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For The Right Mandolin, This Kansas City Musician Needed One Man — And Patience

Julie Denesha
Musician Julian Davis holds an unfinished mandolin while luthier Mark Franzke measures the neck to fit Davis' hand.

Kansas City musician Julian Davis is known for his championship flatpicking on the guitar. Young Davis and his bluegrass trio the Hay-Burners have regular gigs in Kansas City, and they recently competed on a national stage on "America's Got Talent."

Over the summer, Davis started playing mandolin.

And when he decided he wanted a new mandolin for the annual Folk Alliance International Conference this week, he asked Mark Franzke to build him a special one.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
It takes a steady hand to cut the thin pieces of natural shell that decorate mandolins.

“What I was really looking for, originally, is something I can just speed around on, because I have a habit of speeding,” Davis said. “And trying to find a mandolin that can capture that is so, so hard. It’s kind of like a jump. You either have a really bad mandolin, or you have a really, really good one. There’s, honestly, no in between.”

Franzke has spent the past decade building mandolins, and says he aims for a specific quality of sound.

“I like to describe it as kind of a deep woody tone on the low strings and clear trebles on the high strings,” Franzke said. “So that it doesn’t sound like a brand new kind of thin-sounding mandolin. It sounds like it’s maybe got a little bit of age to it. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

Franzke had heard Davis play a mandolin shortly after he picked one up for the first time last summer.

“When I heard him play the mandolin after just three weeks of having one in his hands, I knew that it was going to become his instrument,” Franzke said. “And I told him that I wanted to put one of my mandolins in his hands.”

A luthier can spend months making a single stringed instrument. By January, Franzke had Davis’s instrument half built. At the work bench in his West Plaza shop, he was cutting mother of pearl with a jeweler’s saw, working on a decorative inlay of natural shell on the peg head and ebony fret board. He’d strung up the instrument and invited Davis to stop by the store to give the unvarnished mandolin a test drive.

Davis, who says he wanted something "completely different than what it would be to buy an F5 mandolin off the shelf,” seemed pleased with Franzke's progress.

“I play all the way up to the very top of the neck," he said, "and a lot of the times you’ll find especially in mandolins that they’re not as even. And that’s such an important thing to me because I really have to have that consistency because I will play every single note on the instrument and it’s got to be in tune to my ear at least.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Working slowly and methodically, Franzke scrapes stain from a light band of binding trim.

A few weeks later, Franzke was back at the bench scraping stray stain from a light band of binding trim. Franzke said there’s a moment for him when each instrument begins to awaken.

“It really starts coming alive when you glue the neck to the body and then the sound really transfers through the whole instrument,” he said.

Things were going well until, in the weeks leading up to the Folk Alliance Conference, the weather was too humid for Franzke to spray the final coats of varnish.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Franzke blows fine shavings from a mandolin.

“If it’s not done by the deadline, which it won’t be, then that’s just the way it is,” Franzke said. “We’ll just extend the deadline.”

For Davis, the disappointment of not having his new mandolin for Folk Alliance was outweighed by the magic of having a hand-built instrument.

“It’s already talking to me,” Davis said. “It’s radiating in a certain way. I can feel it. I can feel it closer to being finished and closer to getting to take it out and play it everywhere.”

“I’ll be excited just to see where all Julian can take it,” said Franzke. “Because I don’t think there is any limit to where he’s going to go with it.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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