The “Eye’s” have it.
Charlie Derrington was my first friend in Nashville. It’s funny, he was moving on from the custom shop, into marketing for the company. You have to remember at that time he was probably known as the world’s most famous repair man. Just months prior, he had helped complete the restoration of a lifetime. Charlie was responsible for putting back together Bill Monroe’s two Loar mandolins. He was much of the story line in the famous Frets magazine article about the repair itself in the spring of 1986. When I showed up to work at Gibson, he walked away from all that and moved on to the next level. He began promoting me as Gibson’s new mandolin guru.
Early during those first few weeks and months, Charlie spent much of his spare time introducing me to Nashville. He took me to the Station Inn and the Grand Ole Opry regularly. He introduced me to every artist he knew. He made sure anyone in the area that had anything to do with a mandolin, knew who Jim Triggs was. I quickly was amazed to find out what having a business card with the name Gibson on it could mean in opening new doors. I will never forget what Charlie did for me early on in those days when I was trying to learn the ropes at Gibson. I watched him closely. I learned the Loar lingo. He taught me what to look for when I was researching an old instrument. Most importantly he got me pointed in the right direction in regards to tap tuning top plates and backs. He showed me how to carve a scroll on an F-5. As I recall even years later at festivals and bluegrass events, long after Charlie’s tenure at Gibson, he would tell someone, “Jimmy carves the best scroll of anybody on the planet, even Steven Gilchrist!” Then he would laugh that little “hee hee”, laugh of his and say, “Yeah, I taught him how to carve a scroll you know.”.......... Just for the record the artistic way Steven carves his scrolls blows away what I am doing and always has.
I thought it was cool living in the south and tried to pick up on the local dialect as quickly as I could. I thought I would blend in with the artist better. This was something Charlie actually told me to do. I started saying “Reckon’, Ya’ll, Yonder, Fixin’.......ect.” I don’t know if it helped me or not but I thought it couldn’t hurt. After living in Nashville 12 years, my family and I had that noticeable southern accent. I became a chameleon of sorts when it came to talking to others. I tried to speak in the dialect of who I was talking to at the time. Back then I was speaking to people from all over the world and from all walks of life. I would speak to Chet Atkins or Earl Scruggs one way, members of Aerosmith or a band like Tesla another way.
Over the years I was lucky enough to get to be good friends with Earl and Louise Scruggs and I will never forget that. I always tried to be as reverent as possible when being around artist like “Chet, BB King, Earl or Les Paul.” I tried to come across as natural as I could when dealing with any artist. They all seemed to understand that.
Bill Monroe was another story. Of course Charlie introduced me to Bill Monroe. I think I met Mr. Monroe the first night I went to the Grand Ole Opry. It was the Friday night of the weekend that Gibson flew me back for the job interview. I was lucky enough to be in the company of Charlie several times over the years when he and Bill Monroe were both in the same room. Whenever Charlie was around, Bill lit up the room with a broad smile. Bill was like a little kid around Charlie. After he fixed Bill’s mandolin, I think Charlie could do no wrong with him. Charlie introduced me to Bill and told him that I was the new guy at Gibson that would be his contact. I really don’t think Bill liked hearing that from Charlie but Charlie convinced him he was moving up in the company.
I was Bill’s new contact with the company and that meant everything from changing strings or set up on his prized F-5 to going over contracts, or anything to do with marketing, posters and the like. I worked with Blake Williams, Bill’s banjo picker in getting Bill to sign all the labels for the Bill Monroe model. Over the years I got to know Bill pretty well. I saw him at the Opry several times a month. A couple of times a month he would come in to seem me at the factory. It wasn’t unusual for me to have his mandolin in my bench area nearly half the time. He would call me and say something like, “My mandolin isn’t stayin’ in tune.” Soon I learned that was code for, I need new strings and a set up. For six years I was honored to change Bill Monroe’s strings. I don’t think he ever changed them. If I didn’t, then Blake did if he broke one on the road.
I always got along great with Mr. Monroe, except for one time. The one time I crossed him, I was set up by Charlie. I learned early on that Charlie was a practical joker. As I recall, I think my grace period was that three day honeymoon period before my hire was official when I traveled to Nashville for the weekend interview.
My first official week at Gibson was full of Charlie’s practical jokes and most of them were directed at me. One story I remember was the one about Charlie’s dad finding a baby in a brown paper bag on a gravel road out in the country. Charlie was from Paris, Tennessee. He told me he was adopted. His father found him in a bag on the road after he almost ran over him. Charlie’s dad was planning to run over the bag and at the last instant brought his truck to a screeching halt. Charlie’s life was spared and his new father soon adopted him. I have shortened this story considerably but I can tell you his version took the better part of fifteen minutes. I soon learned Charlie could spin a yarn. I think it took me a day to find out he was pulling my leg.
That same first week for some reason I went to lunch every day with Charlie and other Gibson employees. With Charlie working up front in the office area, several of the days we went to lunch with some of the prettier Gibson employees. They had names like Bobbie, Linda and Marci. Charlie was always fun to be around and the prettier girls in the office liked being around him. We all went to the local Chinese restaurant in Donelson for lunch one day. Charlie talked me into getting a particular soup that everyone else seemed to know what it was but myself. Me trying to be as cool as possible with all my new friends, I was peer pressured into eating something floating in soup that I had never seen before. It was a nasty brownish green color and it was floating, bobbing up and down. It was bitter and didn’t taste very good as I remember but I tried to put the best face on it. You must know, me being from Kansas and the Midwest, Chinese food at my house always came out of a can that had Chung King on it.
Charlie was in tears and crying, he was laughing so hard when we all left the restaurant. Finally he got out, “I didn’t think you’d really eat that Jimmy.” The whole crew was laughing but me. When I got in Charlie’s Toyota truck he explained to me that I had just eaten a cat eyeball. He also mentioned that since that restaurant came to Donelson many of the stray cats and all the small dogs in the area had disappeared. I think I got over that one about a week later.
I believe I ate the cat eyeball on a friday afternoon. That was the same day I had my first and last run in with Bill Monroe. All week long I knew Charlie planned on us going out to the Opry to see Bill. I had Bill’s mandolin on my bench for re-stringing and we were taking it back to him. Several times during the week Charlie made a point of telling me that Bill liked to have his mandolin set “face down”, so as not to scratch the back side. Charlie urged me to hand deliver the mandolin to Bill so he would get to know me, his new contact with Gibson. Bill seemed to remember me from our first meeting a few weeks prior when Charlie took me to the Opry my first weekend in Nashville. After getting the mandolin out of the case, I set it on a table, face down as I was instructed to by Charlie. I can honestly say Bill went nuts when he saw me set down his mandolin. It was in one of the small dressing rooms back stage at the Opry and needless to say I was embarrassed. He told me, “ Boy, don’t you ever do that to my mandolin!”
I looked to Charlie and he added, “Jim, I’ve told you never set any mandolin down like that.”
I couldn’t believe it. When Bill turned away, Charlie winked at me and snickered. He started Bill in another conversation and took the heat off me. I think Jesse McReynolds was in the room along with Wayne Lewis and a couple of the other Bluegrass Boys. I think everyone else in the room knew that I was set up. After that incident, life was great between Bill Monroe and myself. I think after that night at the Grand Ole Opry I was lucky to be around Bill many times for nearly ten years without causing him to raise his blood pressure. That first week at Gibson was a rough one due to Charlie but from everything I learned from the man, it was well worth me being the brunt of a couple of his practical jokes. I just wish one of them hadn’t put me in such a bad light with the Father of Bluegrass Music.