Bob Gramann’s songwriting and guitar-making efforts have followed a similar path. He took up both after a career as an elementary school teacher in 1990. Gramann was a student at the University of Virginia in 1969 when he saw folk singer Bill Staines at a coffeehouse.
“I loved his show,” said Gramann. “I looked at it and I thought I could do that, and I would love to do that. He came down from New Hampshire to play a $50 gig at U.Va. at a coffeehouse around 1968 or ’69. I went on and got my degree and taught elementary school, but in 1990 I decided if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it. In 1969 I wanted to be playing, but it wasn’t viable, in 1990 it didn’t matter if it was viable. I didn’t have to make a living doing it.”
As a second career, Gramann decided to perfect his songwriting skills by using a how-to manual.
“I went to the library and found this book ‘How To Write Great Lyrics,’ ” said Gramann. “It was a cookbook that tells you how to write a song. I sat down and used the book to write a song and sent it into the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest and got an honorable mention on the first try. It was a good cookbook. So that’s been it.”
At that same time, Gramann visited the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pa. and got the idea of creating his own instruments. With a kit he bought at the factory, he built his first guitar and was pleased with the results.
“I had a Martin I bought before the kids were born because I knew I’d never have enough money again,” Gramann said. “So I had a real guitar and the one I built out-sounded the Martin. It was easier to play and it was louder than the Martin. So I was using it on my gigs for a long time. Then, of course, I had to build another one. Eventually I started selling them when the house would fill up.”
Gramann continues to produce five or six guitars every year in his extensive basement woodshop. Many of his guitars are custom built based on buyer’s specs. He has also built mandolins, acoustic bass guitars, banjos, and has been working on a fiddle, which is an ongoing project.
“I build what I feel like building, then I hope somebody buys them,” Gramann said. “If I have enough, I stop. I have a fiddle I’ve been working on for ten years. When I have a hole in my guitar inventory I need to fill, I put the fiddle aside.”
Armed with his own songs and instruments, Gramann recorded his first album at Wally Cleaver’s studio in 1995 with the former producer/owner Peter Bonta. Since then, he has released five more albums. His most recent, “I Made It Just For You” will be officially released on CD Thursday at Curitiba Art Cafe.
“Some people take the title to mean my work as a luthier,” said Gramann. “It was always intended to have multiple meanings. Lou [Gramann’s wife] was the one pushing me to get the thing done. So when that song came up, and that’s one of the most recent ones, it really applied to the album—I made it for you. So it’s about the album, plus guitars.”
Other songs on the album display Gramann’s keen wit. “We’re Gonna Need the Banjo” is about the love/hate relationship many music fans have with that instrument. Gramann used an open-backed banjo he made to record the song. His previous albums have also included a banjo number.
“I’ll take it out and do a couple of songs with it on a show for a little variety,” said Gramann. “I generally have a song with the banjo on every album, except my first one. After the first one, I had written a song that had to be done on the banjo. The nature of the song was it needed a banjo. So I went out and bought a banjo and learned to play it.”
A more reflective track is “BJO 50th Reunion Song.” It describes Gramann’s own reunion. The title refers to Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington—Gramann’s alma mater.
“It was pretty much as it was in the song,” Gramann said. “Folks that you hadn’t seen for 50 years, the winners came back. The folks that were embarrassed about what happened to them didn’t show up. The dead ones didn’t show up. But the folks that came had really interesting stories. A whole bunch of us had done some neat things. It was a real pleasure. So it was trying to capture that, the song was for them.”
Gramann played all the instruments on the new album, with one guest artist. Fiddle player Crosby Cofod had bought one of Gramann’s guitars and was having some maintenance done a few months later. Gramann found out Cofod played fiddle, and after listening to some of his music on YouTube, invited him to contribute to the recording.
“He came here and started playing on the first song and I stopped and said ‘wait a minute, do you have a music degree?’ ” said Gramann. “He was doing some stuff that I hadn’t even imagined would be part of the song. I had an idea of what I wanted him to do and he was a lot more imaginative.”