SANDPOINT — Images of freedom come in all shapes and sizes. There are the sweeping gestures, such as flag-lined boulevards and fireworks that bespeak it at the national scale. And there are the smaller, more intimate deeds that embrace it on a personal level.
This is the story of two brothers who were given a press clipping about a very special tree that was about to end its chapter as a monument to freedom. They resolved to give it new life as a musical instrument that pays tribute to those who serve that cause.
The piece, published in the March 1, 2013, edition of the Coeur d’Alene Press, told of a vaulting Norwegian Spruce that was to be felled to make way for a field project at McEuen Park. On that tree were multiple strands of holiday lights, put there in 1972 to honor fighter pilot Fred McMurray, a Coeur d’Alene resident who was being held as a POW in Vietnam.
To local residents, this wasn’t just any towering evergreen — they called it the Freedom Tree.
“It was still a community tribute to him when he came home later in the 1970s,” said Tony Powell, who along with his brother, Dave, has turned part of the spruce into a soundboard for one of the unique harp guitars they build in their Sandpoint workshop.
“Our dad is a Vietnam veteran and we were looking for a way to honor him and all other veterans of foreign wars,” he continued. “It just kind of came together as a way to commemorate the freedom we love.”
The Powell brothers, who work together as builders in a business called Tonedevil Guitars, have incorporated the Norwegian Spruce into their popular S-12 Symphony harp guitar model, adding a dramatic design twist to create an instrument they have named the Freedom Harp.
“The image of the Freedom Tree is laser engraved into the top of the instrument,” Dave Powell explained. “It will be an actual representation, including the Christmas lights on the original spruce tree. We left those on because that’s such an iconic image now.”
“We’ve also added roots to the engraved design,” Tony said. “The roots of freedom.”
More than happy to show off examples of their various harp guitar models, the brothers insist on keeping the actual Freedom Harp guitar under wraps until October 3, when they will host the 2014 Harp Guitar Gathering in Coeur d’Alene. The annual event attracts harp guitar players and builders from all over the U.S., as well as Japan, Germany, France and Canada.
Historically, the three-day gathering has been held in larger cities such as Dallas, Indianapolis and Portland. But as players took notice and the Tonedevil star began to rise in the harp guitar community, the brothers saw their chance to bring the event home and create the ideal showcase for the Freedom Harp.
“We thought Coeur d’Alene would be perfect, because it’s beautiful and it’s just right for conventions,” said Dave. “We want the Freedom Harp to pass through as many hands as possible during the gathering, but the main thing is to get it unveiled and have it on display as a monument to our veterans.”
For readers who might be scratching their heads and wondering what a harp guitar is, much less how many players there might be in the world, the answer lies in a colorful bit of the instrument’s history.
First introduced by a Seattle luthier in 1898, this many stringed musical amalgamation found popularity in the early part of the 20th Century and just as quickly fell out of favor, leaving the surviving instruments hanging on pawn shop walls or packed away in attics. Things changed in the mid-1980s, when a few, key guitarists rediscovered the harp guitar and interest in both its unusual looks and expanded tonal range was revived.
Tony Powell built his first harp guitar in 2004, before moving to Nashville to work for the Gibson Guitar Co.
Dave, who was working for Adobe in Seattle and doing a little street corner busking on the side, asked his brother to build one of the “harps” for him. Eventually, they both found their way back home to Sandpoint, where Dave put his tech skills to work doing CAD drawings of new instrument designs and Tony turning those blueprints into guitars.
They made their first sale to a Quebec-based harp guitarist and, soon after, discovered that they were far from alone in their love for what Tony calls “the unicorn of the guitar world.”
“That’s when we found out there was an actual harp guitar industry and realized how much demand there was,” said Dave.
“We decided to get a jump on the fact that there seemed to be a market for an American-made harp guitar,” Tony said. “As it turned out, we ended up building the first American harp guitars in 100 years.”
That was three years ago and the market has developed rapidly since that time, the brothers noted. Still, Tonedevil Guitars has emerged as an industry leader in what remains a relatively small but growing international market.
The brothers recently completed their 50th instrument for sale. The next one off the bench will bear the image of a lofty spruce. Its song, they said, should be even loftier.
“We’d like to give voice to the freedom represented by the Freedom Tree,” Tony shared. “And, in October, the Freedom Harp going to be played by the greatest harp guitarists in the world.”
The 2014 Harp Guitar Gathering, scheduled for Oct. 3-5, will include the Freedom Harp unveiling, after which the instrument will be played for the world premier of a veterans’ tribute song written by event founder Stephen Bennett. Also scheduled are workshops and forums, as well as a Saturday evening harp guitar concert at NIC’s Boswell Hall. The gathering will wrap up with a players’ recital from 3-6 p.m. in the music rehearsal room at NIC.
For more complete schedule information on the upcoming event, visit: www.harpguitars.net/hgg/hgg.htm
To learn more about the Powell brothers and the history of the harp guitar, visit: www.tonedevilharpguitars.com
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