Several years ago a photo of Chet Atkins, holding his 'axe guitar', appeared in the National Enquirer. The unusual guitar was built by and presented to Chet Atkins in 1973 by Morrie Jones, a Des Moines man who has become well-known among Iowa musicians.
Morrie Jones, who moved to Des Moines in 1955, has a very interesting history that goes back to years before he worked with Smokey Smith at the KRNT Theatre in Des Moines. Back to before the first time Elvis came to Des Moines, where Morrie was with him in the dressing room and was one of the stand-by musicians. Back to before Morrie played with Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Hawkshaw Hawkins and many others.
It was back in the 1930's (after Morrie bought his first guitar in 1933) that Morrie and his brother sang together, appearing on the Barn Dance Show in 1939. In 1937, he started playing lead guitar and also the harmonica, learning from the radio by listening and then playing. He often listened to the radio to hear one of his favorites, Les Paul, who was with the Fred Waring band. (Morrie points out that Jim Atkins, a baritone, also sang with that band.)
From playing all over each night, around Abilene, Texas, Morrie Jones ended up playing at the World's Fair in 1939. He tells the interesting story of how that came about. An older gentleman had made a violin, guitar and mandolin out of match sticks and asked Morrie to ride along to New York with him in his 1930 Model A Ford. While in Washington D.C. they went to the Smithsonian Institute and asked for the manager to show him the matchstick creations. Not only did Morrie get the chance, on that trip, to play the World's Fair, but also played on Major Bowes program. On that program he saw a lady playing a piano. "She was real good," says Morrie, "and her name was Bessie Mack." Not long after that, Ted Mack took over the program, so Morrie wrote to Ted Mack asking him if he was related to the piano player. Ted Mack wrote back to Morrie with the answer 'No, they weren't related.' Now, getting back to the gentleman with the match sticks; while there, they tried to contact Ripley's manager. Ripley was out of the country at that time, so they took the matchstick instruments to the manager who took a picture of them. Within a year, the photo and story came out in Ripley's Believe It or Not. A famous violinist actually played on the violin -- that the older gentleman had been offered $2000 for -- and to think it was made of matchsticks! (This story is being told in order to tell a story on Morrie Jones. He is into making novelty instruments and perhaps (who knows?) those novelty instruments he saw back in 1939 might have a little to do with his desire to create such novelty items today!)
Getting back into history, however, our next era is in the 1940's when Morrie was in the service. He belonged to a 16 piece dance band, where he was always playing in his spare time. From that band he went on to play in another 16 piece band, this time the members being from his own outfit. And, in that outfit was Richard Hepburn who just happened to be a brother to Katherine Hepburn.
From 1946 - 1949, Morrie had a four piece band that played in Saginaw, Michigan with Cowboy Copus, Ernest Tubb and Spike Jones. Little Jimmie Dickens was emceeing the Barn Dance Show, where Morrie worked with him, and from there went to Nashville in 1949 to be on the Grand Ole Opry. Dickens returned to Michigan and informed Morrie that he indeed had gotten on as a single but coudn't take a band with him. It was during this time that Jimmie Dickens had a guitar that Morrie was interested in, but Jimmie said he had too much sentiment in it to sell it -- but he would give it to him. And he did. Morrie still has the guitar today and shows it with pride in his Des Moines home. Jimmie Dickens and his band, in fact, dined with Morrie and his wife, Betty, in their Des Moines home in later years.
In the middle 1940's in Indiana, Morrie met and worked with Lowell Atkins, a man that became a very close and dear friend. They played together on the radio and picked all the time, whether it be in their homes or at the station. Then, in 1952, Morrie met Chet Atkins, Lowell's brother. (It was during this era that Morrie also worked with Buck White whose daughter, Sharon, married Ricky Skaggs.)
During his spare time, Morrie checked out a cabinet school that he had heard about and enrolled for two years where, after 2000 hours, he received a diploma. Then he built his first guitar and then the second one, a double neck (one side shorter) with ten strings on one side. "I wanted something different," says Morrie, who later played the guitar on Smokey Smith's shows.
Morrie had been driving from Shenandoah, Iowa, to Des Moines to perform on Smokey's shows when he saw an ad in the (Des Moines) Register about cabinetwork in a trailer house factory. Thus came the move to Des Moines to work at the factory and then another commercial cabinet shop before starting with Red Scobee who was part of Victor's Music. Then, in 1971, Morrie started working out of his home.
Morrie's shop is filled with all kinds of instruments and even tools such as the one he designed specially to aid him in the rehairing of violin bows. The instruments hanging about belong to the individuals who rely on Morrie's skilled hands to repair -- and many belong to schools who use Morrie's services. Also in view, one sees the unusual designs that Morrie has started to build. Like his second PacMan guitar, or the mandolin from a tennis racket. Then there's the GuitOrgan, an expensive instrument that appears to be an electric guitar but has the workings of an organ built into the back. Morrie didn't build this one, but can most certainly play it in his talented style!
Since 1950, when Morrie started building for others, not only has he presented Chet Atkins with the axe guitar, but also presented Ricky Skaggs with an unusual one! Ricky, who likes to play PacMan, was delighted with the special PacMan guitar that Morrie built. (It's even yellow!) Morrie has repaired guitars for Hank Thompson, who he met years back in Abilene while playing there. (Hank, in fact, has visited the Joneses in their Des Moines home on several occasions and happens to be Betty's favorite recording artist! A large painting of Thompson hangs on their living room wall.)
Morrie Jones has become a favorite for many in Iowa. He is one of the friendliest, most personable and likeable musicians that anyone could ever meet! His talents have been witnessed throughout the country and all over Iowa. Morrie Jones and his GuitOrgan and Somethin' Else, Morrie's band in the 1970's, is still remembered and talked about. Not only for their music, but who could forget Morrie's western shirts? Designed by Morrie, Betty made the shirts -- one of which won a first prize in Missouri!
Morrie's collection of instruments ranges from a miniature violin (1/10 actual size) to another axe guitar that he custom built (and might sell) to a Gene Autry guitar that he received through a trade. The guitar, boasting of Gene Autry's name on it, sold back in the 1930's for $27.50 and included the case, guitar and book. Morrie's is in excellent condition, appears to be brand new and is worth many times over that original price today! Also, among his collection (besides the guitar from Little Jimmie Dickens) are cases such as the ones he custom builds AND a very unusual harmonica! Morrie made the large harmonica by placing five smaller ones into the mouthpiece area, each with a microphone of its own. It's an electric harmonica so requires the use of an amplifier.
Just recently, Morrie and Betty were quite saddened by the death of a longtime friend, Lowell Atkins, and also at the loss of Jethro Burns, Chet's brother-in-law. On their trip in March, they planned to see Chet, Hank, and talk to Buck White, but didn't get to because of plane schedules. They are back in their Des Moines home, following a nice vacation, and once again enjoying life in Iowa. A life that includes many musician friends and many musical instruments as each day brings new business (whether it be instrument repairs, bow re-hairing or custom building) to their lovely Des Moines home.
Midwest Country News, Vol. 4 No. 4
Reprinted with permission from Barbara Hays - Ackley
Thanks to Barb for 20 years of music publishing in the Midwest!
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