“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
— Ernest Hemingway
When I was 15, I saw Phil Keaggy play at Maranatha Hall. I had just started losing interest in heavy metal, so seeing someone with total command of an acoustic guitar was eye opening. I was able to go to Phil’s workshop the next day and talk to him for a little while. I remember telling him that I had tried to learn one of his songs the night before and it was too much for me to manage in a single night. His reply? “I think there are some beginner’s workshops around here somewhere.”
I came away from that weekend determined to buy the same kind of guitar he played: an Olson SJ. It’s a fortunate coincidence that Jim Olson lives in Circle Pines, about a half hour drive from my parent’s house. I looked up his website and got some details and started saving up the money to make a down payment: 25% of the $5000 total. By midsummer, I had saved enough and my parents took me up to see his shop.
The stairwell up to Jim’s workshop is lined with pictures of famous musicians playing his guitars, including one of Paul McCartney and the aforementioned Keaggy, a detail that contradicts his soft-spoken, humble nature. (I also doubt he’s changed his mustache style in at least thirty years. I suppose if you’re doing things right, why change?) He spent the bulk of the tour on a mission to talk me out of buying one of his guitars. “I don’t think this is right for you,” he’d say. “You’ll have it for a few months and then wish you’d spent your money on something else.” He told story after story of people regretting their purchase and trying to sell it back. He didn’t want to do that to a kid.
He led me inside his house, and sat me down with his wife’s guitar, an SJ itself with a stunning single-rose inlay on the fretboard. He asked me to play for him for a little while – an audition to make a purchase, though I was too excited to play the instrument to notice how bizarre that was. I played less than two minutes before he caught my attention and said, quiet as ever, “Okay. I’ll build you a guitar.”
Every once in a while, I’ll go into Podium in Dinkytown, one of the two places around the Cities where you can find used Olsons. I’ll see one in their display case and ask to strum it for a little while. (They make you ask to play their cheap guitars, so you’ve got to practically beg to touch the Olsons.) This request is never met with an approving look, but instead always with a sneer. It’s hard to be insulted by their sleight, though, when I earned the approval of the maker himself.
In this I pray, Lord, help me to focus only on Your approval, and to disregard as meaningless any voice that contradicts Yours.