Honkytonk Homage

Guitars Venerate Bakersfield Landmark
Honkytonk Homage
Tony Brown and Theresa Spanke: Victor Sanchez.

Country-music fans familiar with the history of Bakersfield, California, know of Trout’s nightclub. The last of the venues that gave birth to the “Bakersfield sound” epitomized by the twang of a Telecaster in the hands of Merle Haggard or Red Simpson, many stars strode its stage. Other legendary nightspots included the Blackboard, Lucky Spot, the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance, and others – now all gone. Trout’s closed several years ago and was destroyed by fire in April of 2022.

Bakersfield luthier Tony Brown and partner, Theresa Spanke, run T&T Customs, which specializes in building instruments using wood from historical landmarks like the Pismo Beach Pier, Cain’s Ballroom, and other locations. Shortly after the Trout’s conflagration, they built guitars using wood salvaged there. Spanke is a Bakersfield singer/songwriter who was a member of the Trout’s house band for more than 20 years. She did all of the design work and installation of the headstock logos, and designed the Trout’s sign inlay for the neck.

“We were lucky,” Brown said. “We almost waited too long. Several weeks after the fire, we spoke with our friend David Simpson, who is the son of Red Simpson, and his wife, Dawna, about building a guitar if there was any usable wood. David went to the site, where he met the demolition foreman and was led to the one spot where there was a partial wall still standing. He got several planks of the original redwood – enough to build 14 guitars, as it turned out. The following day, the remaining debris was removed, leaving only the concrete slab.”

The 14 instruments were 11 Trout’scasters, one Precision-style bass, a dreadnought, and a Tele-style Red Simpson tribute.

“We stuck with classic Tele specs – 25.5″ scale and two single-coil pickups,” Brown detailed. “We went with Zhangbucker Paul Bunyans on some, and Hoagland 50/51s on some. Top-mounted Volume and Tone knobs with a three-way switch – classic Tele, dripping with twang and mojo.”

Most Trout’scasters have a Texas Customs high-mass bridge, which Brown says improves sustain and is more comfortable.

“Fortunately, there was very little fire or smoke damage to the wood,” he said. “And what little there was added to the mystique.”

Given the limited supply, only the tops are Trout’s wood. For seven of the 11 bodies, they used locally sourced old-growth Western red cedar. The other four are pine from a barn that stood for more than a century, swamp ash, Italian cypress, and figured claro walnut. Likewise, the fretboards are different woods.

“All of the necks are roasted flame-maple,” Brown said. “Four are one-piece and seven are two-piece. On the two-piece versions, four of the fretboards are roasted flame-maple, three are Gabon ebony, and one is Brazilian tulipwood.”

Customers who ordered Trout’scasters are “…primarily local professional musicians, music historians, collectors, everyday pickers who love the historical significance and have heartfelt memories of a place and a time gone by.”

Brown enjoys working with non-profit organizations and charities.

“We are artists,” the luthier said. “It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. We make contributions of our time, talent, and treasure as we are able, to help not only those who need our help, but to preserve the history of this music we love. We have contributed guitars used as fundraising tools for charities in Texas and California, and musicians in need. We were commissioned by Citizens Preserving History, a local non-profit, to build a guitar using wood provided from Merle Haggard’s childhood boxcar home, and donated the labor for the project. We have donated custom builds to be auctioned to assist with the medical/burial expenses of musicians, and their families. We would love to be able to do more of this.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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