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Rural Missouri Magazine
A reluctant bassman
Banjo player by choice, fiddle maker by tradition, Luke Medley is known for building basses

by Bob McEowen

It’s not his preferred instrument to play but Poplar Bluff woodworker and muscian Luther Medley has earned a reputation for building stand-up acoustic basses for bluegrass musicians.

On stage Luke Medley plays bass. But watch him wander among the impromptu jam sessions at a bluegrass festival and you’ll see him play just about everything else. His instrument of choice is the banjo but he’ll pick a mandolin or guitar before he’ll pluck the heavy strings of a bass.

“It’s boring,” he says. “I’d 10 times rather be playing the banjo than the bass fiddle.”

For a guy who really doesn’t care for the bass, Luke sure spends a lot of time on the instrument. A 10-year veteran of the gospel bluegrass band Guy Stevenson and the Winning Team, Luke switched to bass after losing the tip of a finger to a power tool and now plays the instrument professionally a couple weekends each month.
As an instrument maker, Luke would like to build mandolins, guitars and fiddles but spends almost all his time building basses.

“The reason I haven’t made more fiddles and guitars is because they keep me so busy making basses. They’re sold by the time I get them made and somebody’s wanting another one,” says Luke, 72.

Luke has built 80 of the tubby instruments so far — each one bearing its production number and the Medley name scrawled onto the heel of its neck. It’s not for a lack of supply that bluegrass players keep Luke cranking out basses. The market is full of low-cost imported basses designed for playing classical music. But these instruments are made to be played with a bow and not plucked with the fingers the way bluegrass musicians do.

It’s rare that Luke has an inventory of basses but this year he built six in anticipation of the Cross Country Trail Ride Bluegrass Festival in Eminence. All but three sold in the weeks leading up to the festival.

It might as well be an entirely different instrument, Luke says. “Those basses are hard to play. They’ve got a big old neck like a two-by-four.”

Luke’s basses have slender necks that are comfortable even for the smaller hands of female musicians. Unlike orchestra basses, each string on a Medley bass projects the same volume — and it’s a thunderous, room-filling volume at that.

“I have perfected the bluegrass bass,” Luke says without even a hint of bragging.

In some ways, Luke’s basses are humble offerings. He admits he doesn’t sand them as much as he should and it’s not uncommon to see tool marks left in the surface of the wood. The instrument’s scroll-shaped head is cut out on a band saw instead of carved. But Luke’s basses have exactly the sound and playability that bluegrass players want. The price, too, is a hit with working-class musicians.

“I get $700 for mine. Lord, that’s about half price of what you can get a foreign-made bass for.”

Luke says he can appreciate the need for affordable instruments. He was raised on a farm near the Black River and the first instrument that came into the family home was a fiddle given as payment for farm labor. He first took up guitar to accompany his brother on that fiddle. By the time he was 16 he had a regular job playing a local square dance. Recalling his excitement at the prospect, Luke says, “Man, I’m a professional musician. I’m making $2 a week. I’d never had $2 in my life.”

Luke sings harmony in a falsetto tenor voice during a performance by the gospel bluegrass band Guy Stevenson and the Winning Team at the Cross Country Trailride Bluegrass Festival in Eminence. Originally a banjo player with the band, Luke now plays bass. Although a shop accident cost Luke the tip of a finger, hampering his banjo playing, he still prefers banjo to bass.

Luke’s path to nearly full-time bass making began merely as a way to pass the time. In 1989, he retired from his job as a lineman at age 55 to fish and attend bluegrass festivals. When not on the water or playing music Luke made craft items for his wife in his woodshop.

“I was just sitting out here making little what-nots and then I said, ‘I think I’ll build me a guitar.’ I built a guitar and a guy come along and he liked it and he bought it,” Luke recalls with amazement. “I thought, there might be some fishing money in this.”

It was about then that Luke happened upon Harold McCoyn, an old-time fiddle maker who lived just a few blocks away from his home in Poplar Bluff.

Luke was walking to the store for a can of chewing tobacco one winter day when he spotted an old man sitting on a porch whittling what appeared to be a fiddle neck. Luke invited the man to come work in his shop. The two became friends and built instruments together.

McCoyn taught Luke to carve the gentle arch into the fiddle top that gives the instrument its sweet sound. After McCoyn passed away Luke’s fiddle making caught the attention of the Missouri Folk Arts Program. The University of Missouri program declared Luke a folk arts “master” and asked him to teach old-time fiddle making to eager apprentices.

“They said it was a lost art,” Luke says. “I did that for three years. They bought the materials. The apprentice got the fiddle and I got paid. It was a good deal.”

Eventually someone asked Luke to make a bass. He almost turned down the job, knowing he could never find wood suitable for carving such a large instrument top. Instead, he decided to try to mold an arched top out of thin plywood. Without a steam machine to soften the wood he first tried shaping the top using pressure alone — an approach that produced comical results.

“We made a mold and ran an old truck up on that board to hold it down. We put rocks and everything else on top of it,” Luke says. “We took it off the next morning and that thing straightened right out.”

Luke sands the inside top of a bass. His instruments include a second tone bar, one of many changes he’s made to traditional designs in his search for “the perfect bluegrass bass.”

Through experimentation Luke learned to mold tops using heat — first from a fire pit in the yard and later from the sun, or just his shop woodstove. Not long after he made his first bass a bluegrass musician brought Luke a supposedly fine bass he said was made for a New York orchestra player. Despite the instrument’s pedigree, both men agreed the bass lacked punch. “I told him I’ve thumped on better-sounding watermelons than that bass,” Luke says.

While working to improve the sound of that instrument Luke began his quest to build a bass specifically for bluegrass musicians. Since then, he has settled on a design that includes not just comfortable necks but also internal changes.

Luke began taking his handcrafted bluegrass basses to music festivals where word spread quickly. Ironically, Luke, who retired with the hopes of becoming a professional musician, is probably best known in bluegrass circles as an instrument builder.

Not that Luke is without success as a musician and songwriter. In 2000, “Bluegrass Prayer,” a song he penned, was nominated as song of the year by a bluegrass music association. The walls of Luke’s office are covered with photos of musicians he’s known or shared the stage with — bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley, the Lewis Family, Jim and Jesse McReynolds and others. Although he never played with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Luke says he did meet him. Now, he attends Bill Monroe reunions through his association with Guy Stephenson, a member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys Band in the 1970s.

Luke plays banjo during an impromptu jam session at the festival.

Rubbing elbows and, of course, playing music with legendary bluegrass performers comes easily for Luke, who says he shares a common background with the giants of the genre. “Every one of them is country folk,” he says. “They came up like I did.”

His simple roots and love for the music help Luke keep his success as an instrument builder in perspective. Although dealers have tried to buy his basses in quantity, Luke has steadfastly refused.

“When I make a bass, people buy them individually to use and they love them. They appreciate them. They’re proud of them and they get out there in jam sessions and play them.”

Likewise, Luke resists those who say he’s an American folk artist and should charge accordingly.

“I don’t think of myself as being an artist. I just like making them and getting a little fishing money,” he says. “I want them to be the best bluegrass bass out there but I’m going to hold my price down so people can afford it.”

For more information about Luke Medley’s basses call (573) 785-3613.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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