Guitar Men

Back when their guitar-making business was still in its infancy, when they couldn’t afford to turn down even the most bizarre orders, Mark Dalton and Jeff Huss got a call from two guys who identified themselves as members of the LRORRSCS.

The Loyal Rectified Order of Ridge Runners and Skunk Callers Society,” says Huss, quickly enunciating each word and never missing a beat as he and Dalton take a break from guitar-making in the ground-floor office of their workshop in Staunton, Virginia.

“I can’t believe you can remember that,” Dalton says with a laugh.

“I can’t believe it either,” Huss shoots back. “So we inlaid the initials LRORRSCS down the fingerboard, along with two skunks. They each got a skunk on their peg heads.”

“And it wasn’t like a nice skunk either,” Dalton interjects. “It was like Pepe Le Pew.

“I think we refused to do marijuana leaves one time,” he adds, “although now I have no idea why we refused to do it.”

Listening to the banter of the Huss & Dalton Guitar Company co-owners, it’s obvious they share a wry sense of humor, a passion for their craft, and a humility that comes from focusing on the work, not themselves. “We’re kind of terrible at talking about this,” Dalton, 54, confides. “That’s not really what we do. We sort of see the guitar as a thing to build and improve on. And trying to be a personality is not really something that either one of us can do.”

Dalton grew up in rural Pittsylvania County in the Virginia Piedmont, immersed in the sounds of traditional tunes picked, plucked and strummed by uncles on both sides of the family in a log-cabin-style square dance hall where his great-great-grandfather lived in the 1850s. Mostly, they played bluegrass, but one of the uncles was fascinated by Bob Dylan and other ‘60s folk musicians, and introduced young Dalton to the versatility of banjos, guitars and fiddles. At 13, Dalton got his first guitar and, inspired by the legendary Doc Watson and other star bluegrass performers, began playing banjo in his relatives’ informal picking group when he was 19. “It’s so much a part of me now that I can’t imagine not having it,” Dalton says. “It just gets to be something that is as normal to you as breathing.”

After high school, his dad handed him the reins to the family auto body shop. The mechanically inclined Dalton enjoyed restoring old cars and repairing construction truck vehicles smashed by bulldozers. But something was missing. He wasn’t good enough to play in a professional band, he knew, yet he yearned to do something musical.

Huss’s indoctrination into the world of stringed instruments came a bit later than Dalton’s. One Thanksgiving in North Dakota, his newly married sister and her husband came for a visit, along with two of the husband’s brothers and his sister-in-law. Bringing with them a pair of acoustic guitars and a talent for harmonizing, they entertained the family with their rendition of The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Twelve-year-old Huss was “transfixed.”

He’d already tried his hand at trumpet, but it wasn’t his thing. So he took up guitar. Then, in his sophomore year of college, he borrowed the money from his girlfriend (now wife), bought a banjo and an Earl Scruggs instruction book, and spent most of the semester shirking off his studies and learning to play with a towel stuffed in the resonator so the sound wouldn’t disturb his dorm-mates.

Bored with his pre-med classes, he switched his major to business. Several friends had applied to the University of North Dakota School of Law, so on a whim, he did the same. “The whole time I was like, ‘I don’t really like this and I don’t think I want to be a lawyer, but I’m not ready to go out into the world yet,’” he admits. “We lived in student housing, it was cheap, and all our friends were still there in school.” Like Dalton, what he really wanted to do was work in the music industry, especially bluegrass, which as a young man he had grown to love.

After Huss earned his legal degree, his wife landed a physical therapy job in Fishersville, Virginia. They figured they’d live there a couple of years and end up back in North Dakota. That was 1984.

Huss, now 58, never worked as a lawyer, although he came close. After the Virginia firm where he’d applied hired someone else, he read in a magazine that Stelling Banjo Works was moving into a former one-room schoolhouse in Heards, a tiny mountain hamlet south of Charlottesville. Surrounded by walnut, maple and cherry trees—the exact woods the company needed for banjos—and seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, the little hilltop building stood in sharp contrast to Stelling’s original setting in coastal San Diego. Geoff Stelling, a semi-professional banjo and bass player, had started the company in 1974 while stationed at a naval base there. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he’d longed to return to the state, so when the opportunity arose, he, his wife and brother-in-law Kim Breedlove moved to Heards, leaving behind their handful of employees.

During Huss’s job interview, Geoff Stelling joked, “Well, we really don’t need a corporate lawyer.” What they did need was someone with a shared zeal for bluegrass and traditional music, an ear for the nuances of sound, and a desire to learn how to build banjos by hand. Huss worked at Stelling for nine years, starting in 1985. He learned how to craft instrument necks, do inlays, and glue resonators and, after a while, was shouldering most of the tasks in the shop.

Curious to know how a guitar was constructed, in 1989 Huss started tinkering around, building jigs, talking to experts, and reading up on the topic. His first one—a rosewood dreadnought with beautiful Hawaiian koa wood bindings—took eight months to make. Then he built another. Impressed, his boss asked him to craft one to take to festivals where he sold Stelling banjos. Immediately, customers asked, “Can I get one of those?”

So Stelling added a small sideline guitar business and “demand just sort of grew organically,” Huss recalls. In the early 1990s he turned his home garage into a woodworking shop and began building guitars under his own name. Gradually, he phased out his day job.

Even on the worst day we still are making guitars for a living,” adds Dalton, “I never really get tired of it. It’s just something that is as much a part of me as my right arm.

Every other Friday for about a year, Dalton had been driving the two and a half hours from his hometown to picking parties at Stelling. Most of the time, there were no more than five to ten musicians, although a barbecue celebration could easily draw 40 people or more, all jamming in different rooms in the banjo shop. One night in 1994, Dalton, who’d purchased one of Huss’s guitars, heard about the job opening created by Huss’s departure. He ended up following the same path as Huss, learning the luthier trade from the ground up.

As demand grew for Huss’s guitars, he realized he couldn’t do everything on his own. “I knew I didn’t want to hire just anybody,” he says. “I wanted somebody that was invested in it as much as I was, and attached to it. I thought of Mark.” The two men met at the Pizza Hut in Waynesboro in the summer of 1995, hashed out the details, and became full partners.

Within a year, they had outgrown Huss’s garage, so they rented a bigger shop in Stuarts Draft and hired their first employee. Three years later, with wood slices, assembly components, and equipment crammed under benches and on crowded shelves, Huss and Dalton bought two side-by-side, 3,000-square-foot buildings in Staunton, where they currently produce 250 acoustic steel-string, flat-top guitars and about a dozen banjos each year. On the window-lined, second floor of the main building—a 1930s pencil factory— a handful of workers mill the rough parts and build guitar necks and bodies from Honduras mahogany, maple, walnut and Spanish cedar. Braces are made from strong Appalachian red spruce, fingerboards from dense ebony, and bridge plates from rosewood, known for its superior tonality. Buffing and assembly take place downstairs. Next door, the instruments undergo a final finish. A Computerized Numeric Control (CNC) machine, purchased in 2004, cuts body molds, shop tools, and guitar parts so accurate they’re measured in ten-thousandths of an inch. “It doesn’t get rid of a lot of the labor because so much of guitar building is sanding and hand assembly work that it’ll never get rid of,” Dalton says. “But it makes all of that go so much better.”

The Huss & Dalton crew crafts the guitars in batches of five, with multiple batches in progress and each instrument taking seven or eight weeks to complete. Over the years, the product line has expanded due to customer requests. “We always figure if we could sell ten of them, then it’s probably worth jigging up to build it,” Huss says. Then he adds, half-joking, “I don’t even know how many models we have.”

To work here, says Dalton, you have to be a little bit of a perfectionist. “You have to have a little bit of a thick skin too, because we critique each other’s work. Everybody does quality assurance on the previous guy, Jeff and I included.”

The business owners settled into a natural groove a long time ago, with Huss doing the inlay work and shaping guitar necks in the pre-assembly room and Dalton running the CNC machine and overseeing post-production, which includes stringing the guitars and making sure the tone isn’t too heavy on bass or treble. They agree most of the time; when they don’t, they compromise. “I’m a real hotheaded Southern person,” Dalton admits. “The positive part of that is that I can be really firm, and I can be decisive. I don’t much question when I know I’m right, and I don’t mind saying it. And there are times when that is the way to go. He’s (Huss) the exact opposite. He thinks everything through, no emotions, almost never. He is not argumentative. He calms me down when I need to calm down, and I bump him up when he needs to be bumped up. I always say that being a lawyer is the only thing I know of that he could never do.”

For more than two decades, the Huss & Dalton customer demographic has remained constant: professional Boomers, mostly men, who grew up during the 1960s folk music era, collect high-end toys, and have the money to pay for them. “They may or may not be great players,” says Dalton. “Fortunately, you don’t have to be a great player to have one of our instruments, because [if that were the case] we wouldn’t make many of them.” Still, the Huss & Dalton partners have no trouble dropping celebrity names, starting with Albert Lee, the British guitarist who played with Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton; Bob Weir, singer-songwriter-musician with the Grateful Dead; and country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. Paul Simon bought a Huss & Dalton guitar for his wife Edie Brickell. Justin Derrico, house guitar player for The Voice (he also tours with Pink), Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam, and Rascal Flatts’ lead guitarist Joe Don Rooney have purchased them, too.

These days, Huss & Dalton guitars are commonly sold in Germany, the United Kingdom, and China, where western music is new and accelerating in popularity. But there have been challenges. Like many small businesses, Huss & Dalton never fully recovered from the recession ten years ago. One theory is that the male buyers who grew up yearning to play like James Taylor and Neil Young are aging out, and the younger folks aren’t into acoustic guitars the way their elders were.

In their down time, Huss and Dalton still play a little for fun. Dalton and his wife raise draft horses and mules and grow hay on their small farm. Huss loves to travel and watch baseball games. Despite all the ribbing from his three, now-grown children—“My kids always gave me crap because they had friends whose fathers were lawyers and lived in great big houses with swimming pools,” Huss says—they have no regrets. “There aren’t a lot of music stores that sell stuff in the four, five, six and eight thousand dollar range,”

Dalton says. “At this point we’ve got a reputation in that world. We have people who contact us all the time about wanting to take on our line of guitars in some new city.

“Even on the worst day we still are making guitars for a living,” adds Dalton, “I never really get tired of it. It’s just something that is as much a part of me as my right arm.”

hussanddalton.com

Written by Nancy Henderson / Photography by Lyndsey Keegan