By Emily Wright | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Rozie DeLoach is incredibly busy. She chats with me while rehairing one of the 70-something bows that must cross her bench before summer is out, stopping only to chase after tiny bits of precisely cut maple that would occasionally propel themselves onto the floor before springing back into action. This is on an alleged day off: she is working from home to allow the crush of luthiers at Caraway Strings, of which DeLoach is the founder, more space in which to work. By all accounts, including those of her colleagues, DeLoach is a success 17 years into her career—and she’s just getting started.
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
Her entry into the finer aspects of lutherie was atypical. She started off learning to repair the low-end violin rental fleet her father maintained for Dallas-area schools when she was a high schooler. Under her maiden name, Caraway, she founded her own business across town from her father’s shop, still working on mostly rudimentary tasks: “Troubleshooting buzzing. Replacing a cheap bridge with a slightly less-cheap bridge. New case, new bow, this sixth grader is good to go,” she says, grinning.
Eventually, players began bringing in work DeLoach didn’t feel capable of doing well. “Early days, I would send many customers away for fear of doing a job poorly,” she says. So, like so many before her, she packed up her tools and made the trip to Oberlin to hone her skills at the famed collaborative space for luthiers of all specialties.
The task DeLoach chose for her time in Ohio was to master one of the fundamentals: how to replace a bass bar. After noticing her laboring fruitlessly, Jerry Lynn—who some may recognize as one of DeLoach’s co-hosts on the Omo podcast—took Rozie under his wing, offering her the use of his higher quality tools and the encouragement to persist until the bass bar was properly finished. “I was fairly worried that I was discouraging her every time I would stop by her bench to check her progress,” says Lynn, but he saw something in her then that continues to impress him now. “Talent can get you started,” he says, “but perseverance finishes the job every time. She just keeps going until she gets it.” DeLoach says, on Lynn’s influence, “I wouldn’t have the bench skills I do now without Jerry. Even today, in my work, I’m daily asking myself, ‘What would Jerry do?’ as a marker of my own personal standards. I think all of us at our workbenches would benefit from a WWJD bracelet.”
The sense one gets in conversation with her is one of quiet determination to do the very best by whomever walks into her shop, even if that means turning a client down. “There are still jobs that walk in the door that are beyond my skill, and that’s okay—as long as that client is referred to someone who has the skills for it. Sometimes it falls to someone on my luthier team, sometimes it falls to someone outside of my shop. Each patient needs the right surgeon, and we are not built to be surgeons of all specialties,” she says.
Were she not working with stringed instruments, DeLoach tells me she would probably be doing something involving storytelling. This is a bond she shares with fellow Omo host and luthier Chris Jacoby, and is chief among the reasons the podcast was created in the first place. Makers and restorers are used to being the silent accomplices of players. But who tells their stories? Says DeLoach, “We want to see the real people behind the industry, to better understand the human collective of violin makers, restorers, and technicians. We want to know what drives them, what they are really passionate about. For one, it’s endless hours of studying a family of Italian makers. For another, it’s the perfect seamless touchup job. For another, it’s the wild ride of gambling on the purchase of a collection of instruments. Together, we make a community that is stronger than individuals at their workbenches. We are carrying the torch to the next generation.”
Before teaming up with Lynn and Jacoby, DeLoach had produced Rabbit Hole Motel, a dark comedy podcast devoted to what one could loosely call the unexplained. Her narrative savvy and previous experience are essential to Omo’s success. “Omo would be very different without Rozie,” according to Lynn. He’s grateful for her habit of asking questions that keep the episodes moving and draw in more casual listeners. Jacoby calls DeLoach a natural raconteur. Because each host is focused on different things, they’re able to strike a balance between the romance of old instrument lore and the unpretentious reality of sitting down and working at a bench.
When asked about what defines her work, the answer is unequivocal. “My work at the shop starts with clear communication with the client. Some are constantly in pursuit of the perfect setup, others just need their grandfather’s fiddle to function. Sometimes, perfection be damned, it’s about a quick turnaround. Some need—more than anything—reassurance that we see the same issues they see.”
The relationships with the musicians who rely on Caraway Strings to create their own means of storytelling are a huge motivator to persist and continue learning. “There are industries that may be more profitable, but there aren’t too many that are this pure, at least at this time in humanity’s story,” she says. “The services we provide at a violin shop don’t go to some nameless worldwide corporation. They go to our musician neighbors. We are an accountable part of their success.”
And what of her work’s place in the wider world of violin making? “Just as I stepped into the Oberlin restoration workshop not knowing a soul and now feel connected to a network of violin experts, I hope Omo spreads that connection—helping us all feel that we are a part of a human team.” In the end, it seems like DeLoach has not been forced to choose between storytelling and lutherie at all. If the last decade has been any indicator, the next chapters of her story should be something to behold.