“Playing a big 12-string feels like having an orchestra with you,” says folk icon Judy Collins, whose history with Martin Guitars and Stephen Stills is the stuff of legend. She has been playing Martins longer than Guitar Player has been a magazine, and her late-’60s love affair with Stills was immortalized in one of the most popular acoustic endeavors of the rock era—Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Collins and Stills have started a new era with their first-ever collaborative album, Everybody Knows [Wildflower/Cleopatra]. The title track is a tribute to its composer and close Collins associate, Leonard Cohen, who passed away on November 7, 2016. Throughout much of the album, Stills plays reverb-drenched electric leads with signature phrasing instantly recognizable from classics such as “Wooden Ships.” But on an album with a lot of great moments, the most intriguing song is “Judy.” Penned by Stills in 1968 [Stills confirmed to GP that the song was actually a prequel to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”], the backstory on “Judy” is nearly as epic as its inspiration’s lifelong acoustic love affair.
What were the songs and instruments that inspired you to pursue an acoustic-guitar path?
I started out as a pianist, and then when I found songs such as “The Gypsy Rover” and “Barbara Allen.” I convinced my dad to rent a guitar—I believe it was a classical guitar. I began to look around, and I found an old National resonator lap-steel. That was my first guitar, and, of course, the technique is very different using the slide bar over the top of the neck. I got a Martin 6-string around 1962. I learned to Travis pick really fast. I was hot! But I soon developed carpal tunnel syndrome, so I switched to playing a 12-string Martin—which I play exclusively now. I can’t fingerpick anymore. I’ve forgotten how.
So that’s how you became so closely associated with Martin 12-strings?
Right, it was because of injury, and also because I loved Pete Seeger’s sound. I had to have the 12-string in my repertoire. But there is a Martin 6-string I’ve been hoping to recover for decades. In 1964, Martin invited Tom Paxton and me to play at the opening of the new factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. We did a concert on the loading dock, and they made special guitars for both of us. Mine wound up getting stolen out of my road manager’s car while it was parked in Greenwich Village.
How did you develop your signature Martin 12-string?
In 1969—the year after we met—Stephen gave me a beautiful old Martin as a birthday present. I still have it. About 30 years later, I saw that he was down at Martin with my friend Dick Boak, who ran the custom shop. I called Dick, and I said, “Hey, Stephen has a signature guitar—why not me?” Dick said, “I was just looking at your picture on the loading dock from 1964.” He sent it to me, and I’m standing there in a dress and heels with my slip showing [laughs.] I looked like a cross between Debbie Reynolds and Loretta Lynn. Anyway, Dick said, “I’ve got to make you a signature Martin.” I was playing a big 12-string D-35, so the Judy Collins guitar is based on that. It has beautiful inlays, and a wildflower—which is the name of my label. For the woods and so on, I consulted with Dick. He was the expert. I listened to him, and I let him guide me—unlike Stephen, who told him what to do! That happened around 2002, and it has held up wonderfully. I use it on every gig and record.
There’s a 6-string version, as well. I don’t play it, but on my album, Silver Skies Blue, Ari Hest played my signature 6-string throughout. It sounded fantastic. Silver Skies Blue was nominated for a Grammy, and I think it was Ari who pushed it over the edge. That signature 6-string surely had something to do with it, too.
How did you reconnect with Stills for Everybody Knows?
It started by recording “Everybody Knows” as a tribute to Leonard, and then the album took its own shape from there. Stephen has a good studio in his Los Angeles home, and that was the easiest place to prepare material. I didn’t bring my guitar, because I carry it in a big Anvil case, which is a real hassle to get around. Actually, I was having my primary guitar repaired at that time, because the airline managed to crush even that heavy-duty case. You’re supposed to be able to drop that Anvil case off a 20-story building, but they managed to break it, and bust the guitar. It took Dick six months to fix it. Big job. I didn’t really need my signature Martin, though, because Stephen had an old Martin 12-string that I used to rehearse. The bridge was a bit higher, so it was harder to play, but that was actually good for strengthening my calluses.
How much guitar did you play on the album?
I played on everything except “Girl from the North Country.” Stephen played a single acoustic track for that song, and we both sang.
How do you go about finding the right tuning and key to suit your voice for a particular song?
I don’t have 25 different tunings like Joni [Mitchell] does. I only know open D. I either make that work in the open position, or I move a capo up and down the neck until I find a place to make the song work with my voice. I like to have that open-tuned sound with the lower notes ringing out. When we first approached “Everybody Knows,” I was at the 3rd fret, but we wound up doing it a half-step down (Amin), and now I play it at the 5th fret. I sing melody, and Stephen sings harmony all the way though. Stephen uses a different tuning. He has many guitars, and they’re all tuned differently. I may only know open-D tuning, but I’ve learned to use it lots of different ways. Like at the end of our concert when we play “Someday Soon,” which is in the key of G, I play in open position—no capo. Next, we go into “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and while Stephen switches to his guitar in a dropped-D drone tuning, I simply lower one string, and it fits like a glove.
Can you shed some insight on “Judy”?
That came from a studio tape Stephen made in 1968. We were working on Who Knows Where the Time Goes [Stills played guitar and bass on that classic 1968 Collins album]. He stayed after the session was over to lay down ideas for songs he was in the midst of writing, including “Wooden Ships,” “Helplessly Hoping,” and a few others [such as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”]. “Judy” was one of those songs. Nobody had heard it, because it was still being written. This was months before he went into the studio to record with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
That tape disappeared for 45 years. When it surfaced, we found out that somebody had dug it out of the trash at Elektra Records in California, and hung onto it. The guy lived in the Northeast, and he had stored it in a temperature-controlled basement. He finally found a way to contact Graham Nash, and he gave it to Stephen. Warner Brothers put out the whole thing on a 2007 compilation called Just Roll Tape, which consists of just Stephen and his guitar.
Did you encourage its resurrection?
My manager encouraged us to do “Judy.” Stephen didn’t even remember the music or the lyrics. So we played it for him, and he said, “Oh, that’s a pretty good song.” He had simply put it down and forgotten about it for 45 years. He’d never played it in public before our tour, and our recording is the first fully realized version.
The way your whole story with Stills has circled back five decades later is crazy. And now you’re touring together playing these songs you inspired. How does that feel?
It’s a hoot! [Laughs.]