Cecil’s Music

Mandolin maker’s special creations

Story by Jerry C. Smith
Photos by Wallace Bromberg Jr.

Cecil-Blount-mandolinBreakfast time at Jack’s Family Restaurant in Pell City is a busy, noisy affair, as dozens of loquacious locals begin their day with tater tots, sausage biscuits, cinnamon buns, and currently relevant chitchat. But 85-year-old Cecil Blount of New London can easily squelch the din with a few strokes of his fingertips.

Recently, he sat down among friends at one of the large center round tables, which are notoriously noisy, and unobtrusively began picking out a simple tune he calls “Spanish Two-Step,” on a mandolin he’d made for himself.

At first, only those around his table piped down to listen, but by the time he was halfway through his number, the quietness had spread in expanding circles until the whole room was mostly silent save for Cecil’s music. When the number ended, he was treated to a round of applause as various folks marveled at Cecil’s skills, as both musician and craftsman.

He’s made at least a dozen instruments, including several mandolins, a dobro, fiddle, steel guitar, and will occasionally build one to order.

Cecil doesn’t work in an elaborate shop like some of those craftsmen you see on TV, but rather uses simple hand and power tools and homemade wood-bending forms while working in fresh air under an outdoor lean-to shed he built himself. Rather than relying upon complex formulas and a fancy shop full of exotic tools, his emphasis is on skill, a feel for carefully-selected materials and a natural ear for music.

All his instruments have that certain home-crafted look about them, but also a precision that’s readily apparent to the eyes of other craftsmen. Each piece is unique, as only Cecil can make them.

A lifelong native of Delta, Mississippi, he moved to St. Clair County about two years ago to be near his kinfolks. Cecil lives in a house he and his son, Mike, designed and built on a lot near Coosa Island Marina. Mike lives next door.

It’s the perfect man cave, built for the needs and pleasures of a single man who claims that, “five wives was enough.” The decor is simple and easy to maintain, with certain masculine touches many women would not tolerate, such as a corrugated steel ceiling and polished concrete floor. The walls are hung with stringed instruments, many of which he made.

Cecil admits his home is a bit on the small side, but adds with a wink, “there’s always room for an occasional visitor.”

A painter by trade but musician by avocation since age 15, he’s played with several local and regional bands and stars, including Big River and Jack Curtis in Mississippi. He also plays in monthly sessions at a local senior center, the State Veterans Home, various nursing facilities and his church, Friendship Freewill Baptist in Pell City, where he sometimes jams with Mayor Joe Funderburg, Judge Alan Furr and the church’s pastor, Dr. Michael Barber.

Cecil-Blount-merle-Haggard-dobroCecil’s most prized possession is a dobro he made that bears Merle Haggard’s autograph. Merle was playing a concert in Sturgis, Mississippi, when Cecil handed his dobro over the fence to a secretary, who asked the country and western superstar to autograph it during a session break.

If confused by all the various stringed instruments, and what makes each one unique to its type, Cecil helped cut the fog. For instance, a dobro and a regular guitar have the same number and size of strings, but they are tuned to different scale notes.

Also, a dobro has a special sound box, usually a circular affair of metal or wood, that produces the twangy, shrill notes peculiar to that instrument, whereas an acoustic guitar relies on the body of the instrument itself to develop its deeper, richer sound.

Mandolins have four pairs of strings, with both strings of each pair tuned to precisely the same note. The pick hits both strings in a pair with every stroke, giving a characteristic mandolin “pli-plink” sound.

What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? Cecil said that a violin might be a bit larger than a fiddle, but if someone asked him to make either, his product would be the same.

Discover photographer Wally Bromberg, who is no slouch on stringed instruments himself and jammed a bit with Cecil during the interview session, added, “You carry a violin in a case, and tote a fiddle in a sack.”

Cecil loves fishing, and lives within rock-throwing distance of Logan Martin Lake. In fact, he discovered his bit of heaven while visiting his son, liked the lake and neighborhood, and quickly settled in.

If one word could describe Cecil, it’s “imaginative.” His keen perception and active mind is reflected in everything around him. He has a small metal fishing boat that he converted to inboard style by mounting a five-horsepower lawn mower engine amidships, connected through a go-kart clutch and waterproof housing to a propeller underneath. It also has a yard tractor seat and steering wheel. It’s a poor man’s Chris-Craft.

Additionally, he’s built and sold several bicycles which he had converted to gasoline engine power, almost identical to the old Whizzer bikes familiar to any boy over 70.

Everything in sight is absolutely Cecil Blount. l

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