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(Above) Master luthier Glenn Stevens begins work on repairing the 100-year-old violin that belonged to Bill Cantrell's grandfather. Stevens has set up shop at Hill Country Music.

(Below) Proudly holding the restored violin, Bill Cantrell is now working on learning to play his grandfather's instrument.Photos by Phil Houseal

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Details:
Glenn Stevens' workbench is located inside the front door of Hill Country Music. He is typically on site from 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday. Phone number is 830-997-0900.

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Instrument of Choice

by Phil Houseal
Mar 5, 2007

"Phil... do you know anyone who works on fiddles? I have a friend who wants to fix up an instrument his grandfather played in the 1930s."

This call from a friend put me in touch with Bill Cantrell, a retired pilot who had come into possession of his grandfather's fiddle. The timing was propitious, for I had just heard that a real luthier had opened shop at Hill Country Music.

I sent Cantrell over and the journey to fix his fiddle began.

The instrument was going to be in the hands of Glenn Stevens - hands that had worked on 1600 violins a year. Ironically (yes, this is the rare correct use of that word), a broken hand ended Stevens's cello playing days. To add insult to his injury, he loaned his cello to a friend, who broke its neck. When Stevens sent the instrument in for repairs, he was impressed with how the old luthier was able to fix it.

Stevens asked if the man would teach him.

"He said he was too old and grumpy to teach me," Stevens said. "He said I needed to go to school."

So Stevens applied at the prestigious Chicago School of Violin Making. They accepted only 35 students, and there was more than a 2-year waiting list. That's when his luck changed: a slot opened unexpectedly, and Stevens was in.

During the challenging curriculum, Stevens learned appraisal, repair, and restoration. He was able to work on extremely valuable instruments. He took his skills to various retail music stores, and ended up in Houston, where he set up 1600 violins a year, mostly for high school music students.

"I hated it," he said. "But if I hadn't gone through that, I wouldn't know what I do today. A typical repairman may see 500 instruments in his life," Stevens noted. "I've seen and heard literally thousands, so my ear is going to be discriminating."

His ears heard new sounds in Ashville, Gatlinburg, and Nashville, where he was able to work with country and bluegrass artists, who had different needs in their setups.

Over his career, he has seen every type of instrument. I asked him what was the secret to a great violin.

"There isn't one," he replied. Over the years, builders have tried using immersed wood, mixing varnish, changing the shape of the f-hole, the density of wood, the thickness of finish. "All those variables play into the final sound, and the true craftsman understands that all those elements work together. Why does one out of 30 sound great? I don't know why. It is happenstance, luck, or a gift from God."

Still, Stevens knows so much about the instrument that he regularly takes "white box" violins - inexpensive, unfinished imports - and transforms them into good-sounding instruments. One of his "secrets" is the finish. His proprietary concoction is "Moonshine Varnish."

One of the musicians who played at Dollywood would always come into Stevens' shop and joke that he had a flask of moonshine, and speculate that they should use it in a fiddle finish. Knowing it was pure ethanol, Stevens mixed it in, and was intoxicated with the results.

"It helps with clarity of finish, and works with both natural pigments and dyes," he said. Stevens applies it in thin layers with a Chinese calligraphy brush, which creates depth, color, resistance to moisture, and a thin veneer, which "equals extraordinary sound."

It wasn't long before he had Cantrell's violin back in working order. He reset the tuning pegs, fixed a surface scratch, replaced the nut and end piece, reset the angle of the neck, and planed the fingerboard. Restrung and tuned, the violin now has the sound that places it in that "one out of 30" category - sweet, strong, and rich. Stevens used the word "exquisite."

Cantrell has started taking lessons to learn how to play his grandfather's instrument. He admits to being "a bit fearful of learning to play at 69."

"I'm eager to learn, not just for myself, but also for my grandchildren," he said. "I've got 13 grandchildren and I am putting the word out that I would be interested in them getting in to the violin."

Meanwhile, he is thrilled to hold some history of his grandfather.

"This probably was a prized possession," he said. "He was band leader at school, and could play every instrument in the band. But this," he said, cradling the restored violin, "was his instrument of choice."

"I've got nothing but good to say about Glenn," he said. "I'm very happy with the work he's done."