Artist Spotlight: Freeman Vines
inThe Artistson December 22, 2016
When I was studying ethnomusicology in graduate school, we sat around a classroom one day debating the question, “What is the most fundamental element of music?” Some argued for pitch. Some argued for rhythm. Although it didn’t occur to me at that time, the answer seems obvious to me now—sound. Sound itself—vibration, sonic energy—is the essence of music. You can hear whole stories told through sound without your conscious brain ever registering anything like “pitch” or “rhythm.” When you think about sound in this way, you realize how powerful an instrument can be. A good instrument is much more than a tool for actualizing music. It is a vibrational organism, a sonic storyteller.
Freeman Vines’ guitars bring this idea to life for me. When I plugged in one he crafted from an African ceremonial mask, I let my fingers fall into a familiar scale. It was something that would sound good—fancy even—on my own assembly line Fender. But on Vines’ guitar it fell flat, nothing to it. I looked at the guitar. Its wide white eyes looked back at me. The instrument had its own ideas about how it should be played. I adjusted the tuning a little and went for something in the low register. The guitar began to speak. As I tried different voicings and different attacks the instrument gradually started to reveal itself to me.
Like the man himself, Freeman Vines’ guitars have little patience for bullshit. They say just what they mean and just what they feel like saying, and not a whole lot else. And even though they all bear the mark of Vines’ irrepressible individuality, every one of them is different. Each has its own sweet spot—a tonal range where its vibrations are the most captivating—and each has its own personality. Like people, they’re not always warm and inviting. A couple of them get a little ornery, a little mean.
Vines started building his own guitars because assembly line models weren’t giving him the sound he was looking for. “All the sounds to me were commercial,” he says, “plain, dang, ding, dong.” He wanted his own sound. Whether or not he’s found it he claims not to know, but his search has birthed some truly singular specimens. He used fire to shape the body of one guitar, burning the parts he wanted to remove and scraping away the ashes. “I saw the Indians doing it on TV with a canoe,” Vines allows with a touch of playfulness in his voice. The finished body looks inspired by naturally-occurring shapes, maybe a cross between a fish and a leaf. The grain of the charred wood is rich and splotchy like a centuries-old treasure map. It is a gorgeous instrument.
One of Vines’ guitars was fashioned from the soundboard of a piano he claims was over 100 years old. Another was made from cheap plywood. He uses materials that come to him. The shape of the instrument might originate in his imagination, or he might just follow the curves suggested by the wood. In some of his guitars you see echoes of classic Gibsons and Fenders. Others are simply idiosyncratic—one looks like a small boat, another like an ancient Greek lyre. Vines uses hardware and pickups from old unplayable guitars, and draws his own schematics for the wiring. On the headstock of several of his guitars, he’s handwritten in black, “Vine’s Ultrasound.”
Vines has been around. He’s 75 and is often alone these days, trying not to cross paths with people who may not share his ideas about how his time should be spent. Back in the 1960s, he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging with some guys who had just robbed their white boss. The boss came and bailed his workers out, leaving Vines to take the rap. He did 7 years in a Federal penitentiary. Out of prison, he traveled some with the Vines Sisters—a family gospel group. Recordings they made in the 1970s testify to the depth and quality of their music. But the gospel circuit has always been tough. The money, food, accommodations, and travel arrangements were never good, and the long dark shadows of racism that blot the Southern landscape were inescapable. Vines kept on going. He got married a few times. He did odd jobs. He worked on hot rods. He’s been well-acquainted with the spiritual things in life—with church folks and workers of witchcraft. He’s seen a lot of people come and go.
His mother recently passed away at age 95. She kept a diary for years and Freeman’s sister has adapted it and had it published as a book. There are a lot of stories in their family. Certainly, Freeman has plenty of his own. But memoirs and biographies are not his thing. He’s carving his story out of wood, fashioning instruments that can tell it for him. When I plug up his guitars and start to dig in, I hear tales about a renegade, an iconoclast, a stranger to this world. But there’s warmth in there, too, and some laughter. There’s even some sweetness if you look for it. The story gets devilish, but it never loses its way.
Age and diabetes don’t allow Vines to play like he used to. And some of his guitars are just bodies, not even set up with electronics and strings. But it’s not melody and harmony that tell Vines’ story. It’s something more elemental. It’s the idea of sound; the promise of vibration to shake our mortal shells into a place beyond ourselves. That’s where the real Vines story unfolds. It’s the kind of story that’s not for everyone. But even when his instruments appear silent, those with ears to hear will hear.
— Will Boone