Small-town Ky. guitar shop serves big-name clientele

A partially-built guitar sat locked into a jib in the Cotten Acoustic Guitars. The shop produces a signature Tim Stafford model, speeding up the wood's aging process for a distressed look and sound.
A partially-built guitar sat locked into a jib in the Cotten Acoustic Guitars. The shop produces a signature Tim Stafford model, speeding up the wood's aging process for a distressed look and sound. The Herald-Leader

GRAYSON — A two-person luthier shop in Grayson has hit the perfect storm of quality and audience. The shop's 100th guitar is being created even as the owners are struggling to keep up with demand because of the newfound popularity of their product among bluegrass and gospel musicians.

Half-finished guitar bodies hung along the back wall of Cotten Acoustic Guitars as Valerie Cotten's hands remained in constant motion. Gary Cotten, 57, the luthier of the two, dry-mounted a neck into the body of their 100th guitar, a quilted mahogany-backed axe with a top made from 100-year-old spruce.

"This guitar has been contracted, probably, for four or five months," said Cotten. "A man came to me and wanted number 100 before we even got close."

The Cotten Guitar has become a instrument of choice among the professional bluegrass and gospel musicians that maintain high numbers on the charts, such as Blue Highway's Tim Stafford and IIIrd Tyme Out's Russel Moore.

The Cottens produce a Tim Stafford signature model, a guitar purposely distressed for the look and sound of the highly-praised pre-World War II Martin and Gibson guitars.

"That's a great big achievement" Cotten said. "I could never imagine Tim Stafford playing one of my guitars. Tim Stafford could play anybody's guitars."

The wood of the pre-war guitars is dry and loose, producing a clean note retention. To find that magic sound, Cotten said it took 35 to 40 guitars to experiment and an unusual attention to detail.

Dave Carroll, with Hammertowne, a Johnson County-based band, owns two Cottens and those are the only guitars he plays in the studio and on stage. Carroll said Cotten has developed a guitar with the pre-war Martin punch right out of the shop.

"This isn't lip service, but his guitars are five times better than guitars manufactured today," said Carroll. "It's the best guitar I've ever played in my life."

One way to achieve the sound is to let the wood age for 80 years. Cotten's method speeds up the drying, or loosening process, by baking the tops and braces in an oven.

"We'll bake the top at about an hour at 200 degrees," he said. "It actually cooks the resin, or the pitch, out of the guitar wood."

A former asphalt paver, Cotten got the idea to make his own guitars when he couldn't find one he liked for himself. He began reading and experimenting 12 years-ago, traveling to conventions to ask questions of known master luthiers, such as Chris Martin, of Martin Guitars, and Richard Hoover, founder of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company.

The attention to detail became an obsession.

"I run my tops through my thickness sander and we shake 'em. And when we hear a warping or a metal sound, that's where I stop," said Cotten. "That, to me, is where the wood has opened up and got loose. Two- or three-thousandths before, it won't do it. It's that critical."

Cotten said his guitars "really turned the corner" when he found the strength of bloodwood and purplewood, normally used for decorative inlay work, would be better used inside the body to anchor the braces.

"When I started, my best guarantee to you was I'll do my very best and I hope it sounds good," he said. "Now, I've crossed that bridge to where I feel like I can build you all good guitars. And as small as we are, they all have to be pretty good. I can't afford to lose $2,000 because there's a bad guitar."

Another turning point was the attention from Moore and Stafford. "Russell (Moore) was somebody I approached. Tim Stafford was somebody (who) approached me."

Johnson County musician Dave Carroll was in a dressing room with his Cotten No. 42 and suggested Stafford give it a try. Two weeks later, Stafford emailed Cotten and they got together to design Stafford's signature guitar.

The attention by those musicians brought in orders from as far away as California and Japan. But the work load has put them 16 guitar orders behind. Every incomplete guitar body hanging in the shop is sold. And that doesn't include the dozens of repairs sitting in a separate room. Valerie Cotten gave up her job as a registered nurse a year ago to join the operation full time.

"Gary makes a guitar that flat pickers want," said Carroll. "Those guitars have the punch and sustain that we need to be heard, the old sound we want, right out of the box."

Cotten found that building the right instrument for high-level players is satisfying and wants to keep going once he catches up to the back log.

"I hope we're doing this 20 or 30 years from now," Cotten said. "It just gets into your blood."

"I want to do it until she probably plants me."