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Luthier Chris Capozzoli, Finding Home And Inspiration In The Land Of Doc Watson

Luthier Chris Capozzoli
Finding Home And Inspiration In The Land Of Doc Watson
By Derek Halsey

Chris-C-2Guitar maker and woodworker Chris Capozzoli grew up in the urban sprawl of Charlotte, N.C. He grew up with a love of trains, but there was one locomotive in particular in his neighborhood that captured his attention. Not one to get into any serious trouble as a kid, he would nevertheless occasionally sneak out of the house to hang with his friends late into the night. Then, right on time like a preset stopwatch, the sound of the 4:30 a.m. train would be his signal to walk home and get back into his bedroom before his parents woke.

Many years later, Capozzoli would find himself living in the beautiful High Country Mountains in and around the small college town of Boone, N.C. Amazingly, you cannot hear the sound of trains in that part of western North Carolina. The legendary Tweetsie Railroad that brought travelers and goods to the area and took out the timber, iron ore, and gems found in the region was wiped out by a flood in 1940. Built just after the end of the Civil War and lasting until about 1950, people began to convert to cars and trucks for their transportation needs after the flood, and the Tweetsie Railroad slowly faded into disarray.

IBMA Hall of Famer Doc Watson and his family grew up in Deep Gap, N.C., right next door to Boone, and no doubt rode that train or at least heard its whistle off in the distance. There are overgrown sections of old Tweetsie Railroad tracks still located in the mountains and the legend of the rail system continues.

The signature on the headstock of Capozzoli’s handmade guitars is the shape of the cross-section of a piece of Tweetsie Railroad track, signifying the history of the area. The journey to making these wonderfully-crafted instruments, however, would be a combination of serendipity and unique inspiration.

Capozzoli, 37, would explore the mountains near Boone when he was in the Boy Scouts, and the beauty of the region never left him. But his relocation to the High Country would happen years later. As a young adult in Charlotte, he was surrounded by a couple of neighbors who worked with wood, including one who put together guitars from kits. That would be the spark that would begin his journey into the world of woodworking and building instruments.

“When I was in middle school, I had neighbors that had little woodworking shops,” he recalls. “One of them was a retired guy who had a shop, and the other guy built kit guitars in his shed. The first time I ever thought about making something out of wood came when my parents were having a deck built. I took every scrap of wood that came off that deck, asking the construction workers, ‘Thumbs up or thumbs down?’ I collected enough scrapwood to make a little go-kart. I got my woodworking neighbors to help me cut the wood to length, and that was fun.”

By the time Capozzoli was in high school, he built his first guitar as part of a school project. Although the instrument was primitive, he was on his way.

“My school had what was called a Senior Exit Essay Project that had to cover all of your core classes. But, you could do it on anything you wanted to do. You could do it on changing a tire, as long as it involved all of your core subjects. I thought about it, and it didn’t take me very long to realize that a guitar covered all of those subjects. There was the history of the guitar. There was plenty of science and physics involved with a guitar. And, there is math when it comes to the scales and geometry involved with stringing it and the pitch of the instrument. I got approved for the project and borrowed a router from the school’s small woodshop to make parts. I borrowed a guitar-making book from the neighbor and drew up the shape of the guitar I wanted to build and started cutting it out. It was pretty rough. It was an electric guitar, and it was actually playable.”

After high school, Capozzoli chose to go to Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute located in Boone. While achieving an Associate’s Degree in Art, he took a job at Vaughn Woodworking on the outskirts of town. He would work there for over a decade, with good pay and benefits. The cool perk about the job was that he had access to the tools in the shop afterhours, and Capozzoli took full advantage of his good fortune.

“We would be done working on Friday afternoon and immediately afterwards, I would get out one of my projects to work on, whether it be furniture or a guitar. I’d get dinner at the Family Billiards pool hall across the street and then keep working. On Saturday morning when the sun would start coming up, I’d almost be done with my project when the owner would pull up in his truck. He’d say, ‘Man, you’re out here early.’ I’d say, ‘Actually, I was just shutting down. I’ve been here all night.’ He’d say, ‘Son, that’s dangerous.’ But, once it got to a certain point, I’d quit woodworking during the night and sand it and lacquer it and stuff. I wasn’t standing there tired at the table saw.”

After ten years at Vaughn Woodworking, Capozzoli finally decided to start his own shop. He also realized that he was in the mountains for good.

“For the last five years of working there, I started buying my own woodworking tools; buying them whenever I could find them. I’d put my bought tools in my kitchen until the collection grew to where there was no more room in the kitchen. There was a table-saw and jointers and planers and other machinery all stacked up in the corner. Finally, I found a building to put my shop in, and then I put in my notice.”

Capozzoli then concentrated on building various kinds of furniture and electric guitars. But it was a combination of inspiration from his mother and local musical hero Doc Watson that steered him into making the acclaimed acoustic guitars that he’s known for today.

“The first time I saw Doc Watson perform, it was definitely an influential acoustical moment,” he remembers. “About a week after I moved up here in August of 1999, Doc played on a pop-up stage in the Harris Teeter grocery store parking lot with his grandson Richard and I can’t remember who else. I stumbled upon the show while going to get some groceries. I knew of Doc, but I didn’t know too much about him at the time. I skipped out on getting the food, however, because they were gettin’ down! It looked like so much fun. I wanted to do that. I had an acoustic guitar I borrowed from a friend that I brought with me to Boone—he said I would need it up there. I fell in love with the acoustic guitar tone and its portability. I took it everywhere I went and played it constantly. I made it a goal that day to build them someday soon. At first I made some strum sticks, which were backpack-sized dulcimers. I wanted to scale up to acoustic guitars, so I made a ukulele and a mandolin. Then, my mom got sick.”

About four years ago, Capozzoli’s mother died of cancer, succumbing to melanoma as well as dementia. His mom was a big supporter of his work. After dealing with the traumatic life-changing event, he received an inheritance and decided to use it for something worthy. So, in order to kick up his skills at making acoustic guitars, he enrolled in one of the best instrument-making schools in the country.

“I went out to Oregon and enrolled in the American School Of Lutherie run by Charles Fox. There are a lot of lutherie schools out there, and this one was highly-ranked. I knew what I was getting into, and I had studied up before I went out there and knew exactly how it was put together. I was ready to go. By the end of it, in a complimentary way, Charles Fox said, ‘I don’t know why you’re here. You’re ready to build acoustic guitars.’ The four guys that were in the class, including me, were all almost a step ahead. Charles said, ‘Man, we’ve never been done this fast in this class before.’ On the final day, we all got there and put the strings on our guitars, and that was it. Usually, the last class is going late into the evening, trying to get things done on the final day. It was a fun experience that gave me the courage to be hands on, having built my first true acoustic guitar there.”

Capozzoli explored the Oregon and Washington State landscape while attending the school. Yet when it came down to doing business, the classes were 12 hours a day for 13 straight days, and that intense training left him with knowledge that he still uses today.

“The biggest thing that I took home was voicing the top of the guitar, the soundboard, and carving the braces,” he notes. “So many people have their style of shaping the braces, and Charles Fox is an innovator in the guitar-building world, so he has his way of doing it. I took all of that back with me and went from there. I look at that whole experience as a gift from my mom. She always wanted to help me to get things done, but I didn’t take her up on her offerings too often because I guess I was stubborn. I wanted to do things on my own.”

Once Capozzoli returned to the High Country, his motivation was sky high, and he got busy. “I came back from Oregon and right away, I started building acoustic guitars. I took notes every day while I was out there and brought back a notebook full, and I also took about 2,000 photographs. When I came back, I began to build every jig that I would need to build acoustic guitars. There’s a jig for everything. There’s a side-bending jig. There’s something called a go-bar deck that’s used to glue the braces onto the top and back. I built every jig I needed to do all of the cutting and milling of the headstock, the tapering of the neck, and the dovetail. I spent about six months making jigs. I couldn’t stop. I made one after the next. As soon as I was done with that, I made my first full-sized acoustic guitar here at my shop.”

Once he was on his guitar-making path, he had to come up with a brand, a headstock trademark that people would know his guitars by. He tried different designs, including his initials and other notions. But then one day, the mountain culture put an idea down in front of him and the railroad-track symbol was born.

“My other brand ideas weren’t working out, and I wanted something simple, like the Nike swoosh, because when you see it, you know what it is. Not everyone sees the cross-section of a railroad track and knows what it is, but I figure that people will learn about it. It’s like a badge. I picked it because I thought it was iconical to the area, specifically because it was based on an actual piece of the real Tweetsie Railroad. As a musician, there is so much lore about trains in so many songs. It makes you think metaphorically about people riding trains, jumping trains, the strength that the train represents, and the power of the locomotive.

“A friend of mine’s dad grew up near Boone in Seven Devils where Tweetsie Railroad ran back in the day. One year, he spent a whole summer hacking a piece of abandoned track off.  Then, years later, he rediscovered this piece of track, and I found it in his kitchen. He told me that it was a narrow-gauge track. He gave me a piece of it and I took it home and that evening I sat it up on my mantle. I was doing my evening sketches, trying to come up with something, and the sun was going down behind me and shining through the window and was gleaming on this freshly-sliced piece of steel. Right then I thought, ‘Oh! That’s it!’”

Capozzoli would see Doc Watson perform many times in the following years, up until Watson’s death in 2012. He treasures those moments, and the inspiration.

“I briefly got to speak to Doc once, but it was barely significant because I thought he was busy and I didn’t want to bug him. It was at the old Sugar Grove Doc & Rosa Lee Watson Music Festival, and there were a lot of people there. So, I basically got to thank him and shake his hand and tell him how much I appreciated his music. It was a memorable moment. My dad is a perfect example as I tell those that didn’t grow up here or are new to this area that Doc Watson’s statue is on King Street because he’s responsible for the fusion of old-time music and the blues, and that he used to stand on King Street and busk. When I see people busking on King Street today, I can’t help but try and put myself back in time and imagine a young Doc Watson standing there with some guy walking around with a tape recorder recording him. I have a very visual imagination, so after seeing photographs of King Street from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, I put myself into those pictures and think of Doc walking around. I’m proud of Boone for putting that statue there.”

The legend of Doc Watson is just a part of why Capozzoli and other visitors and natives find Boone and the High Country region to be so special.

   “The people up here are so nice,” says Capozzoli. “The people around here are very unique. Everywhere you go, people are smiling and, after a while, you know somebody most everywhere you go. There’s a very comfortable edge about this place. It’s a niche spot, and you have to find a way to make a living in the mountains. My job at the wood shop was my in. It was then that I thought I could make a living here. And, my favorite thing to do is hike. Hiking the mountains is my exercise. I like getting out on those trails and backpacking and do as many miles as I can and hike all over these hills. I tell people that these mountains are picturesque. While they’re a bit more modest than the Rocky Mountains, they are a lot older and rounded off a little bit. But you can get up on top of Table Rock Mountain or Grandfather Mountain and see forever. I love every season that this place has to offer. There are so many outdoor recreational things to do around here. I love it. I couldn’t imagine being somewhere else.”