Who is Carl Genarlsky?
You might not guess that somewhere in Texas there is a madman surrounded by acres of foliage and strains of black bamboo building guitars in a steel building. But then again, it is Texas, so maybe you would guess that such a man exists.
I met Carl about 4 years ago and was immediately curious about who he was. I play music with a group of friends where we laugh too loud, are kind to one another and tell bad jokes. Except for Carl. He tells his jokes quietly while observing the nonsense. When he speaks, we freeze, and in that moment, we practice the “mannequin challenge.” With his soft-spoken manner, you may not guess that this guy is one of the biggest strengths in our song-circle at The Woodshed, a little shop where my friends and I congregate to eat, talk and play music. Not only does he build guitars from scratch, but he builds them in his own way.
Carl started building dulcimers at age 17. A kid from Dallas, he was inspired by vacations spent in Arkansas. He moved to Waco in the 70s where he met his wife, Joan. Together they built a secret little mecca of guitars, cats and bamboo just on the outskirts of town.
When I met Carl, instantly I noticed this man was different, and not just in the sense of his style, with his blue worn-out fishing hat and long grey-haired ponytail. His guitars — I call them Genarlskys — are crafted with love, precision and generosity. He places the sound-hole on the top of the guitar, near the face of the musician and not the audience. After seeing a few of them, I asked one of our friends, Bill, why the hole is placed on the top of the guitar.
“‘Cause that’s just the way Carl does it,” he said. This was the attitude of most of us at The Woodshed: We do things our own way.
“So, how do I get one?” I asked. Bill has known Carl for many years. He has a Genarlsky he plays regularly and described Carl’s craft like a sacred blessing from a ninja. He told me not to bother asking for one, because that was just not the way it was done. He said that Carl has been known to refuse money in the past for his guitars. What? He must really be a madman. It occurred to me that if you ask for a Genarlsky, you’re asking him not to make you a guitar.
“He just makes them when he wants to,” Bill told me.
A few months later, my friend Randy and I attended the Kerrville Folk Festival in south Texas. It’s a huge deal. If you’ve ever been, you’re a “Kervert” and if you haven’t, you’re a “Kervirgin.” So, I was headed to the land of the Kerverts to hear artists from across the nation perform original music where people camp out for two weeks. But don’t get all excited, we only went for three days.
Randy, an 8-year-Kervert, prepped me for the trip, “It rains every year during the festival,” he kept telling me weeks before. “I hope you’re practicing. This will be a good time for you to share your songs with other great musicians.”
I borrowed Bill’s Genarlsky for the festival. I didn’t want to take my Yamaha. I was headed to the campgrounds of counter-culture hippies, a place that hipsters only dream about as they sip their hand-crafted cocktails. I needed to arrive with something original, something no one had seen before. By bringing a Genarlsky, it gave me confidence and courage to be proud of my music; it was like bringing a close friend along to perform with me.
On our way back, I removed my rain boots to air out my wet feet. Randy was right — it rained both nights we camped out. We finally arrived back to The Woodshed, and I was hardly out of the vehicle when Bill said, “There’s something inside the shop for you.”
What? Who? I wouldn’t allow myself to get excited. But yes, it was …
I walked slowly into the dusty Woodshed and pulled out a clean black guitar case from underneath the worktable. I opened the case and there she was: my very own guitar from Carl. The body was made of myrtle wood and bodart for the fretboard, all handmade just for me. The colors around the sides of the body of the guitar were so rich and harmonious. I finally got one of his guitars, but with no way to pay him back. In our group of musicians, it’s like a rite of passage to receive a Genarlsky. As tears of joy ran down my cheek I thought, but there is a way I can pay him back: play the music.
At our next jam session, I could hardly wait to pull out Myrtle. Carl beamed with pride when he saw how grateful and excited I was. I asked if I could please do something for him, but a nonchalant “no worries” was all his response amounted to.
Since knowing Carl, he’s introduced me to a variety of unique music. From him, I learned about “Dehlia” by Dave Bromberg, “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie, “Tangle Till They’re Sore” by Tom Waits, and of course, a couple of obscure Bob Dylan tunes — “Mood For You” and “Buckets of Rain.” Carl has always pushed and encouraged me to try new techniques, listen to a wide variety of music and experiment with different guitars.
Today, I have a total of three Genarlskys. I treasure them more than my dog — well, almost. Carl has built easily more than one hundred string instruments (he’s very humble). He’s built cellos, banjos, violins, guitars and ukuleles, all varying in tone. But more importantly, he builds dreams, inspiration and a foundation for creation. I only began seriously writing music after owning one of his instruments. Without my Genarlskys, I know I would not have developed into the songwriter I have become. I will be forever moved knowing he has built this inspiration, not just for me, but for hundreds of others. That’s one hell of a craft, if you ask me.
Katie Stewart is a novice writer studying journalism and painting at Baylor University. This article was originally published in The Bundle Magazine, a student-run online publication. Before arriving at Baylor, she was fine arts major and classical pianist. She loves listening to and studying the Blues and Gypsy Jazz. Before long she become a singer/songwriter performing her music across Texas. To find music, videos, show dates and more click here.
When not pursuing her creative outlets, she loves playing golf, spending time with her dog John, and reading while surviving on artisan cheese and red wine.
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson