The things that form bonds of friendship are many and for Arnold Clayton and Ray Anthony of Grover that glue is their love of handcrafting traditional stringed musical instruments.
For over 20 years Clayton, 56, and Anthony, 80, have worked together and separately to build incredibly beautiful folk instruments such as dulcimers, banjos, guitars, and violins.
"I started building dulcimers in 1999," Ray said. "My wife and grandson went to a dulcimer meeting in Shelby, bought one, and brought it home. I looked at it, and decided I wanted to make one. It turned out pretty good."
Anthony still has that first dulcimer and it's a treasured family heirloom.
"My grandson Bradley Ellis used it to win the national dulcimer championship in Winfield, Kansas in 2011 when he was just 12 years old," Anthony said.
With a background in carpentry, Anthony knows his way around wood. Some of the species he's used for instrument making include Brazilian satinwood and walnut. He's got a large shop behind his house with all sorts of tools, machines, and gadgets to bend, cut, and carve instrument wood. One especially interesting device he invented to steam wood for bending is made from a cooking pot, hot plate, and stove pipe.
Anthony estimates it takes at least 40 hours to build a simple dulcimer. Fancier ones might take up to 70 hours.
In addition to dulcimers, Anthony also makes guitars and old-time mountain style banjos. Another instrument he dreamed up is a combination dulcimer and dobro combination he calls a "duzi".
Altogether, Anthony estimates he's made over 75 stringed instruments, but admits he's a better builder than player.
"I don't have much rhythm," he said. "I guess my grandson has the musical talent. He told me as long as I made them he would play them."
Clayton's interest in playing and making stringed musical instruments goes back to his teen years.
"I started playing when I was fourteen years old," he said. "A mandolin maker from Charlotte, Gene Aldridge taught me. Later I met Jerry Edmundson from Oak Grove who also got me interested in making instruments. I made my first guitar when I was sixteen and still have it."
Clayton mostly makes modern type banjos and guitars in his home workshop. His specialty is inlay work. For the decoration on instrument necks he turns to inlay materials such as mother of pearl, rare koa wood from Hawaii, and even wooly mammoth ivory.
"I dote on inlay," he says.
Clayton also makes violins. He was trained in that art by Charlotte-based violin builder John Sipe.
"One thing he taught me was to not carve everything exactly perfect," Clayton said. "Otherwise people might think the violin was made in a Chinese factory."
Currently, Clayton is working on a new project- a guitar made with mahogany from a 200-year-old English church that had fallen down. The inlay work will be spectacular- hand carved biblical scenes in pearl and 50,000-year-old mammoth ivory.
"I'll keep it forever," Clayton said.
Clayton sells some of his instruments through his company Pyramid Guitars. He is also a member of a musical group, The Griggs, and performs concerts at a variety of churches and other venues.
When Arnold and Clayton get together, their fondness for old time music, instruments, and each other is evident and contagious. There's also a bit of competition.
"We both strive to build better instruments individually and to challenge each other to get better at it," they both said.
As for the future, both guys plan to keep on turning out their instruments. They also understand and appreciate their role as carriers of tradition.
"We'll keep making them for the younger generation," Arnold said.
For more information, or to talk musical instrument making, or to buy an instrument, call Ray Anthony at 704-472-7499 or Arnold Clayton at 704-477-3951.
By Alan Hodge