What started as an idea by my high school classmate, Alden Morgan (now living in Portland, OR), turned into a full length 53 minute documentary on the harp guitar. Originally he wanted to make a short film about the late Michael Hedges by getting some interviews/performances of current players, collect some old footage from the Hedges estate, and put together a sort of rock-u-mentary. Upon our first discussion back in 2010 we immediately realized the difficulty to gain access to such footage. I heard there had been attempts in the past of contacting the Hedges estate with little or no success.
A couple years went by in which time my brother and I established the Tonedevil guitar company, and were on our way producing the S-12 Symphony harp guitar which became the first USA made harp guitar production line instrument in over 100 years. We were encouraged to do this as our notary was already becoming known in harp guitar circles because of Alden’s previous 2007 short film titled “Harp Guitar Heroes,” featuring myself playing a very early prototype pre-Tonedevil harp guitar, Andy Wahlberg, Muriel Anderson interviews and additional B-roll filmed partly at the Harp Guitar Gathering 6 in Portland, OR.
Alden continued ruminating, enough to realize instead of doing a Hedges feature piece, he needed an expansion of that first short film, and to include a segment on Michael Hedges. Thus was born the idea for “The Hollow Arm.” In 2012 he contacted me again and pitched the idea of his concept to include as many interviews and stories about the harp guitar, artists first impressions, their challenges, their playing techniques, the luthier’s perspectives, and of course everyone’s Michael Hedges story. This would all be sorted and cut together some how to make a cohesive story line which he hadn’t quite figured out but had some good ideas about. There wasn’t even a title at that time, just that he wanted to make it, and was willing to put up the time and travel budget involved with making something from the resources and relationships my brother and I had developed over the previous decade or so. I knew in order to make this work we needed to film again at one of the Gatherings so most of the people were in the same place at the same time, and that year it would be particularly special being the 10th annual in Dallas, Tx,
Earlier in the spring of 2012 Alden came to our facility in Sandpoint and began the first shots of what would be used for the trailer for the film. We shot B-roll in the shop of us building, some scenic shots of town and the lake, and some closeups of my hands playing the harp guitar. We also had some fun breaking things in slow motion, using the fog machine, and even catching on fire an early prototype mini guitar. He was able to cut the trailer together pretty fast and you can read a little more about that trip in this post. It turned out extremely well using one of my recent instrumental re-arrangements of a tune my brother wrote called “Tea Time” as the sound track to the trailer, but we knew there was a lot more filming needed if we were to make it a full length documentary at least 50 minutes long. What story would it tell? Could we get a celebrity to feature? If we didn’t hear back from the Hedges estate what footage could we use of MH? Where would we release the film and premiere it? The questions filled our minds as the project kept growing larger.
But aside from an insignificant lightning issue, filming went surprisingly well in Dallas at the 10th Gathering. Joe Morgan was the host that year and accommodated Alden filming on site at the theater it was held in. There was even a large dimly lit unoccupied lounge room we had access to for the interviews which was perfect for setting up unique backdrops for each interviewee. We collected more than enough interviews and performances, including one from the late Tom Shinness who passed a few years later. We also interviewed Robert Hartman, the last living relative of the Larson bros., Stephen Sedgewick, Stephen Bennett, Kathy Wingert, and more.
The Gathering footage was definitely the bulk of the content we needed but decided we couldn’t have it all be just talking heads in the same location, we needed a couple more interviews with different backdrops and some other key elements to make it interesting. We needed another trip to visit some of my other friends and influences to be a part of this project, and who more eccentric than master luthier Fred Carlson. His creations for Jeff Titus are simply amazing, which hardly describes them. For sake of keeping this article not too lengthy I’ll spare the detail I could talk about his builds, but he was happy to extend the invitation for us to visit his shop in the north Santa Cruz coast line (with a spectacular sunset view on our way out) and meet Jeff at the same time. I made up a blog post after that trip and wrote this:
” The journey continued this month as some of the last interviews were filmed. Dave and Alden made their road trip a success down to the SF bay area and Los Angeles, where they interviewed legendary bass player Michael Manring, harp guitarist Jeff Titus, harp guitar luthier Fred Carlson, and Gregg Miner’s harp guitar museum in Tarzana. All went extremely well and we are looking forward to releasing the film once the lengthy process of post production concludes. Be sure to check out the official Facebook page for the film for updates and like/share it with your friends.”
The Michael Manring connection was a complete surprise. Jeff Titus encouraged me to reach out to him and I was delighted when he returned my emails and set up that interview. Sitting across from him asking questions was surreal. This was the bass player backing up Hedges on all those albums I wore out years earlier, and I got to ask him about some of his most intimate moments with one of my all time favorite guitarists. Manring is of course one of the best bassists of today, still tours prolifically and teaches clinics around the world. He told me a lot about Hedges I never knew. The real reason he drove off that cliff on highway 1 outside of Mendocino in November of 1997 was two fold: being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the driving conditions were crap. It was a curvy highway on a steep slope, raining hard, and he wasn’t wearing his glasses on his way back for a recording session (Manring said he never wore them and had bad eyesight). Hedges was a risk taker. And it always showed in his playing, I think most of his guitar playing fans would agree, he pushed the boundary of acoustic guitar further than anyone had at the time.
Now I need to back track a couple months. Before Alden and I drove from Portland to Santa Cruz>SF>LA for those much needed interviews, I tracked down an old acquaintance Andy Mckee who by this time had become an international acoustic guitar celebrity. More recently
he’s toured with Prince in Australia, and now has dates lined up with Tears for Fears (yes the original band). I met him for the first time in 2005 at the 3rd Harp Guitar Gathering before his Candyrat videos became viral. Both him and Dan Lavoie were there and we were all about the same age so we sorta hit it off. After Andy’s music career took off I would track him down at random shows I happened to be near when I lived in Seattle, and Nashville for short times. I always surprised him but he remembered me, so it wasn’t hard to ask him for an interview when he came through Spokane while we were still in production on the Hollow Arm, to which he agreed. So I set up Alden to meet him at his next gig which was in Eugene, OR where he had some time before the show to sit down for an interview and let Alden shoot a much needed performance on harp guitar during sound check.
Mike Doolin is another friend through the Gathering. He lives in Portland and was happy to meet up with Alden for some technical luthier discussions. John Doan was only an hour south in Salem who gave a great interview and performance as well. We now had all the ingredients for a great documentary about the harp guitar, its players and builders save the last ingredient of a Hedges performance clip. I could never get permission to use his good quality videos playing harp guitar so we went with plan B. I think it was Jeff Titus who pointed us in the direction of a guy named Randy Lutge, who ran the Varsity theater in the bay area back in the 80s-90’s where Hedges had played on several occasions. He had some good clips, thought not quite the same resolution we were shooting in, but there was a clip Hedges played Bach’s “Prelude to Cello” on his vintage Dyer harp guitar that was perfect. Public domain song that Randy was gracious to let us use in the video, we finally could move onto post production and editing.
I made a couple trips over to Alden’s place in Portland to help with editing. He had a nice room set up where he works from home, equipped with an additional standing work station I could use to fix audio and do research etc. I remember having some paper we printed of just a typed outline of the different segments of footage we had collected, and when we used a pair of scissors to cut the separate segments into strips Alden exclaimed: “We just made our first edit!” I learned right then that every step is important in the process in creating content, and it doesn’t need to be super high tech to get the job done, as long as its effective in helping to reach the desired end result. Arranging the pieces we cut out by hand and laid on the floor was a good way to re-arrange segments and visualize different ideas quickly. Alden’s original plan was to follow an instrument getting built and have the interviews between but we realized that we didn’t really have a story for that and there would be holes missing. Separating it out into topics and get them into an arrangement that flowed seemed a better way to go which is what we did.
Now Alden had the long tedious job to do of reviewing, arranging and cutting all the video clips onto a timeline that resembled the segments we cut out of paper. No matter what you do, this process takes the longest because you have to go back through many terabytes of clips to remember what was said and where it goes. I don’t know how many hours he had into the editing, but I think it was at least several weeks. During that time he would call me up in need of background music. I worked on getting him audio clips of harp guitar tracks I had recorded he could sync the footage to. We also used tracks from some of the artists we interviewed at the Gathering. There may have only been 1 track that wasn’t actually harp guitar, but all the rest of the music was. I would still like to release a soundtrack to the film, hopefully one day soon!