Music has always been a passion for Judy Threet but it wasn’t until the former philosophy professor starting making instruments that her talent hit a high note, with the fruits of her labour making a Grammys debut.
While teaching at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, she joined a local folk band. That’s where she met Michael Heiden, the band’s violinist and a gifted luthier.
“A friend of mine that I was in a band with built a guitar for me and I started hanging around at his studio while he was building it and I got the bug for building,” Threet said.
Not long after, she quit academics and switched careers. She said she went into the department office and rescinded her application.
“I think I’m going to take some time off and build some guitars,” she recalled of the decision she made in 1990. “So that’s what I did.”
In 1999, she crafted a guitar and tried to sell it in Calgary with no luck. She ended up shipping it to Gryphon Stringed Instruments, a music store in Palo Alto, Calif.
It was there that a certain folk musician by the name of Tracy Chapman walked into the the store in 2001 looking for a smaller guitar.
“She wandered in one day and Willie, the guy that was working the floor, said, ‘What are you looking for?’ And she said, ‘My shoulder has been hurting because I’ve been playing this great big dreadnought guitar. I’m looking for a smaller guitar.’ And he just reached over and handed her that one. And she eventually left the store with it,” Threet said.
Over the past 20 years, Chapman became less of a household name but her hit song Fast Car, originally released in 1988, made a surprising return to the charts when country star Luke Combs recorded a cover version.
On Sunday, the pair performed the song together at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
In Calgary, the retired guitar maker received an email from a friend saying Chapman was strumming Threet’s hand-crafted on the stage for a global audience.
“I was astonished. She’s had it all this time. I’ve seen pictures every once in a while of her playing it but she has sort of dropped out of performing so I didn’t know if she still had it. So it was a lovely thing to see that she has it and she’s playing it,” Threet said. “The really exciting thing for me is that she still has it.”
Judy’s guitar making days are over. She had to move from her studio in the southeast Calgary neighbourhood of Inglewood. Once she constructed a new shop, her eyesight had deteriorated and was too poor for building. So she reinvented herself again.
She now plays viola in a group called the Calgary Community String Orchestra.
“Most of us don’t know what we’re doing for the most part and it’s just a ton of fun,” Threet laughed.
She said she also plays rhythm guitar in a swing band that plays for seniors at the Kerby Centre every Wednesday afternoon.
This week she’ll have a story to share about a another woman playing her guitar while singing about starting a new chapter.
“It’s wonderful. I’m hoping that she’s hung onto it because it’s sort of become a trusted friend and if that’s the case, then that’s wonderful because that’s sort of what everybody hopes for when they are building guitars.”