Passing the torch
Tulsa musician and luthier Dixie Michell leaves a legacy of craft
Photo by Ken Ames
It was near the end of her life when Tulsa luthier Dixie Michell met Seth Lee Jones.
They were in some ways like two sides of a coin. Michell, who died Feb. 9 at age 75, built some of the finest acoustic guitars, mandolas and banjos in the world.
Jones, an award-winning California-trained luthier, teaches guitar-making at Tulsa Wood Arts. At 30, he’s already known for his fine electric guitars.
Michell included a steel truss rod through the body of the guitars, mandolins and banjos. The structural support allows lighter bracing of the soundboard, which enhances resonance.
Bruce Springsteen owns one of her guitars, labeled with her company name, Guitar Company of America. Her instruments are prized by collectors as far away as Switzerland, and an article about her work appeared in the February 2013 issue of the German guitar journal Akustik Gitarre.
“Everybody is still copying the way Gibson and Martin designed their guitars back in the 1930s,” Michell said in a November interview. “They think in all of time, that’s the best design that will ever be. No one can improve on it. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s another way.’”
Jones had never built an acoustic instrument when he encountered Michell’s work.
“After seeing one of her mandolas, I was so blown away by it, I had to meet her,” he said.
She told him, “There’s no one that’s going to carry this on when I go, so I’d like to show it to you if you’d like to learn it.”
Michell was best known locally as a musician who performed at The Blue Jackalope, The Coffee House on Cherry Street, Cherry Street Farmers’ Market and Tulsa Flea Market.
Born in New Orleans, Michell was fired by her childhood violin teacher for playing by ear and memory instead of learning to read standard notation. She taught herself to play banjo, fiddle, guitar and many other instruments by listening to the music of Maybelle Carter, African-American musicians on “race” records and her future mentor, Grand Ole Opry star Sam McGee. Michell repaired and built instruments even as an adolescent because she couldn’t afford to buy what she wanted.
“I would get something that was broken and fix it and then trade that for something else,” she said. “I learned a lot about construction that way.”
As a young adult, Michell worked in the repair department of Nashville’s renowned Gruhn Guitars, next door to the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry at the time.
Revered Opry headliner Sam McGee asked her to be his warm-up partner, and she played backstage with him every Saturday night until the Opry moved from the Ryman and McGee retired.
She was a master of Mississippi John Hurt’s alternating-bass style, and she learned Travis-picking from Merle Travis himself, but she also played jazz.
The Monday evening jazz jam at Tom’s Bicycles on 15th Street was her idea, owner Tom Brown said.
She also wrote songs, including the haunting “Waltzing Around With My Shadow.” Many of her performances are preserved on YouTube under the handle dixiesguitar.
Michell performed at Studio Soul in November and with Jared Tyler and with Ken Ackley at Garden Deva in December. She hosted a weekly Travis-picking workshop until the last two weeks of her life.
And throughout her final months, Michell mentored Jones in her method of acoustic instrument construction and repair.
Jones is in the process of completing the guitars they worked on together: one made of 100-year-old bloodwood; one of pau ferro, or Bolivian rosewood; and one of flame maple she was building for herself. He also has incorporated Michell’s structural truss rod into one of his electric guitars.
They worked together on the restoration of a 1922 Gibson mandolin.
“She had a unique insight on repair,” Jones said.
Although that delicate restoration will take months to complete, some tasks that might have required weeks took only hours, thanks to her guidance, Jones said. Periodically he took photos from the workshop to her bedside to show her the progress on her last guitar.
“Everything has worked out,” she told her young friend. “My wildest dreams have come true.”