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In Tune 

Guitar maker, musician, author, activist and dad — Creston Lea roles with it

Chris Gray owns a small army of guitars, ranging from run-of-the-mill factory issues to expensive custom and rare vintage models. But of the roughly 30 or so axes in the Brooklyn-based guitarist’s possession, there are only two he deems irreplaceable. One is a Telecaster-style model with a gleaming alabaster finish that he’s dubbed the White Wedding; the other is its moody twin, the Dark Sister. They are both “Crestons,” built by Creston Electric Instruments in Burlington. And, like nearly all the instruments produced by the company’s founder, proprietor and lone employee, Creston Lea, they have a good story behind them.

The White Wedding was, in fact, a wedding gift from Gray’s then-fiancée, Maria, nearly a year ago. When she asked the self-professed “guitar nut” and member of renowned alt-country outfit Martin’s Folly what he wanted for the occasion, the answer was obvious. The couple immediately began consulting with Lea, whom Gray had heard about — as most of Lea’s customers do — through word of mouth. In Gray’s case, the word came from his friend and producer, Eric Ambel. Ambel had worked with a St. Louis band, The Bottle Rockets, whose guitarist, Brian Henneman, is among Creston Electric’s most enthusiastic supporters.

Not only was Gray forbidden to see his bride before she came down the aisle, but he wasn’t allowed to see the guitar until the big day, either. It was worth the wait.

The White Wedding is an uncommonly striking piece. Spindly vines climb about the guitar’s pine body, punctuated by bright floral patterns — all hand painted by Vermont artist Sarah Ryan — over a pearly finish. Nestled behind the guitar’s saddle is a Claddagh ring. The traditional Irish wedding band is framed by the initials “M” and “C” — Maria and Chris — also rendered in Ryan’s evocative Americana style. The couple’s wedding date, April 24, 2009, is etched into the guitar’s metal back plate.

“Whenever I play it, Maria lights up,” says Gray.

But, he points out, where there is light there must also be darkness. Gray decided he needed a yin to the White Wedding’s yang.

Before the white guitar was even finished, Gray commissioned Lea to build the polar opposite, Dark Sister. Instead of light, milky pine, it’s made from sleek Cimmerian mahogany. Instead of bright, springlike blooms, it bears Ryan’s sepia wilted roses, which are eerily autumnal. On his website, Lea refers to the guitar as “Chris Gray’s Spooky Sarah Ryan.” Gray says even the guitar’s sound is darker than that of its virginal sibling.

“They are just really special instruments,” he says. “I have more expensive guitars. But none are more valuable than my Crestons.”

Gray’s guitar story is just one of about 200 — that’s roughly the number of guitars Creston Lea estimates he’s made since he began building them in 2002. In that time, his client list has ballooned from a handful of friends and associates to include a growing number of famous guitarists, including Henneman, Jay Farrar of Son Volt, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and, most recently, Adam Ant.

And, just like Gray’s, each guitar has an accompanying tale. But then, Creston Lea has always been quite a storyteller himself.

On April 1, New York’s Turtle Point Press will release Lea’s debut book, a collection of short fiction titled Wild Punch. While he’s probably best known nationally as a maker of fine custom guitars, and locally as a member of several Burlington-based bands — including the Cave Bees, James Kochalka Superstar and Missy Bly — Lea has long considered writing, not music or any of his other pursuits, his true calling.

Now 38, Lea (pronounced Lee) first began writing fiction as a teenager living in northern New Hampshire. After college, he earned his MFA at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he met his now wife, Kerrie Mathes. As he began to realize how much he missed New England, Lea found himself developing the sort of rural, northern-gothic style that collectively defines the stories of Wild Punch.

“I wasn’t exactly homesick,” he says, seated in a back room just off his Pine Street workshop. “But my fiction automatically took root back in this part of the country.”

Lea eventually returned to the Northeast. In 1996 he settled in Burlington, where he worked as a carpenter to make ends meet. But, predictably, leaving the idyll of grad school curtailed his writing output.

“Suddenly I was contending with being a real human being, not living on a stipend from a well-endowed graduate school,” Lea says. “It became tougher to get it done. But that’s the life of any artist, finding a way to do it.”

Further complicating matters, Lea “accidentally” started playing rock music.

“I intentionally was not serious with the guitar, because I thought it would be a distraction from writing,” he recalls of his early days in Burlington. “Then, almost right away, I found myself playing in, like, five bands.”

Around the same time, Lea was courted by what he describes as his “dream publishing house.” He was flown to New York, dined with the editor, and was told a version of the book would be published. Then, as Lea would learn often happens in the publishing world, the offer evaporated into thin air. Within the same year, another “household name” publishing house lured him the same way, he says, with the same frustrating results.

Lea was crestfallen and discouraged. “It certainly put a bad taste in my mouth,” he concedes. He instructed his agent to stop shopping the manuscript around and took the opportunity to reevaluate what he had in those pages. He also needed time to recover. “I was licking my wounds,” he says.

Lea retreated to the relative safety of rock ’n’ roll, playing as often and with as many bands as he could. “Success is the wrong word with music, but I always equated quality with quantity,” says Lea. “I was just excited to play as much as I could, playing all these different kinds of music.”

Lea continued to “tinker” with fiction but remained immersed in music. Then he started building guitars.

Largely self-taught, Lea has honed his craft through extensive trial and error and otherwise “trying not to hack my fingers off,” he says. He occasionally consults with more experienced guitar builders, though. Over the years, he’s streamlined his process to take between four and six months per guitar, which he claims is much faster than most custom makers. That’s partly out of necessity. “If it takes too long, I can start to lose interest,” Lea explains. At a base price of $1500, he charges less than most custom builders, as well.

As he dived seriously into guitar making, recalls the tall, lanky, bald-pated luthier, he beat himself up about not focusing on writing, as if he had abandoned his dream. “There is this romantic idea of the artist being driven by a single pursuit — by any means necessary,” Lea says.

Lea sporadically had stories published in literary magazines, but he admits he gradually stopped viewing writing as his life’s work. “I had made peace with the idea that these stories would be something that I had in a folder for my kid to discover when she grew up,” says the father of 2-year-old Cora.

Then, last June, Lea received an unexpected email from a publisher at Turtle Point Press who had been told about Lea’s idle manuscript by a mutual friend. At first, Lea assumed it was a hoax.

“It was like one of those emails you get from someone in Nigeria, you know?” he says. But Lea’s agent confirmed that the email and publisher were legit. Lea sent his stories that afternoon. The next day, Turtle Point accepted the manuscript and agreed to publish the book.

“I called my dad, and his first reaction was, ‘It’s not supposed to happen that way!’” says Lea, chuckling. Lea’s Newbury, Vt.-based father, Sydney Lea, is also a writer — a poet of some renown with numerous published collections, and the founder, in 1977, of the New England Review.

Lea explains that his father sold a certain book to a publisher several years ago that has yet to see the light of day. The elder Lea has been told it will be several more years before it does.

Creston Lea says his initial reaction to the promise of publishing was a mix of emotions. There was excitement, of course. But also sheer terror, because he feared his stories would need significant work before going to press. Indeed, Lea notes, the published version of Wild Punch is “quite different” from his original manuscript. Some new stories were added. Others, dating back to his Iowa days, were rewritten or removed entirely. But ultimately Lea found the process liberating. “There was actually a lot of freedom that came from it,” he says.

Ernest Hebert is one of a handful of people who read the book as a manuscript before Lea reworked it. And, if you ask him, it was fine to begin with.

“I read it almost as a duty to a family friend,” he says. (Hebert is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College and a friend of Sydney Lea.) “But I got about two pages in and thought, Jesus, this guy’s pretty good!

One of the region’s accomplished authors, Hebert has eight published novels to his credit. He is frequently asked to read books written by younger authors, who usually hope to elicit a press-friendly quote — like the one that appears on the jacket of Wild Punch.

Hebert immediately recognized a kinship between Creston Lea’s writing and his own, which he describes as “hick lit.” “My sensibility is much older than his,” says Hebert, 65, who compares Lea’s work to that of ex-Vermonter Annie Proulx. “But he’s bringing up to date the same characters that I write about. I just totally bought into his vision for these working-class people.”

Burlington musician Brett Hughes owns the guitar whose artwork is pictured on the book’s cover, which sits above a photo of a denim-clad man reclining against some sort of machinery, beer can in hand: the very image of working class. Hughes, a longtime area guitarist and host of the weekly Honky Tonk Tuesday series at Burlington’s Radio Bean, is something of a country-music classicist. When he ordered his guitar, Hughes said he wanted something “like [’50s honky-tonk vocalist] Webb Pierce woulda done. Real fancy.” Which, of course, is exactly what he got — complete with a custom pickup, the “Lea-90,” a variation on the classic Gibson P-90. Hughes claims the modification gives his guitar a tone twangy enough to match its fetching Western aesthetic.

Hughes thinks the vintage countrypolitan-styled artwork Ryan did for his guitar was a perfect match for the mood and theme of the book. “It really suits it,” he says. And he should know. He’s already bought three copies of Wild Punch, which, despite the official April 1 release date, is currently available at Crow Bookshop in Burlington.

Burlington-based songwriter Anders Parker is another well-known Creston acolyte. He notes parallels between the craftsmanship in Lea’s guitars and in his writing. Parker’s guitar was built using wood from a pre-Civil-War-era barn in upstate New York. Along with Jay Farrar’s guitar, which incorporates materials — including crushed rocks — found at Woody Guthrie’s childhood home, it is perhaps the most unusual item in Lea’s portfolio.

“His attitude is always one of inspiration,” Parker says about Lea. “He’s always looking for something to jog his own interests. But he’s really into the collaboration, different perspectives.”

One perspective that may inform Lea’s writing comes from his role as the board chair of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Both of Lea’s grandmothers were heavily involved in early incarnations of the organization, including one who served as a national chair. Lea joined the board six years ago but will relinquish his post in May.

Lea recalls that, as a teenager in rural northern New Hampshire, he never had a single day of sex education, and says he witnessed firsthand how the resulting lack of information affected his friends growing up. “[PPNE] plays a big part in the fabric of the state, whether or not it is immediately visible,” Lea says. He notes that the political climate in New Hampshire, especially with regard to hot-button issues like sex education and reproductive rights, is vastly different from that in Vermont. “Things are always hot there,” he says.

Lea is reluctant to leave Planned Parenthood. But then, he says, he’s reluctant to give up any of his pursuits, even though he admits to feeling stretched thin “all the time.”

“I’m big on living up to commitments,” Lea says. “But I feel like I haven’t been able to focus on any one of those things as much as I would like. Which is a little unsatisfying.”

Still, Lea anticipates having more time in the near future to focus anew on writing. And playing music. And building guitars. And being a dad. And … well, you get the story.

Wild Words

Some writers tell a story. Some sing to us. Creston Lea’s short stories have the pull of a great old country song: They transport us into moments we never lived and make us feel as if we did experience them in all their sometimes beautiful, sometimes agonizing specificity.

That’s not to say nothing happens in these 15 stories, some of which are just a couple of pages long. But none of them begin at the beginning. The first sentence simply summons an instant, and we start there.

Take the opening of “Indian Summer Sunday”: “In the darkness at the edge of the orchard I sat and drank and watched the pickers pit roosters against each other in a blue plastic swimming pool.” As the story continues, we’ll learn that the narrator is a minister who’s scheduled to deliver a Sunday service in a few hours, and that he’s drinking himself into oblivion. Where he comes from and what demons drive him are things we won’t learn. But we will find out exactly how it feels to retrieve a dead rooster from a cockfight and bear it off for a proper burial: “I could smell an antiseptic fruitiness from where they’d spat brandy under its tail feathers to make it crazy for fighting.”

Lea has a gift for detail. And he knows details of things with which most academically trained fiction writers aren’t conversant: how to tend a sick horse, how to remove vintage floorboards from a house, how to cut ice from a lake. If you can imagine an instruction manual that’s also a poem, some passages in these stories are that.

But this focus on the how-to instead of the why isn’t just a stylistic thing. Lea’s protagonists — most of them rural New Hampshireites and Mainers speaking in first person — are guys who do things. They may spend as much time in a dive bar as they do on a tractor, but they know that the dramas of life will always ebb and flow. A character in the very short story “Debt” has to depend on his romantic rival for help in a tricky job, but he knows that, whoever ends up with the woman in question, it “wouldn’t last.” What matters, what endures, is the work: “It was important that they finish the job and move on to the next.”

If the punches thrown in this collection tend to be wild, it’s because Lea’s characters, like the ill-fated rooster, need intoxicants to make them “crazy for fighting” — or crazy for love. But rootlessness is its own kind of intoxicant, and Lea explores that American phenomenon in three contrasting tales set in a motel in Pennsylvania. The drifter characters of these stories have no physical work to tie them to a particular place, and the results are chilling.

Most of Lea’s stories are connected to others by common characters and landscapes, such as the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River. No larger narrative emerges from the linkages, but none needs to. Read the strangely exuberant story “HELLO!” — the happiest in the collection — or read the drunk preacher’s description of the vehicle in which he’s been having his bender: “The car wanted to be abandoned forever but there was no place to walk to.” And tell me you don’t hear music.

Guitar Gal

One look at Sarah Ryan’s artwork on Creston Lea’s hand-built guitars, and you can’t help thinking of Nudie suits — those sumptuously embroidered outfits favored by certain country-western stars of yore. The fashion reemerged in the 1970s on long-haired country-rock progenitors The Flying Burrito Brothers (Gram Parsons famously had a suit adorned with marijuana leaves), and vestiges of the look linger among their contemporary alt-country successors. This musical lineage must be why Ryan’s botanically inclined decorative-arts style has struck a, well, chord with so many customers at Creston Electric Instruments of Burlington. Even if her aesthetic is arguably feminine, and some of those musicians dress like faux truckers.

Musician and guitar maker Creston Lea himself has a penchant for Western-styled shirts, rootsy music and old-school virtues. Teaming up with longtime friend Ryan, 38, was not only natural, it was a perfect partnership. Lea builds the solid-body guitars and spray-paints them with a base coat, Ryan explains, then sands and paints again. She takes them home to the light-filled second-floor studio in her Colchester home and, over the course of a week or so, gives them her inimitable touch.

Ryan’s vines, flowers and decorative elements such as horseshoes, ribbons and hearts are precisely rendered, but her “nature” is more stylized than scientific. Just look at the black-outlined turquoise flowers, stems, snake and butterfly adorning Lea’s Powermatic table saw in his studio — an image of which appears on his website, crestonguitars.com. “It’s a vintage look,” Ryan says. “I think of it like embroidery.”

Ryan began working with Lea in 2006, when she was pregnant with her daughter. Sophie, now 4, is a blond, blue-eyed mom look-alike who paints at a tiny easel near a window in their shared studio. Before her pregnancy, Ryan put in a seven-year stint cooking at Penny Cluse Café, where she also exhibited her work on occasion and continued to hone her technique on wall-hung works of what she calls “dimensional fruit and vegetables.” “I’ve had lots of art jobs mixed with cooking,” Ryan notes with a smile. “Art, food, art, food.”

Her guitar design work, in conjunction with other freelance jobs, has her focusing full time on art for the first time. She’s created logos for Eric’s Eggs, musician Anders Parker and Clean City Soap, and designed T-shirts, cards and other items. Ryan maintains an account on the indie-craft website Etsy.com, but says people want to meet her in person to buy paintings. The guitar gigs come, of course, through Creston Lea — about 13 so far, she says — and have given an entirely unexpected twist to her career.

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About The Authors

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Bio:
Dan Bolles is the Seven Days music editor. His column "Soundbites" appears weekly.
Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.
Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Bio:
Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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