Randy Wood’s most prized possession back home on the Georgia farm was a pocket knife his father gave him. With it, and some other woodworking tools, he became internationally famous as a builder and repairer of fine acoustic instruments.
Randy joined the Army after high school and learned how to play guitar during long solo shifts on an island in the Pacific. The island was Hawaii, so his non-duty hours were a bit more event filled. When he came home he took some drafting courses and had some future plans in that direction. He played in a band and sang and played well enough that in the late 1960s he was offered a job in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. But that pocket knife got in his way. Working with wood and glue was in his blood. When Tut Taylor, a musician and friend with a room full of wood working tools offered him the use of his tools and the opportunity for a drafting job if he moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, Randy moved his new family north.
Working in the wood shop was so appealing that he never did pursue the drafting job that Tut had arranged for him. Even better opportunity existed in Tennessee, so another move occurred. In Nashville he had a fledgling business partnership with George Gruhn and Tut Taylor where they bought, sold, repaired and built instruments in a shop adjacent to the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It attracted Opry musicians among its many visitors and customers.
When Randy, Tut and George went their separate ways Randy bought a property not far from the original location for his repair and building business. He soon added a showroom where he hired musical talent, mostly acoustic and, often as not, a bluegrass act. Randy Wood’s Pickin’ Parlor was born. Opry musicians like Roy Acuff and his band members Brother Oswald and Charlie Collins stopped by the shop during the afternoon just to sit by the pot belly stove, tell stories and test the instruments on display. That pretty much started the tradition of a jam session which continues to this day at Randy’s current location in Bloomingdale, Georgia.
Pretty much every Saturday afternoon since the Bloomingdale store was opened in 2000 there has been free music in the back of the shop provided by local and visiting musicians. It ended temporarily last year when the COVID virus slowed things down. Randy took that jam one step further in 2006 and created an annual jam session weekend which is attended by music pros and amateurs alike.
The event was christened the Walter Butler Memorial Festival after a fan from outside of Atlanta who held a weekend long jam session for years at his home in Pine Lake. Randy first heard about that jam in the mid-1960s and attended faithfully. That’s where he first met his future business partner, Tut Taylor. When Walter passed away in the late 1970s Randy wanted to carry on the tradition. It wasn’t until years later that he was in a position to hold the event on his property outside of Savannah.
He has plenty of room. Besides “Randy Wood’s Guitar Shop” where he builds and sells his hand made instruments alongside rare vintage items, there is a 100 seat listening room where traveling bands as well as popular local groups perform. Out front is a restaurant which serves some great Mexican food and even a classic vinyl record shop is tucked away in between the other shops. All around is space for a small festival including plenty of room for camper bus and car parking.
The event is held annually on the last weekend of March. Randy first saw it as an opportunity for road musicians to get together with fellow musicians and hang out. No performing, only relaxing and swapping stories. That never happened. When musicians get together with musicians music happens. That’s a good thing. It has grown some since that first time in 2006.
This year’s jam was the first in two years since COVID shut it down entirely last year. Still a good sized, but cautious, crowd was there and lots of music played. Friday afternoon was a fine sunny day and an afternoon barbeque lunch was served to all.
Some folks wouldn’t miss the event. Red Henry, who, with his banjo playing wife, Murphy, were one of the first bands to travel to and perform at summer bluegrass festivals, is there every year. Red is the proud owner of two of the first three mandolins Randy built. One of which was built for and played by Bill Monroe who kept it in an alternate tuning for his popular rendition of “Get Up John.” Red is there to play and is jamming most every minute of the weekend but he isn’t alone. When the greetings are completed music is played and it goes on into the early morning just like in the early festival days.
Another regular every year is Virginia’s Dick Smith who played mandolin with Del McCoury and banjo with the Country Gentlemen. This year, as every year, he was either found in Randy’s workshop tweaking someone’s instrument for them or sitting with an amateur or professional musician and teaching them how to play a lick or phrase on pretty much any instrument they want to learn on. When he isn’t teaching or helping he is telling stories of the old days on the road. Dick is an entertainer who, like Red, will stay up and pick all night. The later it gets the better the stories.
One of my favorite visitors is Brian Aldridge, who has been a member of Dry Branch Fire Squad for a couple of decades now. Originally part of the fabled Ohio bluegrass scene, he had a seasonal home in South Carolina where he stayed when he first started attending the jam several years ago. The nearby house has been sold, but he still returns when he can as he did this year to play and sing the traditional tunes.
A regular who missed this year because his wife was ill is Hershel Sizemore. Hershel played with Jimmy Martin in the early days. He had played with many bands over the years and has written some classic bluegrass tunes that everyone eventually learns to play. All, unfortunately, in the key of B. He has come down from his home in Roanoke year after year. Like Dick and Red he is always willing to help a new player learn a lick or two.
Yet another mandolin great who missed this year for the first time is Tony Williamson. Tony isn’t only a famous musician, he is one of Randy’s best friends and best customers. Tony is one of the premiere Lloyd Loar signed Gibson mandolin dealers and players in the world. When they are in need of repair, Tony trusts Randy to do the job correctly.
It’s not all just good ole’ boys either. Several of the ladies return every year to play and sing. One of the best is a Brunswick, GA, favorite, Susie Betts. Susie is not only a talented singer, she is one of the best rhythm guitarists at the jam. Originally from Knoxville she toured with one of the early all female groups, The Wildwood Girls. They toured not only in the U. S. but around the world as part of a Department of Defense entertainment program. After 2 years of living out of a suitcase she got a job closer to home playing with Dolly Parton’s cousins and uncles in The Kinfolks Band at Dolly’s amusement park, Dollywood.
Before the virus shut the jam down for a year in 2020, Randy had built and was introducing a new lightweight banjo. Curious banjo pickers showed up in 2019 to give it a try. Among them were modern legends, Barry Abernathy and Noam Pikelny. Another great banjo player, Barry Palmer, usually shows up with his whole band, Bluegrass Alliance. Yes, that Bluegrass Alliance.
Jimmy Martin alumni, Chris Warner, visited in 2019 and entertained the crowd with his traditional style of playing. Mike Munford also came down from Washington D. C. with his own popular style of playing banjo. Interestingly, after so many years of hosting the event the word is still spreading and some of today’s most talented keep showing up.
Speaking of banjo players, on Saturday this year a bus pulled onto the property in the afternoon and about a dozen folks all walked in from the parking area together. Among them were Little Roy Lewis and Lizzie Long. Within 20 minutes of their arrival they were into a hot jam session at the back of Randy’s shop. They all come to play and reminisce. Little Roy and Lizzie are frequent performers in Randy’s music hall and in August, 2009, they brought a guest banjo player with them, Earl Scruggs. It was a special night.
From the early traditional players to the young modern heroes you just never know who is going to show up at Randy’s or when. One thing is sure, once a year in the spring there is going to be one wing-ding of a music weekend and you are all invited. The barbeque isn’t bad either.