Mandolin maker: From growing up in Dayton’s ‘projects’ to repairing guitars for music stars

In the late 1960s, bluegrass musician and master luthier David Harvey’s family moved from East Dayton to Parkside Homes. Now, it is mostly ballfields — but at the time, it was a close-knit neighborhood with almost 400 units in 34 buildings on a 63-acres stretch of land north of downtown, near Helena and Keowee streets.

“Parkside Homes was a project put together for war widows and orphans from World War II,” Harvey said recently, speaking over the telephone from his home in Nashville. “I ended up there when I was 11. I remember very well all of my friends going out to play in a big field next to my house.

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“I took my wife and daughter back to show them where I grew up in the project,” he said.

“We pulled in and it was gone. The ballfields are still there but Parkside is nothing but a big green field. The trees were still there. The old basketball court I shot hoops on when I was a kid was still there too, but all the houses were gone.”

When Parkside Homes was still bustling with activity, the Harvey family home on Newark Place was filled with music. His father, Dorsey, was a mandolin player, who performed with bluegrass legends like Red Allen and Frank Wakefield.

“Music was an everyday part of life for me,” Harvey said. “My dad was a great mandolin player. That started my whole interest in bluegrass and the mandolin and it basically gave me two really good careers. Mandolin was something I took for granted. It was a given there was a mandolin in the house.

“There is such a heritage of bluegrass music in the Dayton area and we’d have a lot of different players come to the house,” Harvey continued. “The first time I saw Red and his sons, Greg and Harley, he brought those kids over so he could play with my dad and show his sons off. J.D. Crowe was 16 or 17 years old when he first came to the house. Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys would come and eat dinner with us.”

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Leaving Parkside

Harvey was 17 when he dropped out of Kiser High School and left Parkside Homes to tour and record with Louisville-based Falls City Ramblers. This was the first leg of the long journey that led to his current work as not only a professional mandolin player like his father, but also as a master luthier and head of Research and Development for the mandolin division of the Gibson musical instrument company.

“It was ’74 and the economy was pretty bad,” Harvey said. “We were struggling as a family so I decided to move out of the house and go to work full time with the band so I could help my dad out economically. I was able to do that. It opened my eyes to a lot of other genres of music and it was an opportunity for me to get out there, tour full time and work on my chops.”

After five years and two albums, Harvey left Fall City Ramblers and returned to Ohio. He spent time playing with Rick Fannin and Peter Bradstreet in the Dayton-Yellow Springs Band before relocating to Colorado in the early 1980s. He formed the Reasonable Band, which released two albums and played a mix of western swing and bluegrass in clubs in Colorado Springs.

Harvey, 63, has never stopped performing and recording. He currently plays with his wife and daughter in the David Harvey Music Crew. His other credits include earlier stints with Larry Sparks, Larry Cordle, Claire Lynch and Red’s son Harley Allen, an old pal from Parkside Homes.

A second career

During his early days as a working musician, Harvey was also laying the groundwork for what would become his future job with Gibson. He first began studying instrument building and repair in Colorado and continued to hone his luthier skills when he relocated to Indiana in the mid-1980s.

“I took an official apprenticeship with a gentleman in Indiana when I moved there,” Harvey said. “I started working with a music store in Indiana called About Music, which is actually still in the Indianapolis area. That opened the door for me to be an authorized warranty repair person for all the major manufacturers: Gibson, Martin, Fender, Guild and Taylor. That got my career going as a luthier. I was still a musician with a live-touring schedule so I was actually operating two careers at the same time.”

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At that time, Harvey was playing in the group Wild & Blue with his second wife, Jan, and her sister, Jill Snider. The group released four albums and won the International Band Championship at the Society for the Preservation Bluegrass in America convention in 1994. The next year, the Harveys made the move to Nashville.

“I wanted to keep both of my careers going in music and as a luthier,” he said. “I took a job with National Guitar Repair to do not only outside repair and restoration but also Gibson warranty work. That was my first foray into working for Gibson. I worked with Charlie Derrington for two or three years and then moved over to the Violin Shop, where I worked with Fred Carpenter. I got to know all the fiddle players and all the utility players in this town. I built a reputation and a quality repairman and setup guy in the violin world as well.”

A second home

During that period, Harvey worked on instruments for the Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Andrea Zonn and dozens of Nashville’s top utility players.

“I was working for folks from all the major country acts,” he said. “I kept building my repair and restoration chops with the Violin Shop. Then, I eventually moved over to Gibson because of the benefits. When you start getting a little bit older you start thinking about health insurance and benefits. That looked pretty attractive to me, so I went to work with Gibson.

Harvey recently celebrated 16 years as a master luthier for the company.

“I was working with their repair and restoration side when I first moved to Gibson,” he said. “I moved over to the manufacturing side to head up their original acoustic instruments department. That situation has been very good for me. I moved over in 2010 and now I sign all the mandolins on the Acoustic Engineer Signature Label. I have the great honor of doing that but also the R&D.

“I’ve designed about 30-some odd new models for Gibson that my awesome team brings to fruition,” Harvey said. “We build incredible mandolins, played globally, for the most iconic instrument manufacturer in history, Gibson Brands, Inc.”

That is quite an impressive second chapter for the young fellow who grew up surrounded by mandolins and bluegrass musicians in the projects of Dayton.

“I can’t express how grateful I am and how blessed I was to be in that situation,” Harvey said. “Yeah, it was kind of a rough time. We were living in the project. We didn’t always have all the things we needed — but the things that counted the most, God put it there for me to learn from and to use the rest of my life.

“He has blessed me with two great careers,” Harvey added. “Of course, I was never one to be scared of hard work. God blesses you with talent and gives you the tools, but you have to go out and dig with that shovel.”

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