The first time somebody stole his bass guitar, Jeff Root did what you might expect.
“I went nuts,” he said.
The second time it happened — under what can only be called mysterious circumstances — Root was a few years older, and even a little wiser. The instrument was insured. But still, how many bass guitars can one man lose?
This all happened decades ago. The real question today is whether Root, 61, is going to be able to stop smiling any time soon. Don’t bet on it. Recent events — related to his ancient loss, and stretching all the way to Texas — have left him happy, and more, amazed.
“I was blown away,” he said.
The story starts on a stage in a bar in DeKalb, Ill. It was a February night in the late 1970s. Root, a Middleton High School graduate, was in a Madison-based band playing a gig in DeKalb. On arriving, they dropped their instruments on stage and walked up to the second-floor dressing room. When they came downstairs, Root’s bass guitar — a Gibson Les Paul model — was missing. A band mate’s electric guitar was stolen, too.
“We packed up and drove home,” Root said.
There was no thought of not replacing it. Music has been part of Root’s life since high school, when he was in a band called The Diggers. Today, Root is senior medical photographer at Madison’s Veterans Hospital, and he’s still making music. His current band, Wild Heart, plays Friday night at Babes on Schroeder Road.
After his solid-body bass guitar was stolen in Illinois, Root drove to Milwaukee and bought another Les Paul model, this one a hollow body. Root liked its acoustic tone, but after a couple of years decided to go back to a solid-body model, which he thought packed more punch.
In Regenberg Music on University Avenue in Middleton, Root found an S.D. Curlee walnut-body bass guitar. “It was beautiful,” he said. Curlee was a small Matteson, Ill., company that made guitars and basses, founded in 1975. The handcrafted instruments developed a cult following.
Root played his for two years, until, in his words, “one day I reached for it and discovered the truss rod had poked through the fretboard.” He took it back to Regenberg Music. Dave Regenberg told him he thought the bass guitar was still under warranty and sent it to the Curlee workshop in Illinois. A week passed, then two. They heard nothing from the workshop. Finally, Root contacted the police in Matteson. An officer called back. The Curlee workshop seemed abandoned, with no forwarding information. The company had disbanded. It was 1982.
“It appeared they packed up and left in the middle of the night,” Root recalled recently. “I did have insurance on it, but it was very upsetting. Musicians love their instruments. What can I say?”
Some things you don’t forget. Root got a new instrument and continued playing music. He’s been in numerous Madison bands over the years, including one with the memorable name One Ton Tomato, for much of the 1990s.
It was last December — 30 years after his Curlee disappeared in Illinois — that Root was reading Bass Player magazine and spotted an advertisement for S.D. Curlee bass guitars. He was astonished. The company, he knew, was long gone. Root went to the website listed in the ad and learned that a Texas guitar maker named Scott Beckwith, whose company is called Birdsong Guitars, brought back the Curlee line in 2011.
Root sent an email to the website, relating his tale of woe from 1982. He heard from Beckwith almost immediately. Part of bringing back the Curlee line was reconstructing the company history, and Beckwith knew it folded under unfortunate circumstances. He didn’t think he could make Root a full restitution, but he could offer a deal on a new instrument.
“I appreciated his getting back to me,” Root said. And then in January, when Root was still mulling the offer, he heard from Beckwith again, this time by phone.
What he said left Root wide-eyed. Beckwith came across a large stash of parts, unfinished and broken instruments from the time of the original Curlee demise.
“You were the first person I thought of,” Beckwith told Root.
When I reached Beckwith by phone this week, he said the stash was brought to Texas by someone associated with Curlee 30 years ago “and wound up in other hands.” Beckwith has received tips on fugitive Curlee parts and instruments ever since bringing the name back. “This one happened to be the mother lode,” he said.
Having acquired the collection, Beckwith emailed to Root photographs of four bass guitar bodies that were the same model as the one Root lost in 1982. Alas, his was not among them. His had a walnut body; these were mahogany.
Beckwith was undeterred. “I’m going to put one together for you anyway. Pick a body. Any of the four.” There would be no charge.
On April 11, a stunning vintage Curlee base guitar arrived in Madison. The back of the headstock was signed by Beckwith and his two luthier colleagues.
It is engraved “Heritage Build #1.”
Jeff Root, still grinning, said, “I call it Herb.”