CABALLO — To get to Bill Bussmann’s house, you take exit 63, the Hillsboro exit, off of I-25, about two hours south of Albuquerque.
It gets interesting after that. Instructions for finding his place include looking for a gravel road halfway between two specified mile markers, driving to the edge of a canyon, following the switchbacks to the bottom, continuing past the ranch house on the left and looking for a dozen mailboxes on a big timber. You still won’t be there, but you’re getting close.
Bussmann, 68, and his wife, Susie, live in an adobe brick and stone house they built 40 years ago along Animas Creek in this tiny community.
“I tell people we live 12 miles from a no-stoplight town (Hillsboro),” Bussmann said. “We live so far out in the country that my kids learned to play rock ‘n’ roll on butane guitars.”
You won’t find any butane guitars around here. But if you are looking for some of the grandest acoustic instruments on the planet, this is the place to be. Bussmann is a master maker of stringed instruments, and this remote location is the home of Old Wave Mandolins and the birthplace of the Pickamania music festival.
We brake for cottonwoods
It was supposed to be a farm, not a one-man mandolin factory.
After teaching fifth grade on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona during the 1973-76 school years, Bussmann decided he wanted to take a crack at an easier way of making a living. Fueled by the fancy of being a subsistence farmer, he and Susie started driving east looking for affordable land along running water.
“We came across from Socorro and headed south looking at drainages on the east side of the Black Range,” Bussmann said. “When we saw the cottonwoods, we put on the brakes.”
They had found the “forest in the desert” they were seeking. Here, there were not only cottonwoods but also Arizona sycamores, the only place in the Rio Grande basin, Bussmann said, that these tall, stately trees with large leaves and beautifully mottled bark of white, brown and green occur naturally.
“It was an aesthetic thing.”
The farming turned out to be mostly a fantasy thing. He did pretty well with garlic. But gophers destroyed the apple trees and the cold, which settles in this valley like a frosty blanket, did in the grapes.
“I’ve killed off more grape varieties than most people know exist,” Bussmann said.
And the work, even when it was successful, was back-breakingly intense.
“The hand labor was ridiculous,” he said. “Anyone who complains about the prices at farmers markets just has no idea.”
He still keeps a small garden — basil, winter greens, squash, chile, bell peppers and tomatoes, the last of which, he confesses, “are pathetic this year.”
But his mandolins, always safe from gophers and squash bugs, are doing just fine.
A shed Bussmann once used to process garlic is the heart of Old Wave Mandolins, a business he has operated for 27 years. In this place, crowded now with chisels, gouges, carving knives, hand planes, slabs of wood, diagrams and instruments in various stages of development, Bussmann has turned out 585 stringed wonders — mostly mandolins but also archtop guitars, steelstring guitars, mandolas, octave mandolins, mandocellos and a dulcimer.
Usually, they are magnificent works of art, gracefully formed, stained and buffed to lustrous tones ranging from dazzling golds to dark, rich, almost ebony browns and boasting wood grains that ripple and vibrate just beneath the surface of the shine. Bussmann’s mandolins range in price from $2,600 to $4,500.
“My motto is cheap and built to stay that way,” he said.
Anyone who has known Bussmann for more than two minutes is aware of his sense of humor. And that being the case, some of his most popular creations have been his whimsical designs. His best known works in this vein are his watermelon mandolins, shaped and colored like a slice of watermelon with a bite chomped out of it. But he has also turned out a mandolin shaped like a chunk of Swiss cheese and a bass guitar formed like a bass fish — a bass bass.
Even though it’s difficult for Bussmann to go more than a few minutes without telling a joke — don’t get him started on banjo and accordion humor — he is serious about his craft and takes pride in it.
“A lot of my instruments have my blood on them,” he said. “Until I sand it off.”
He still talks with special fondness about a matching mandolin and mandola set he made a dozen years ago out of a couple of pieces of Idaho Engelmann spruce. Bussmann said he never knows what wood will result in the best sound. He had those pieces of Engelmann spruce for 10 years before he used them.
“Those two (mandolin and mandola) stood out,” he said. “They had more of everything, a balanced sound across the strings, a singing voice. They just had a life to them that made you want to play everything you knew.” He sold them to a New York swing-jazz musician.
Bussmann has just started work on seven new instruments, is restoring two and has one ready to ship.
“Working day and night, I could probably finish seven mandolins in a couple of months,” he said. “But I tell people to expect nine months for me to finish an instrument.”
All about the music
Bussmann was born in St. Louis. He started messing with instruments when he was 13, playing electric guitars and sometimes altering the electronics in an effort to get a better sound.
“I always had a guitar, always wrote a goofy tune,” Bussmann said. “I was playing Motown back then. Everybody wanted to dance to it.”
He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and met Susie, his future wife, on the Wisconsin campus when they both tried to sneak into blues guitarist Luther Allison’s concert at the student union building.
“We made it in and hung out there,” he said.
Bussmann and Susie both earned bachelor’s degrees in anthropology from Wisconsin. Bussmann, however, was not interested in pursing a career in academia, so he ended up with that teaching job on the San Carlos Reservation. He and Susie were married there.
Not long after they moved to Caballo, they discovered there were some folk musicians living out in the sticks and hills in that part of New Mexico.
“It has always amazed me to learn how many musicians, willing to play for the fun of it, live in rural New Mexico,” Bussmann said. “People in these small towns play music to entertain themselves. When we had kids, we thought it would be great fun to play music.”
The Bussmanns have two sons, Ezra and Silas. When the boys were old enough, the Bussmanns formed the Vegematic String Band featuring Bill on upright bass, Susie on banjo, Ezra on fiddle and mandolin and Silas on guitar and lead vocals.
During those early years in Caballo, Susie taught third grade in Truth or Consequences to help make ends meet. She earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, went on to get her doctorate and is now on staff at New Mexico State University. But it was the music that pulled Bill out of farming and into his life as a master luthier.
“Throughout that early period, I had been an accompanist, on upright bass, for a lot of the old-time fiddlers,” he said. “And then I met (R.L.) Bob Crawford, a fiddlemaker in Truth or Consequences. I had a mandolin and could play mandolin. After seeing (Crawford’s) fiddles, I said, ‘Wow, I’d like to make a mandolin some day.’ He said he had an instruction book and I was welcome to use his tools.”
Taking Crawford up on his offer, Bussmann made his first mandolin and traded it for a Martin guitar. Then he made eight or nine more mandolins before studying fiddlemaking with Crawford in a National Endowment for the Arts-funded master-apprentice program in 1992-93.
“I made fiddles with Mr. Crawford, but I realized I could make four mandolins in the time it took to make one fiddle, and I could make more money on mandolins,” Bussmann said. “I had made a lot of contacts with musicians and knew there was a need for quality instruments. And partly it was my kids. I tried to keep them in good instruments.”
And that’s how Old Wave Mandolins came to be.
Even if Old Wave Mandolins had never happened, Bill and Susie Bussmann’s place in the musical legacy of southwest New Mexico would be secure. Pickamania, a popular acoustic music festival, was started by them on their farm back in the mid-1980s.
Bussmann said the inspiration for the festival was a Halloween party held in that garlic shed before it became his mandolin workshop.
“There were about a hundred people from Silver City, TorC and Las Cruces,” he said. “Pat Dutton’s blues band played.”
People dancing in that shed crushed pieces of garlic underfoot so that it soon smelled like the kitchen in an Italian restaurant. But the music was sweet and when a hat was passed around for the musicians they each ended up with about $25.
“When (Albuquerque banjo player) Wayne Shrubsall heard that, he said, ‘For that kind of money, I’ll get you the best bluegrass musicians in New Mexico.’ And that’s how Pickamania came about.”
For seven years, Pickamania was held on the Bussmann homeplace in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. But then the crowds outgrew the acreage, and they had to pull the plug on the festival.
It was revived in 2008 when the Mimbres Region Arts Council took on the name, with the Bussmanns’ OK, and turned Pickamania into a festival in a Silver City park. That ended last year when the festival’s principal organizer left for a new job.
But thanks to the Black Range Lodge in Kingston, Pickamania is back this year. It will take place Sept. 22-24 at the Lodge’s new outdoor pavilion. The festival, featuring acoustic music of all genres, is the culmination of the Lodge’s summer Starlight Concert series.
The Bussmann’s son Ezra, now 40 and a winner of championships in mandolin, fiddle, guitar and dobro, will be among those performing Americana and original tunes from 6 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 23.
Bill Bussmann will be there, too, serving as the events master of ceremonies (watch out for those banjo jokes) and performing acoustic blues with Pat Dutton and others from 3 to 4 p.m., also on Sept. 23.
And chances are better than good that Old Wave instruments, the kind that make you want to play everything you know, will be well represented at Pickamania as well. It’s only right.