Luke Thompson uses fine maple and spruce to craft fine mandolins for professional bluegrass pickers
By James Ronald Skains
Luke Thompson was born in the sawmill town of Natalbany in the heart of the timber industry in Tangipahoa Parish in southeastern Louisiana on January 8, 1928. His earliest remembrance of playing music was that of playing for country dances and public events in the surrounding sawmill towns with his younger brother Cecil.
"I've ranged pretty far from that little sawmill town in the last 65 years," Thompson told the Piney Woods Journal. "I worked with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry Road Show for a number of years and saw a lot of the United States."
Although Thompson still makes a few stage appearances such as with the Abita Springs Opry and the Louisiana Folk Life Festival in Natchitoches, he is best known now as a master crafter. His technical classification is a "Luthier" which means that he builds and repairs string instruments. His specialty is mandolins. However, his first handmade instrument was a guitar.
"I use maplewood from Michigan and red sruce from West Virginia,'' Thompson explained. "It can't be kiln dried, has to be air dried lumber."
"It takes me about four to five months from start to finish to build a mandolin," Thompson acknowledged. "You've got to bend the sides, carve the sides and neck, put the fingerboard on it, adjustable bridge, gears for tuning and a quality tail piece."
Thompson's brand name mandolins sell from a low of $5,000 to a high of $10,000 for his top of the line instrument. On his website, he list three grades of mandolins, Master F model, Master A, and F Hole model.
He has built between 50 and 60 mandolins in his career as a Luthier. Thompson now lives in Zachary, Louisiana which was named after Zachary Taylor, the only United States President from Louisiana.
"I got my start in the early 1970's in building instruments when I worked for the Gibson Guitar Company in Memphis, Tennessee," Thompson noted. "Gibson is the world leader in building mandolins. I'm still a certified Gibson company instrument repairman."
Working with his hands is not a new experience for Thompson.
"In between playing music, I've worked as a boiler maker and an apprentice carpenter," Thompson elaborated. "In fact, I moved to Cincinnati one time to work on the railroad, but it wasn't long until somebody talked me into moving down to Kentucky to play music full time. That didn't last long and I was back boiler- making fulltime and playing Bluegrass music part time," Thompson pointed out. "I have one brother that played music with me and one that didn't. Someone asked him why he didn't play music and my brother told them, you can't make any money doing it. Look at Luke, he's a prime example," Thompson told the Journal with a chuckle.
"When finances finally got so bad in Kentucky playing music, I had to hitch hike home," Thompson recalled. "When I made it back here, I had $2.85 to my name."
In 2008, Luke Thompson was awarded the designation of being the "Father of Bluegrass Music" in Louisiana. Thompson held the first Bluegrass Music Festival in Louisiana in 1968 in Livingston. Later he moved the Festival to Folsom, Louisiana in Washington Parish where it flourished for twelve years. He and his band, "The Green River Cutups" were also part of the original South Louisiana Jamboree in Walker.
"Bill Monroe helped me get the Festival started and usually made it down to my festival each year," Thompson noted. "Bill Monroe had a long running Bean Blossom Bluegrass week long festival in Indiana that I helped him with for about ten years. I did everything from working staff to emcee to playing the music with Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Bean Blossom was actually a park designed for country music shows and owned by Monroe and two of his brothers, Birch and Bill," Thompson explained. "My experience in carpentry came in handy as I helped fix up buildings and did painting."
In the December 2002 issue of the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, a four page article details some of Thompson's experiences at Bean Blossom and gives an over view of Thompson's. This was not Thompson's first feature article in Bluegrass Unlimited. In the March 1993 issue, Bill Turner, a well known figure in Bluegrass Music did a five- page article on Luke and his brother Cecil labeling them as "Bayou State Bluegrass Trailblazers."
The "Fun" section of the Baton Rouge Advocate Friday, July 25, 2003 edition featured a front cover and four page spread on Thompson entitled: Finger Pick'n Good - Luke Thompson Helps Flatlanders Enjoy Mountain Music.' The Advocate noted that in 2003, Thompson was a 75 year-old stage performer, recording artist, record company entrepreneur, an appearance in a movie and mandolin maker.
In the same year, Thompson released a two disc CD which he titled: "50 Years Of Bluegrass Music with Luke Thompson and The Green Valley Cutups." The CD contains a total of 48 bluegrass classics. Thompson released it under his record label, Country-World Productions - a Division of Hammond Records.
"About the movie I was in, it was called the Last of the Mobile Hotshots," Thompson recalled. "The two stars in the movie were Lynn Redgrave and James Coburn. Coburn told me that it was the worst movie that he had ever made," Thompson added with a chuckle. "I did part of the sound track and some songs in the movie. It took me twenty years before I made $127.00 off royalties."
Thompson was usually with Bill Monroe at his appearances in Louisiana introducing Monroe at the House of Blues in New Orleans and many other venues. Thompson first met Bill Monroe at a Bluegrass Show in the little town of Gloster in southwest Mississippi.
Among current Bluegrass music luminaries that Thompson counts as close friends is Buck White, the father-in-law of Bluegrass Music super-star, Ricky Skaggs.
"In fact, I will be staying with Buck when I go to Nashville for a music SPBGMA show during the first week of February," Thompson pointed out. "For several years, Buck White held an annual Bluegrass Festival near Kerrville, Texas. The top prize was a Thompson-made mandolin."
Mark O'Connor, well known Nashville Studio musician won the 1982 Buck White International Mandolin Championship. He has used his Thompson-made mandolin on recording sessions with many artists including Waylon Jennings and Marie Osmond.
"Three of the more notable events here in Louisiana that I performed at were on the original Louisiana Hayride back in the 1950's, the World's Fair in 1984, and at the Jazz Festival in the 1990's," Thompson noted with pride." I got to know a lot of the people who went on to Nashville and had very successful careers in the music industry," Thompson said. "While we were on the Hayride, we also did a show on KWKH radio station and on a couple of other radio stations in the area."
In Ron Yule's book, "When The Fiddle Was King - Early Country Music From The North and West Regions of Louisiana (published by Northwestern State University press in 2006), a picture of Thompson and his Green Valley Cutups on stage at the Louisiana Hayride is found on page 191.
Thompson is mentioned numerous times along with pictures of him and his band and his handmade mandolins in Ron Yule's latest book, "Louisiana Bluegrass - The Early Years" which was published by Fiddle Country Publishing of DeRidder, Louisiana.
Although Thompson passed his eight-decade anniversary a couple years ago, he shows no signs of slowing down and becoming an Elder Statesman of the Louisiana Bluegrass music scene. His fingers are still nimble on the mandolin strings, the eagerness is still in his eyes for the next music gig, his voice strong and his thoughts are much on the next mandolin that he will build when he finishes the one he is working on now.