By Elizabeth Carbe and Jean-Pierre Durand
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/1/19 – For those who have a true passion for music and its creators, for those who understand the love of creating a new and unseen object, and the dedication and focus needed for that creation, Carmine Street Guitars is for you.
Harkening back to a time some never knew, others have forgotten and some still search for, there sits a little guitar shop in Greenwich Village New York on Carmine Street.
Rick Kelly is one of those dedicated luthiers that has been making guitars one at a time for decades. He, along with his apprentice of five years, Cindy Hulej, designs and handcrafts each guitar. What makes Kelly’s guitars so unique is that they are made from the history, bones and ghosts of New York City’s buildings. Kelly’s modest shop is filled with stacks of wood that have the name and date of the buildings where they use to live. Kelly has been rescuing and re-purposing wood from buildings that have been torn down for more years than he can remember. Some of this wood is well over a hundred years old and still contains the scars, scratches and even writing from a past life. Kelly’s guitars are the combination of superior craftsmanship and the old wood, which has settled, hardened and is filled with the crystalized sap and sounds of the city. It is all these qualities that draw guitarists from all over the world to his shop and his guitars.
There is no over dramatization of what happens in this little shop. Filmmaker Ron Mann takes you through the simple everyday activities of Kelly, Hulej, his mom Dorothy (the book keeper) and all the people that pass through. Those folks that pass through, though, are some of the most probing and iconoclastic musicians around. Lenny Kaye, classic NYC musician, guitarist for Patti Smith, and founder of the Nuggets series of garage band classics in the 70’s, is among them. Nels Cline from Wilco, Charlie Sexton from Bob Dylan’s band (after his own storied history as a seminal 80’s Austin TX guitarist), songwriter Eszter Balint, and jazz legend Bill Frisell all come into the shop. They and the other musicians who drop by seem to share a quality about them. They might or might not be famous. They might or might not be rock stars. But they are all undoubtedly seekers of beautiful music, of the elusive tone, the secret alchemy that occurs when their hands touch a special guitar which then goes through a special amp – the unique combination that allows these players to tell their stories, and/or find new stories inside the old wood, inside the vintage machinery. There is a magical, almost haunted quality about those who constantly search for the perfect note, knowing it is not sustainable, knowing the perfect moment will pass, yet when they are in that moment, they understand everything and are briefly made whole, part of the vastness. Kelly’s guitars often provide these seekers with a powerful first step in this process – a singular handmade instrument.
Walking into a room filled with wood from all over the city, Kelly starts knocking on the different pieces. Each one sings with a unique voice and Kelly explains how the crystallization of the sap creates little chambers in the wood. He goes on to explain how maple and ebony are not a good combination as one dries quicker than the other, creating gaps and wrapping. This is the rare observation of someone who has been drawn into the secret ebb and flow of the different woods and the tonal qualities that emerge from them.
Across the room sits Cindy Hulej, burning her unique designs into the guitars. You watch the drawings come alive as she shades and burns them into an almost three-dimensional picture that jumps out of the guitar. She is the perfect contrast to Kelly. Quietly spunky, fully engaged in social media and computer literate, she openly expresses her bewilderment at Kelly’s complete non-engagement on either front. There is a certain purity of approach there that she gently mocks yet deeply respects. It is clear from their warm bond that years of guitar-making and music secrets are silently passing to a new generation.
Kelly and Hulej are unlikely master and apprentice brought together by the love of guitars. Kelly’s mother Dorothy, who does all the bookkeeping on an old calculator, contrasts their approach even more. Mann throws in a little humor by playing music from the 1940’s every time we see Kelly’s mother answering the phone or trying in vain to straighten one of the many “celebrity guitarist” picture on the wall.
We see three generations working together for a common goal: helping musicians achieve their dream of swinging amongst the stars, if but for a moment.