Fox thinks to herself, “Of course he’ll take me on!” He does, of course, take her on as his apprentice for two years followed by another four years as his repair technician. To this day, the best compliment she ever received was from Cumpiano, “If you decide to build guitars, I hope you go far, far away.” So she did...all the way to Seattle.
The jerky cadence of raindrops can be heard on the corrugated metal roof of Fox’s Fremont studio, Sound Guitar Repair, in a space she shares with guitar builder and husband Rick Davis. Fox works in a studio within a studio, a cozy oasis among band saws and jigs of all sizes and dimensions. Fox has never had to advertise to fill her busy schedule. Her clients range from the rich and famous to the parlor picker to the street musician. Word of mouth is all she has needs to stay busy.
Her clients include musicians the likes of Bill Frisell and Danny O’Keefe, but her favorite story is when the Everly Brothers came knocking at her door. Out of the blue she gets a call from a guy saying he’s with the Everly Brothers and can she fix one of their guitars? Apparently a roadie had tripped and badly damaged one of their iconic black Steinegger signature Ike Everly guitars. Incredulous...and convinced her friend Doug was up to his old tricks, her eyes widened when a big truck with the words “Everly Brothers” on the side rolled up to her shop. She repaired two big splits from the block and the next day, when asked about the bill, she sheepishly said,“$500.00? Is that too much?” to which the stagehand replied, “Honey, this is the Everly Brothers”.
How does a woman gain the type of respect that Cat Fox has earned in a profession which counts women luthiers in America on one hand? “I care very deeply,” are her precise words. That, and her unflagging “I can do that!” attitude. Fox sees women inherently well suited to the work of building and repairing guitars. Precise work, attention to detail, and the ability to listen and interpret what your client needs even if its not what they’re saying - these are all skills that come naturally to women. Of course, her “patron saint” and former mentor, Bill Cumpiano, often speaks to her sternly while perched on her shoulder, Cat, this is woefully inadequate. “The bar is high,” she says, “set your sights and live up to that.”
Looking around Fox’s shop I see a variety of fretted instruments in varying stages of repair. The instruments that come through her shop include mandolins, banjos, basses, bouzoukis, tambouriztas, guslas, lutes, saz, gedulkas, pias, even door chimes. During my visit there was a guitar so horribly damaged it made me cringe - a serial mutilator of expensive guitars, apparently, who abandons them in dumpsters. Thankfully, many are rescued and brought to Fox who restores them to their full glory once again, but its obvious from her grimace that those kinds of repairs pain her deeply. One unique story from her time in Massachusetts: she was asked to repair this “filthy little classical guitar” that was so disgusting she had to don gloves and scrub the thing clean before setting to work. Days later the client returned to pick up his instrument. When Fox handed him the guitar, the blood drained from his face. “What happened to the dirt!”? “I cleaned it!”, replied a beaming Fox. “That...was Woodstock dirt!” Hoping to appease, she grabs the rags out of the trash, puts them in a Ziploc bag, and hands them to her client. “You can’t please all of the people all of the time,” she laments.
Although not quite ready to retire, Fox has started to think about what might be next. A self-proclaimed dilettante, she would like to have more time to explore other interests, like cooking, and more specifically...cooking pie. “Maybe a food truck!” she brainstorms with a flourish of her hands. Her ‘I could do that’ attitude and infectious laugh have me daydreaming/plotting right alongside her. “A food truck”, she continues, “that travels around to music festivals serving really good pie and really good coffee!” “With a repair shop in the back!” I chime in.
As I’m driving home, I think about Cat’s random encounter long ago with the guy repairing guitars in the back of a converted sheep wagon. I wonder if, at some festival in the future, a young, courageous and dedicated individual will stumble upon some really good pie and coffee and leave with something that inspires them. The seeds planted long ago in Cat’s imagination have grown into a distinguished tree with potential seeds of her own to pass on. One may just fall into the hands of someone who needs her particular kind of inspiration as life goes round and round in the Circle Game.
On this installment of Fretboard Journal Live...