Paul Craig Wilson
by Susan Marquez
After retiring at age 55 from a 31-year career as a probation officer, Paul Craig Wilson needed something to do. He had been a bluegrass musician for many years, and that gave him an idea to begin making mandolins.
Craig was introduced to music when he was five or six years old. “Our family lived on a farm outside of Bakersfield, California. I had two older brothers, and I was the third wheel, so I had to learn to entertain myself. I often sat by the radio back in the early 1950s, and I naturally gravitated to the three or four stations that played old country and occasionally some bluegrass music.” Craig says he always wanted to play the guitar, but because his family lived so remotely, he had no teacher. “When my family moved into town, I was starting the seventh grade. A friend and I took a few guitar lessons.” The boys started a semi-professional rock and roll band and played most weekends throughout high school.
When Craig was eighteen, he was driving across town in his father’s pickup truck. “His radio was on when I got in the truck, and I heard a Reno & Smiley bluegrass song.” That was Craig’s ‘aha’ moment. “I wanted to play bluegrass music and got my first acoustic guitar.” Shortly thereafter, Craig met Larry Cohea, a five-string banjo player who had recently moved to California from Springfield, Tennessee. While still teens, Craig and Larry started a bluegrass band, The Cumberland County Boys. “I was able to do some horse trading for my first mandolin, a 1918 Gibson F-4, that I used in that band. In the late 1960s, I had the good fortune to purchase a 1924 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson mandolin. Larry and I played together until he moved to the San Francisco Bay area.”
Craig played in other bluegrass bands in California over the next several decades, including The Born Again Bluegrass Band and Gloryland, with his longtime friend, Leroy “Mack” McNees (of Kentucky Colonel’s fame,) as well as Stoney Point, Pacific Crest, The Roustabouts and more recently with The Ol’ Pals.
Deciding to build mandolins and actually building them are two different things. “I guess being OCD helped me learn how to do it,” Craig laughs. “When I decided to make mandolins, I soaked up all the knowledge I could. I read books and watched videos. I also connected with the luthiery community and found a generous group of people willing to share their knowledge.”
Craig attended his first bluegrass music festival in 1969. “It was an epic event held in Camp Springs, North Carolina, and the performers were an absolute ‘who’s who’ of first-generation bluegrassers,” he recalls. Over the years, he has had the opportunity to meet many of his musical heroes, including Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and a host of others.
After retiring, Craig got involved with the California Bluegrass Association as a regional activities Vice President for over 15 years and as a Board of Directors member for five years.
From 2006 to 2007, he served as co-director for the largest indoor bluegrass festival in California, SuperGrass/Loarfest-West. In addition to the festival, the event was a “world-class” mandolin symposium that drew over forty Lloyd Loar signed instruments, perhaps the most ever assembled in one place and at one time. The event included a “mandolin tasting,” a performance by the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, and a panel discussion of four of the world’s foremost mandolin builders, including Mike Kimnitzer, Lynn Dudenbostel, John Monteleone, and Steve Gilchrist.
Craig met Charlie Derrington, a designer with Gibson, and Lynn Dudenbastel, a top mandolin maker, at the first Loarfest held at the IBMA event in Louisville in the mid-1990s. Lloyd Loar is credited with the design of Gibson’s famous F5 mandolin, made popular by mandolin orchestras traveling the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. “Loar’s design became the standard for bluegrass instruments mainly because Bill Monroe, ‘the Father of Bluegrass Music,’ played one and made them famous,” says Craig. “Charlie rebuilt Bill Monroe’s Lloyd Loar F-5 when it was badly damaged.”
Mandolin building isn’t something one can jump into. “There are a lot of specialized tools that are used to build a mandolin,” says Craig. “And there are many jigs, fixtures, and different types of molds.” Craig did a little woodworking in junior high school. That, and his extensive research into mandolin building, gave him the confidence to give it a go. “In Bakersfield, I met Gary Cox, who taught woodshop at the local community college. He was a master furniture and cabinet maker. Gary got interested in building guitars, and we hit it off and became good friends. I built two guitars with him and learned a lot. I realized that I didn’t have an extensive background in woodworking, and Gary helped me develop better overall skills that show up in my mandolin construction.”
Craig has been building mandolins under the Wilson Mandolins name since 2006. He makes his mandolins using premier tone wood, maple for backs, sides, and necks, and spruce for tops. “There are different species of wood, each with different qualities, and I have had good results with most of them.” On occasion, Craig has also used white oak or walnut in some of the mandolins he builds. “I may deviate some, but I try to respect the integrity of the Loar-constructed instruments. I have accurate blueprints as well as carving and other measurements from actual Lloyd Loar instruments and refer to them often as I am building.”
Now based in Loudon, Tennessee, Craig says he is “a small shop builder” and doesn’t build a large volume of mandolins. “I typically build two to four instruments a year.” The mandolins sell from around $3200 to $6000 each. He has made a few by commission, but most are built “on spec” and made with the challenge of his touchstone instrument, the Lloyd Loar Gibson of the 1920s. “I’m always trying to get as close to that as possible. It’s become my passion.”
Some of Craig’s instruments have been sold at larger music festivals, including having a display at the IBMA a few times. Craig has also built a number of mandolas, one which the Atlanta Mandolin orchestra uses and another purchased by Doyle Lawson and used on one of his recent recording projects. “Most recently, I have sold some through Gruhn Guitars in Nashville and some through networking.”