A new mando I don’t need

Yeah, I got another (used) mandolin. Yeah, my mandolin playing is still…sub-optimal. Yeah, I need another mandolin like I need a hole in my head.

But I really want to quit beating up my Morris luthier-made mando (look back a few posts), and I got a good deal on this Gretsch Park Avenue. It sounds nice, it looks like a mandolin is supposed to look, it has an oval hole to help with sustain (better for the rootsy stuff I play vs. the sharper, more percussive tone of a mandolin with ‘f’ holes), it’s surprisingly loud, it has a built-in pickup and it won’t kill me if it gets accidentally booted over on stage. It also should be relatively easy to re-sell.

I now own three mandolins, which is about two mandos more than I really need, but at least I can fund this sickness by getting gigs that pay. And honestly, this thing is worth only about a third of the value of the harps I bring to a gig, so what’s the harm?

Notes from a career (so far)

1981 — One week out of college, picked up the phone on a Saturday in a nearly deserted newsroom in Jefferson City, Mo. and wound up talking to President Reagan.

1983 — Ran down the street from the newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Mo. in time to get knocked on my butt as a building fire blew out the front windows of a storefront.

1984 — Almost tripped over the body at the first murder I covered in Little Rock; subsequently had the story cut down to a photo caption.

1987 — Tabbed to write the breaking news piece for an “extra” edition when Bill Clinton announced his presidential bid; he changed his mind less than 24 hours before the planned announcement and my soul is crushed in unspeakable ways.

1987 — Promoted to assistant city editor; was younger than everyone I supervised. I was an asshole the first year until I got a clue.

1990 — Moved to Washington to cover the local delegation for the Little Rock paper.

1991 — HOLY SHIT HE’S GOING TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT AFTER ALL

1991 — HOLY SHIT GENNIFER FLOWERS

1992 — HOLY SHIT THOSE DRAFT LETTERS

1992 — HOLY SHIT THAT 60 MINUTES INTERVIEW

1992 — HOLY SHIT HOW DID HE FINISH SECOND IN NEW HAMPSHIRE EVERYBODY HAD ALREADY BURIED HIM

1992 — HOLY SHIT HE’S WON ILLINOIS AND MICHIGAN AND HE’S GONNA BE THE NOMINEE

1992 — HOLY SHIT IS THIS BUS TRIP EVER GONNA END AND WHO ARE THESE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE?

1992 — HOLY SHIT I NEED AN EMERGENCY APPENDECTOMY 10 DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION?!?

1992 — HOLY SHIT HE WON AND I’M GOING TO COVER THE NEW PRESIDENT

(1993 to 1995 goes by in a complete blur of HOLY SHIT, followed by ‘just weird.’)

1995 — This thing called “digital news” pops up and since I’m the only guy lots of people know who has ever been online for any length of time, I start getting cold calls. Wind up with Congressional Quarterly after losing out on a job at AOL that I subsequently calculated lost me between $3 million and $5 million in stock options.

1999 — Senior editor of politics for CNN.com.

2000 — HOLY SHIT THIS WHOLE YEAR AND THEN SOME

2001 — Finally end up at AOL; two years later, leave with my options $250,000 underwater.

2003 — USA Today

2008 — NPR

2014 — Industry Dive, a biz news startup, where I’m the first editor-in-chief.

2017 — AARP.

And now you’re caught up.

The Caps? Really, the Caps? The Caps!

The Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992, a little more than a year after I moved to town. I didn’t care; I grew up as a St. Louis football Cardinals fan and hated the Redskins, was living in a world of weird on a work assignment in New Hampshire and remain to this day a non-fan of the franchise.

What I didn’t realize: That. Would. Be. It. 

That Redskins title would be the last for DC in the Big Four sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) until this very day, 26-plus years later. Sure, the Washington Capitals somehow made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, but that was widely considered a fluke appearance. They got swept, and deservedly so, by a legendary Detroit Red Wings squad. Only the worst sports homers were surprised. It was a great, amazing thing that they just got there.

After the Caps got to the Cup final, 20 years went by. No Big Four team from DC even went to a semifinal in that time. The Redskins became a cosmic joke, and on the rare occasions they made the playoffs, they generally folded up like a tent. The Caps made the playoffs all of the time, occasionally as the best team in the NHL by record, but their playoff futility (so much of it at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins) became the stuff of endless pain.

No one really expected the Wizards to rise far above mediocrity (which is still true). And I can’t talk about the Nationals. I just can’t.

Fast-forward to today. The Capitals just won the Eastern Conference title via not one, but two Big Boy stompings of a hugely talented Tampa Bay squad. They beat the Penguins before that to get to the semifinals, and they rallied from losing the first two games at home against Columbus in the first round.

They have, in short, absorbed several punches to the gut in these Stanley Cup playoffs — the kinds of punches that would cause previous Caps teams to roll up in the fetal position. Instead, these Caps have responded by punching their opponent right in the mouth.

Now comes Las Vegas, of all teams. That is an amazing story. Most of sports-fan America is going to root for Vegas — from an empirical standpoint, how can you not? — and the Knights have the home ice advantage because of their superior record. But Tampa was even better record-wise (and I think talent-wise) than Vegas, Pittsburgh was the two-time defending Stanley Cup champ, and Columbus was scalding hot and rising at season’s end. The Caps put them all down.

These Caps have no fear. These Caps don’t quit. These Caps aren’t like all those other Caps teams. I don’t know if it will be enough to win it all, but it’s enough to give a fan some faith.

Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin

This is Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin. He built it in his shop in Irrigon, Oregon in 2015 and it’s the cheapest one he makes, which still means it’s not really very cheap. It is, however, far cheaper than the instruments that most luthiers make, and it’s well-built and solid and fun to play.

I’m not really a mandolin player, although I play one sometimes on stage. I’m a harmonica player, which to most people means I might as well play the penny whistle, or at least it does until they hear me play. But as my interests turned away from pure blues and more into rootsy and folky stuff, the reality is that harp doesn’t fit into all of that. I cast around for another instrument, and Lord knows the world has all the guitarists it needs, so I turned to the mando. Even a few simple chords on mandolin can help with a lot of songs.

That’s where Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin comes in. I have a fancier mandolin, made in the 1990s by Alvarez, that looks more like the mandolins you’ve seen bluegrass players pick on stage. It sounds wonderful and looks even better, but that mandolin overpromises and my talent underdelivers, so I’m more comfortable playing this one on stage.

I’ve played Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin enough to leave some gouges in the beautiful red cedar top, and it’s rattled around a little too much in its case and caught a few more nicks that way. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Musicians have a saying: Guitars have scars. The pretty instruments are the ones that don’t get played. The ones with nicks and gouges and worn-off paint are the ones that produce beautiful music. My mandolin has some well-earned scars, which is how it should be.

I am the second owner of Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin. The first owner was a banjo player who bought it so he could learn another instrument. He gave up interest after a couple of months, which is too bad because it means he still plays banjo, but then he sold it to me at a discount and the mandolin looked as good as new when I got it.

Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin is what is known among players as a “flathead.” Most mandolins are carved so the top and bottom are arched, which allegedly helps project sound, and they have F-shaped holes like a violin. This leads to a sharp, percussive, surprisingly loud “barking” tone. This one has a flat top and bottom (much easier and cheaper to make) a small body and an oval hole. It has more bass and sustain than most mandolins, but the small body means it’s not terribly loud. I amplify it anyway on stage and the acoustic volume doesn’t really matter much.

Howard Morris still makes mandolins, and he focuses on instruments that are short on bling and long on tone. I am grateful to own his 332nd mandolin. Here’s hoping he makes hundreds — even thousands — more.