King of strings and music things
Kent Viles sinks into a couch set to the side of long rows of guitars standing neatly in formation on the floor at his Castle Creek Guitars store in Gunnison. He cradles a steel resonator guitar, his own original design, onto his knee and the instrument becomes alive with notes reverberating through the air in glorious melody.
He is an accomplished musician of many years and several instruments, and this isn’t his first guitar shop rodeo. Lining the walls are stringed instruments in warm colors of wood that sing with rich tones, begging to be picked up and strummed. A wonderland of accessories from rainbow-hued picks to capos and tuners are arrayed on glass cabinet shelves and counters. Workbenches clamped with instruments in various stages of repair, mandolins, ukuleles and guitars—a musician’s dream toy shop.
Arriving in Gunnison from Muncie, Indiana in 1972 to attend Western State College (now Western State Colorado University), Kent hung around the valley and went to work as a retailer at Wildwood Flower Music in 1977. At the time, Wildwood was owned by violin builder Bradley Bowman and was primarily a shop for his instruments as well as strings, accessories and albums—yes, real vinyl, grooved, flat discs that played on turntables with diamond needles at 33 rpm.
Kent evolved into the luthier’s apprentice, learning how to create the finely curved instruments from pieces of wood, and he widened the store’s inventory to include guitars.
Kent had a vision for Wildwood Flower that included expanding the territory. To manifest that he bought the store from his teacher in 1979, shortening the name to Wildwood Music. Kent recalls, “I brought in more recorded music,” which, he notes, back in those days meant cassette tapes as well as records. Kent muses about the end of the ’70s as being the electronic age of rock n roll. “I brought in big amps and a lot of electric guitars, keyboards and PA systems.”
With the largest inventory of any shop on the Western Slope, people would make the trip from the surrounding southwest region. As the electronic age boomed, Kent moved with it. “People were playing larger venues which required more amplification,” he said.
Additionally, it was a new era of synthesized, sampled sounds made popular by signature music of bands like Flock of Seagulls, Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins. “The electronics kept developing and reinventing themselves,” he marveled. Although Wildwood Music brought Gunnison into the electronic era, Kent says, “We also kept the core very strong in acoustic stringed instruments because that was the birth of the company.”
Heavily influenced and encouraged by his grandfather, Kent started playing guitar at age eight. His grandfather “was the one with the musical genes who could play anything and those genes carried into my life. I played what I heard my grandfather playing which was ’50s Americana, which back then was more the genre of country folk. He made up his own music. I’d watch him, he showed me how to play my first chords,” he says fondly.
The Beatles and the subsequent British invasion energized Kent’s desire to do more. “My first band played for my mom’s bridge club,” he chortles about his first gig. Junior high school broadened his venues to frat parties at Ball State University in Muncie. “We’d have to have our parents drive us to the gig because we were only maybe 13 years old,” he laughs.
By the time he reached college in Gunnison he was even more of a professional and hooked up with then local legends, Darkstar, most of whom were music majors at WSC. He also met his sweetheart, Chris Kinyon, of St. Louis, the second day of their freshman year in 1971. “The rest is history,” he smiles of their marriage—they’ve been together ever since.
After Darkstar he formed the Kent Viles Quartet in 1980 and through the mid ’90s the jazz band played all the typical valley venues, “mainly because we were somewhat unique since nobody else was doing it,” he says of his 15-year jazz project. “There was a little bit of a fascination and a hipness to going out to listen to jazz. It was more of a cultural experience.”
Since he’d been composing music since age seven, as well as for his jazz quartet, it was just natural for Kent to jump into composing movie scores. “When I watch movies I can hear soundscapes. I can visually see what I’d like to compose to a scene,” he says. He signed up for an Internet film scoring course through Music for the Media out of London that starts students off by having them create simple one-minute commercial spots and progressing to a full video.
“As a film composer I could sit in Gunnison and compose for movies anywhere, but,” he adds, “composing music for cartoons is what I was forced to do—split- second, individual film frame timing that has to be spot-on.
“When you watch a cartoon, listen to the music composed for it—it’s technically compositionally challenging,” he says of the extremely time-consuming work. “To produce a two-minute project could take four days or more.”
Starting in the late ’80s, the musical instrument industry dropped off nationally when kids started playing video games. “The Beatles’ generation was being replaced by the Pacman youth,” Kent says of the national decline in interest. “I’d go to these national musical instrument dealer conventions and the buzz was that you couldn’t get a kid to pick up a musical instrument because they were enthralled with gaming—that was their new hobby.”
So he modified his business, selling the retail part of Wildwood Music in 1994 and creating a new business of custom home audio-video design and installation, Viles Electronics, until 2008 when the building boom came crashing down.
Reinventing his business yet again, he cranked up the Internet-based Blewnote.com, buying, restoring and selling vintage musical instruments all over the world.
“Then I was approached by Brian and Cherrie Haugh, former clients of mine. Brian and I always shared a passion for guitar playing,” he says of the accomplished guitarist. “We shared a vision. I brought new marketing ideas to the table and we decided it was worthy of moving forward with an instrument shop that was brick and mortar as well as Internet-based.”
By August 2011, they opened Castle Creek Guitars on Main Street in Gunnison and the timing coincided with a resurgence of interest in musical instruments. “I feel that there are more people interested in playing music today than there were two decades ago. There’s a lot of the ’70s attitude going on in the college scene these days, kids are more into the arts in general. The time was ripe for a shop and on top of that, there’s a complete switch from the electronic age of music back to acoustics,” Kent says of the new endeavor.
Kent then put his past experience as a luthier into creating an original new design for an old classic, the resophonic guitar—a.k.a., a resonator, which was born out of the 1920s need for louder acoustic guitars.
“The reason for that was that there were guitarists in big bands and the guitars of that era were very small-bodied parlor-style builds,” Kent says, explaining the quiet nature of those guitars. So guitar manufacturers came up with the concept of the resonator guitar whose strings vibrate off an aluminum cone underneath the bridge and under the ornate cover plate—tripling the volume.
“Electric guitars came along in the ’40s, making a loud acoustic guitar less desirable.
“But here’s the kicker to the whole thing,” he says excitedly. “The evolution of the instrument wound up more in the south because it was used in juke joints that had no electricity. American blues developed in the south, that’s why you hear the resophonic guitar in a lot of the original blues music. That’s predominantly because manufacturers were almost giving them away because there was no longer a market for them after electric guitars came out.” He describes the resonator tone as hauntingly beautiful, full of reverb and metallic.
His project started in his garage in 2007, combining a vibrato system with the beautiful natural tone of a resophonic guitar, allowing the player to produce unique voicings that had never existed on a resonator. “I took that concept and modified some existing guitar builds,” Kent said of his creation. After a successful testing period, he trademarked his new instrument as “Dobrato” with a patent applied for.
They are now custom built and manufactured by him—body and necks built in Shanghai, then shipped and put together in Gunnison. Kent assembles all the instruments in the shop. He sold out of his entire first production, all 35 instruments, to performers like Tony Furtado, who sent a love letter about his instrument. The Dobrato was the grand prize at last year’s Telluride Blues and Brews, awarded to Big Jim Adam and it’s picking up exposure through several top name musicians across the country. “This is a cottage industry but I’m gearing up to be able to provide hundreds of these builds,” Kent projects.
Back at Castle Creek Guitars, young virtuosos, enamored wannabes and seasoned rock geezers mill about, admiring instruments, plunking out tunes, and holding conversations in musician-speak. It may be acoustic but the atmosphere is electric with creativity.
Kent is very obviously in his element and enthusiastically says, “I have a love of this, I love sharing this and plan to be here for those wanting to learn as well as providing technical expertise.” And someday in the near future, Gunnison will be well known in the music world as the originating home of the Dobrato, made right here in our own valley.
For more information on the Dobrato visit www.castlecreekguitars.com.