‘Hanging Tree Guitars’ Luthier/Artist Showcases Incredible Work In New Book
Photos by Timothy Duffy – Freeman Vines
Top Right: Freeman Vines And His Guitars. Bottom Right L-R: Death Mask | 1967, Hanging Tree Guitar No. 1 | 2017, Souls Died To Talk To You | 2017, Skullcaster | 2017, Hanging Tree Guitar No. 2 | 2017, Yoruba | 2017
To be a luthier, a person who makes stringed instruments, takes a high degree of craftsmanship, skill and patience. To be someone, however, who uses only hand tools, found wood, a keen artist’s eye and a bent of mysticism at the age of 78 years young, is a whole other level. Meet Freeman Vines, a living treasure from Fountain, N.C., who for half a century has made spectacularly beautiful guitars and art pieces conjured forth from grains, knots and bark.
“You can’t make the wood what it don’t want to be,” Vines says from his farm. “If you clean up the wood it will show some features like skull and snakes and stuff.” Vines believes each piece of wood has its own unique character and essence derived from its history, which influences the design and the instrument’s sound. The artisan mentions the power of wood he’s used, including a 170-year-old Steinway piano, a “mule slobber trough,” and most powerfully, haunting and difficult to process, a series made from a “hanging tree” or a tree used for lynching.
“Strange thing about that wood I’m going to tell you something superstitious about that wood, it didn’t sand right,” Vines says noting the peculiar sound he heard made when he smoothed it down. “If you ever get the opportunity to play one of the those hanging tree guitars, you know what you’re going to say? ‘Weird, weird feeling.’ Some instruments feel and sound different than others. Some of them are awesome, some of them are frightening what you can do with them.”
A stunning new art book, entitled “Hanging Tree Guitars,” features Vines, his guitars, workshop and bucolic country surroundings shot in gorgeous tintype glory by Timothy Duffy, founder of the N.C.’s Music Make Relief Foundation. The non-profit org helps elderly musicians in need while educating the public about America’s musical heritage, which Vines fits to a tee: While discussing “shot houses” or juke joints on the chitlin’ circuit he namechecks blues greats Jimmy Reed, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. “If you don’t live the blues,” he says all too knowingly, “you can’t play them.”