Commerce has no shame -- it really doesn't. From 1919 to 1923, Lloyd Loar worked for the Gibson company, making F-5 mandolins whose quality has never been matched, according to everyone, including mandolin hero Ricky Skaggs, who played at the BB King Blues Club a few weeks ago. There are some few hundreds of these instruments in existence, and their price depends on their provenance. Did Bill Monroe, who invented bluegrass, ever play it? Did David Grisman? It could cost you up to a million dollars.
Rumor has it that younger mandolin genius Chris Thile, of the Punch Brothers -- a musically theoretical band (based in Brooklyn, like Manhattan itself) that plays bluegrazz -- bought one not long ago for a mere $250,000. But for some time now, Japan has been turning out mandolins that are inscribed with the name "Loar," even though Mr. Loar had nothing at all to do with them. That's what I meant by no shame.
Skaggs is a man of flowing, Founding Fathers-type hair, physical substance, and unshakable faith, to the point of believing that with the creation of Israel, in 1948, the return of Jesus became more imminent. He has a Bible-study group in his home, and believes strongly in the power of prayer. (His new album, Mosaic, is pretty religious, as well.) Before his show at the BB King Blues Club, he told a story about his mother praying that somehow he would acquire Pee Wee Lambert's mandolin, which Mr. Lambert had broken and thrown away. Sure enough, years later, after his mother had passed away, the instrument, laden with metal repair, came into Mr. Skaggs' truly amazing hands. Makes you think.
The most dramatic part of the conversation with him concerned how he came to play the mandolin in the first place. His father had an older brother who played the instrument but who died on Guam during the Second World War. Mr Skaggs' father hoped that his son would play himself and so left a mandolin for him in his bed one night, when the boy was five. "It was the first time I'd felt steel on wood," Mr. Skaggs said. "And it was so wonderful." His first public appearance was with with Mr. Monroe himself, in Martha, Tennessee, when Mr. Monroe, at the pleadings of the home-town crowd, literally lifted Mr. Skaggs onto the stage and let him do his stuff, which apparently was pretty remarkable. He auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry when he was seven.
The mandolin's relative diminuitiveness now goes a little oddly with Mr. Skaggs' heft. I've often thought when I've seen him that the instrument would explode when he was whanging away so brilliantly on it. But at BB King, it held together. Only the music, especially "Sally Jo," exploded. Mr. Skaggs believes that the joy of music has some religion in it. Maybe the Japanese copycats should think about that.
Follow Daniel Menaker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/agoodtalk