Lyle Lovett

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Bill Collings knows everything there is to know about guitars — but he cannot play one. 

Collings is the man behind Collings Guitars, an internationally renowned brand of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and ukuleles built in a factory just outside of Austin on Highway 290. Inside, a slow-moving, human-powered assembly line builds only 15 instruments per day. Each of these instruments is distributed to dealers around the world and then sold for an average of $5,000 a piece. 

Some of these expensive instruments are sold to famous guitarists including Marcus Mumford, Robert Plant and Pete Townshend. Thousands of other names aren’t recognizable now, but they could be in the future. It would not be the first time a musician became famous playing a Collings guitar. 

Somewhere between making one guitar a week on his kitchen table in a tiny Houston apartment and purchasing the current building that houses the factory, Collings became a master luthier. 

“I was always thrilled by the way a guitar sounded, and actually just how that sound made me feel,” Collings said. “Even though I didn’t play well, I loved it.”

Collings moved from Ohio to Houston in 1975 for work. In his spare time, he began building guitars.

Collings said he is not sure how many guitars he has made on that kitchen table in Houston, but there is one thing he knows for certain — guitar number 29 was country singer Lyle Lovett’s. 

A young Lovett came to take photos of Collings for a school assignment after he heard local Houston musician Rick Gordon played a Collings guitar. Now Lovett almost exclusively plays Collings guitars.

“I have some pictures that Lyle took of me when I was 27,” Collings said. “He was in college, he was 18 in a photojournalism class. Now he owns 30 of my guitars.”

In 1980, Collings left Houston, which he said was becoming too big, and moved to Austin in what should have been a pit stop on the way to San Diego. He never went any farther. 

For 10 years, Collings experienced what he now calls his “struggling years,” a decade that ended with the birth of his daughter and the purchase of his first proper factory.

“I knew I could turn it up or turn it down; If I worked at it, I could get customers,” Collings said. “The biggest switch was 1990 when I had a baby daughter. I didn’t want my daughter to know I was a bum.”

Twenty-three years and a second factory later, Collings guitars receive international praise for being some of the highest quality instruments of their kind. 

Collings isn’t a household name such as Fender or Martin, but musicians and celebrities, including Conan O’Brien and Steven Spielberg, own Collings guitars. 

Collings gained respect through a guitar-building process that requires more than 50 hours of manual labor, almost all of which is done by hand. On an average workday, the factory produces six or seven acoustic guitars, three electric guitars, two mandolins and two ukuleles. 

Ask anyone what it is that sets a Collings apart from any other guitar, and the answer will be “attention to detail.” But the attention to detail Collings gives things such as guitars is lost on almost everything else.

Steve McCreary, general manager of the Collings factory and old friend of Collings’, found similarities between Collings and Steve Jobs when he read the Jobs biography. 

“Collings is the same way as Jobs when it comes to details,” McCreary said. “He likes the inside of guitars to be just as nice as the outside. But he’s a total mess. Like his cars are trashed. Nice cars, but he kind of gets off on them being trashy.”

Collings walks around his factory and points at the perfectly clean binding of an unfinished acoustic guitar one minute and shoves a handful of rice and chicken into his mouth with his hands the next. Utensils are a convenience. Perfection in his instruments is a necessity. 

Building guitars to Collings’ high standards is tedious work, yet the atmosphere inside his factory is laid back. Instead of afternoon meetings around a long table, a group of employees plays four square in the parking lot behind the factory at 3:15 p.m. every day.

Kevin Jones, an employee at Hill Country Guitars, a Collings guitar dealer, worked at the Collings factory for eight years. In his time at the factory, he said he got to know Collings as well as he feels anyone can get to know him.

“He’s a character,” Jones said. “He’s a great human being, has a tremendous heart, but not everybody can see that.”

Collings splits his time in the factory between eating rice and chicken with his fingers, making sure the human assembly line is running smoothly and picking on his employees like a schoolyard bully. 

Jones remembered one of his coworkers at the factory who was terrified of snakes. Jones said one day, just to mess with him, Collings tied a live garden snake to a string and lowered it over the man’s workbench. Some bosses show appreciation through kind e-mails. Collings chooses to show appreciation through teasing and pranks.

Bruce Van Wart, Collings’ first employee, has worked for Collings since 1989. According to him, Collings has slowed down since the early days.

“He’s not as fiery as he used to be, believe it or not,” Van Wart said. “He’s got his own distractions with hot rods and all kinds of things.”

Just as soon as Collings will lower a live snake over a workbench in the name of a good joke, he will loan a car to a worker, or allow a day off when the waves are good if he knows someone really loves to surf. 

The men and women who work in his factory do the job he no longer has the capacity to do by himself. His employees are his hands, and he treats them well.

Every so often Collings will sit down in front of the workbench, roll up his sleeves and build a guitar. He said he does it with a bottle of Everclear at his side, but the smile on his face after he said it is a sign that this could be another one of his jokes. 

Now, his favorite thing to do is build arch top guitars and ukuleles because they are the most challenging. He said he builds about five or six arch tops per year. The rest of his time is reserved to learning how to play one, a craft he has been trying to master for 40 years.

But according to Collings, you can never really learn. 

Live music defines Austin. Ever since the late 1960s, music has flourished here, and anybody who has ever taken a walk down Sixth Street can see how important live music is to the city’s cultural identity. In fact, I still remember the first time I came to Austin; the sights, sounds and smells of the music venues lining the streets downtown left an impression that I won’t ever forget. I felt like Austin was a true music town, which was a huge part of why I decided to come to school here. And the fact that the Cactus Cafe — an especially historic venue that helped launch the careers of The Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and many other venerable music legends — was on UT’s campus only furthered my conviction that I was choosing a school connected to Austin’s vibrant music scene. But the true relationship between UT and the local music is tenuous at best, despite the Cactus Cafe’s presence on campus. Every UT student has a lot to gain from taking advantage of the Cactus Cafe, and we can all do more to take part in Austin’s unique music scene.

With the impending arrival of SXSW — the annual music, film and technology mega-festival that descends upon Austin for 10 days — it is a better time than ever to examine the relationship between UT and Austin’s music scene. This relationship is definitely complicated, but it isn’t what I expected it to be when I first decided to come to school here. When I visited UT five years ago as a junior in high school, I was thrilled by the live music all around me, and especially by the fact that such an historic venue was in the Texas Union, right in the middle of UT’s campus. But soon after settling in to my dorm room, I started to realize that the UT campus was a world away from the vibrant music community I saw when I visited, even though the Cactus Cafe was right outside my bedroom window.

In reality, the idea of Austin as a music town plays only a very minor role in our identity as a student body. How many students on this campus appreciate how important the Cactus Cafe is?  How many don’t even know that it exists?  The University attempted to shutter the Cactus Cafe in 2010, in no small part because they simply didn’t think it mattered to the UT community and wasn’t worth the financial commitment, and this speaks volumes about how little appreciation we have for Austin’s live music tradition.

Granted, there are plenty of UT students who love live music and do everything they can to take advantage of what Austin has to offer, but this is likely nothing more than a product of the sheer size of UT’s student body. In fact, my impression after my freshman year was that UT’s only real engagement with the Austin music scene was during the Austin City Limits music festival each fall. We have such a deep, rich and varied music scene at our fingertips all year long, not just during that one weekend in September or October, and it is a shame that this isn’t a bigger part of who we are as a student body.

The Cactus Cafe is an amazing resource and a true musical treasure that is literally sitting right in our backyard, and it’s time that UT students start to appreciate its value. I recently spoke with Matt Munoz, the director of the Cactus Cafe, and he made it clear that attracting more UT students to shows is one of the venue’s main goals for the future. He told me that after a good show, he often hears UT students saying, “’Wow, I didn’t even know this was here.’  This is part of our longtime goal on campus, to get these younger kids on campus engaged.”  According to Munoz, the Cactus Cafe is always looking to book younger, UT-based bands and hosts a monthly open mic night focused on UT students. But our campus community is still disappointingly disengaged with the Cactus Cafe and Austin’s vibrant music scene in general.

In the upcoming months, the Cactus Cafe will host countless rising stars of the music world, as well as well-established acts from Austin and beyond. For instance, in the month of March alone you can see country and rock legends Tom Russell, Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely. These are musicians people cross the state to see live, and all you have to do is cross the street. But even if you can’t make it to a show, you can always just stop by for a beer; the Cactus Cafe is open all week as a common space for UT students to meet and relax. The fact is that UT is in a unique position to benefit from Austin’s one-of-a-kind music scene, and we are blessed to have a venue like the Cactus Cafe right on our campus. We should take advantage of it.

Nikolaides is a Spanish and government senior from Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s the end of an era for Austin City Limits. Music fans and country singer Lyle Lovett met for the final taping Monday at Studio 6A on campus, the home of the longest-running music show for the past 36 years.

As the lights dimmed and the cameras turned on, Lyle Lovett stepped onto the stage he once looked upon as an audience member in the mid-1980s. Lovett and his backing band, tightly packed from one end of the stage to the other, opened with Eric Taylor’s “Whooping Crane,” a somber song for a bittersweet evening. An audience of music lovers, celebrities (Jeremy Piven), local icons (Lance Armstrong) and Austin City Limits alumni, including founder Bill Arhos, looked on in silence.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve done all of these years, and the shows that have happened in this studio and the memories of people who have stepped on to that stage, but we’ve never been ones to dwell on the past,” said Terry Lickona, executive producer of Austin City Limits. He has worked for the program for 33 years.

Beginning in February, the music series will broadcast from downtown. The new venue, called the Moody Theater, will maintain a similar floor layout to replicate the intimacy found on the sixth floor of the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center on Monday night. It has been in the works for five years and will offer a mezzanine, upper balcony and retractable bleachers to fit 2,000 people, as well as the capability to broadcast performances in 3D, Lickona said.

For UT alumnus Scott Newton, this transition brings many new challenges. Newton has been taking photos for the program for 32 years. His images line the walls of Studio 6A and have recently been collected in his anthology,“Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs.”

“It’s my room. I know it backward and forwards,” Newton said. “I don’t need a light meter. I just know from looking at it what the exposure setting is going to be. There will be some differences when we move, but I don’t know what those differences are yet.”

Lowell Fowler has been attending performances since the show’s first season. For Fowler, the venue holds many memorable nights of watching Coldplay, Pearl Jam and Lucinda Williams perform on the stage that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame labeled a landmark in 2009.

“You just can’t get more intimate, can you?” Fowler said. “The performers are right there and they are talking to you right there.”

Associate producer and UT alumna Leslie Nichols finds there are some things she won’t miss after her 10 years at Studio 6A.

“I won’t miss fall semester and the influx of new freshmen trying to figure out how to park and drive around campus, but I will miss the energy of being at one of the largest university campuses in the world,” Nichols said. “It will be a lot different downtown.”

Studio 6A was never built for live-music recording. It’s on the sixth floor, with bathrooms three floors below and limited access to elevators and fire exits. The fire marshal’s restrictions limited the seating from 300 to its original 600.

“When we walk into this building and studio, we pretty much know how things are going to go down and what to expect,” Lickona said. “But when you move everything lock, stock and barrel to a brand new $40 million facility, it’s a little scary. It’s a little intimidating. We’re not going to know until we do that first show and turn the camera on.”