Monday, September 9, 2013

Smoke and Magic Inside the Box

The South is a place of magic.

Tales of mysterious beasts and wild, half-crazed heroes roll clear down to the lowlands like mist from the Smokies.
Voodoo bubbles up from the mudflats in a whisper as black and syrup-slow as the waters of the bayou. It’s no wonder the stomping shuffle of buck dancers and the lonely moan of the slide guitar were perfected in the Southern night. Crowded by the song of Katydids, it is a darkness where the forsaken are rumored to find salvation in music.

So it was for Mike Snowden. Burned out by a lifetime of playing in bands – the endless travel, the constant in-fighting, the search for something that wasn’t there – he put down his bass guitar and walked away from music. In the seven years that followed he had a child, got a day job and settled into a calm that had previously eluded him.

But magic never dies. It merely waits. Five years ago, he realized his daughter had never heard him play. Never seen music swell up and flow from her father the way it can for only those who truly love it. But his bass carried too much baggage, was too complicated to be pure in a child’s eyes. So he picked up a banjo, then the drums, but neither fit.

“And then I came across a picture of a guy playing a cigar box guitar,” Snowden says. “I knew I had to try it.”

Snowden happened to have a friend who worked at a cigar store and had given him a handful of old boxes. The East Cobb resident had long been intrigued by the smell of the wood, the exotic cities stamped into the side. He knew there had to be another use for them and finally it struck. That old Southern magic.

Snowden made a guitar. Three strings and a plug. Varnish. Wood. Something so simple it reaches the purity of truth and carries a unique sound all its own. He started to play music again. First for his daughter, then for anyone who would listen.

He gave up on playing anything else, focused solely on this strange, three-stringed

“I sold or threw out all my old equipment,” he says. “It was liberating.”

He played festivals, recorded music, put out albums and, of course, made more guitars. Almost 500. Aerosmith’s legendary guitarist Joe Perry bought one. So did Audioslave’s Tom Morello. Sugarland’s Christian Bush gives them as gifts.

Snowden didn’t invent cigar box guitars, rather he reintroduced them to us. They first appeared in the 1840s when cigars stopped being packed individually in crates. Civil War soldiers made them. So did Bo Diddley. And Jimi Hendrix. Then, for a moment, they all but disappeared.

The internet is the modern day Crossroads, a place where magic floats in the ether like a blown kiss. It’s where Snowden saw his first cigar box guitar and it’s where the world first saw him – video of the wounded cry of a slide easing its way down the slender neck of his black Cohiba guitar went viral. People took note.

“There’s a whole underground scene of guys who play these things,” he says.

In September Snowden will play a series of shows in the UK culminating in Manchester’s fourth annual Boxstock Festival. Once again on the road, but this time with less trouble, fewer complications.

After that he’ll return home. To his family. To a place where the heavens speak through three strings and a twelve-inch box.

Simple maybe, but nothing short of magic.

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