2/8/01 Now playing all six strings: Portland's Scott Conley.

photo / roger duncan

The quiet man
Songwriter and guitar-maker Scott Conley exerts a subtle influence on Portland's music scene

On any given day, it's entirely possible David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, acclaimed bluegrass frontman Del McCoury and Jason Phelps of the Portland bluegrass band Jerks of Grass are all playing guitars Scott Conley either made or repaired for them. Unfortunately, except for Phelps, none of these musicians ever heard of Conley.

That's typical of the Conley approach. For several years, he's slowly been making a name for himself in local music circles as a bass player with honky-tonkers Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, a singer/songwriter/ guitarist with bluegrass band the Muddy Marsh Ramblers and a crafter and repairer of fine guitars.

But Conley, a 30-year-old who grew up in South Portland, is not one to crow about his accomplishments. "Some people can toot their own horn 'til the cows come home," he said. "I'm not very good at that."

Nevertheless, four Conley originals recently appeared on "The Record," Gigafone Records' first compilation of live, local music (for which this reporter volunteered to help write liner notes), and the Ramblers routinely perform his songs when the band plays bars and bluegrass festivals.

So, though the famous musicians whose instruments he worked on during a year-long apprenticeship in a Michigan guitar shop don't know the man who once fingered their refurbished frets, someday they just may cover one of his songs.

Though he grew up in a non-musical family, Conley's fascination with both music and musical instruments manifested itself early on. "I got my first guitar when I was, like, 8 and I had to take it apart," he said. With few records around the house -- his childhood collection consisted of a Johnny Cash record, a double live recording of Elvis in Hawaii, a KISS album and some Patsy Cline records his mother had -- Conley would play along with commercials on TV.

He'd pick simple melodies on a single string, and when that string broke, he'd move on to another one. Eventually, over the course of six or seven years, all six strings snapped, but he never replaced them. "I didn't know you could," he recalled.

When he was 15, Conley got an electric guitar and started taking lessons with a rock/pop guitarist in Lewiston. Though his teacher knew hundreds of songs, Conley was more interested in learning chords so he could write his own.

Meanwhile, Conley worked in his family's auto body shop, but his fascination with the inner workings of instruments never translated into a love for that type of tinkering.

Then one day he got one of his basses back after a friend had done some work on it. "When I got home, I kind of took the thing apart to see what he did and it was pretty funky looking. I said, 'I could do better than that. Why did I just give this guy 60 bucks to do this work?' It kind of started from there," he said.

With financial help from his parents, Conley, 24 at the time, became one of a handful of students studying under esteemed guitar technician Bryan Galloup in Big Rapids, Mich. Galloup had taken over the shop from his own mentor, eminent guitar tech Dan Erlewine -- a "world-renowned repair guy," Conley said, who set up B.B. King's Lucille and Albert Collins' guitars, among others.

Conley recalled talking with Erlewine on the phone when another call came in on Erlewine's line. When Erlewine came back, he said "'You know, you won't believe me, but Clapton's on the other line, I gotta let you go,'" Conley recalled. He was incredulous, but it was true. Erlewine "wasn't the kind of guy to B.S. or drop names," he said.

When his two-month intensive with Galloup was over, Conley came back to South Portland and the auto body shop, but soon returned to Big Rapids as Galloup's apprentice, helping him teach other students, repair guitars and work on prototype models -- a work schedule that began early in the morning and often lasted well into the night.

After a year with Galloup, Conley came back again to the body shop, but this time he built a small guitar shop inside it to pursue his real passion.

In addition to his knowledge of instrument repair, Conley also came home with a newfound appreciation for bluegrass music he'd found by attending a bluegrass festival in Michigan two days after Bill Monroe died.

Back in Maine, he and Phelps, a longtime friend, learned to play bluegrass together, starting with a scratchy record by Old and In the Way. They began playing the music publicly at the Bramhall Pub on Congress Street, where Conley's playing eventually caught the ear of Scott Link, aka Diesel Doug, who subsequently asked him to join the Truckers. Phelps went on to help start the Jerks of Grass, Conley later joined the Ramblers as well, and both are now back at the Bramhall for regular weekly gigs with their respective bands.

As his music career and business have blossomed, Conley has continued to write songs, as many as one a day. Taking a beat-up guitar down from a wall in his shop (now expanded to include the entire area formerly occupied by the auto body business), he plays whatever comes across his mind. "Some days it's a bluegrass song, and some days it's not. You can't put a finger on it," he said. "Yesterday I wrote a song about some guy on a bicycle cutting me off on State Street. No one will probably ever hear it, but that's OK."

Conley often finds inspiration in songs others have written. "Somebody'd write a song and it would tell a certain story and I'd say, 'All right, I'm gonna make myself take a piece of this song -- not the melody, not the chords, not the words, but just the idea -- and write another story off of this. What would be the sequel, or what would have happened if this happened?'" he said.

Other times, as in the case of the aforementioned bicycle song, his inspiration comes from people-watching and personal experience. "Dead Man Talking," on the Gigafone collection, was sparked by a scene he witnessed a year or so ago at the Commercial Street Pub in Portland. "I was sitting at this table and I was watching this guy at the bar completely shit-faced," he said. "He looked like he was about to die -- [he had] this gray pallor to his skin -- and I just sat there and watched him order one drink after another and thought, 'What's his story? What would he say if he could speak eloquently?'"

"I've got hell hounds on my trail," he sings on that song in a weary voice reminiscent of Portland-cum-Austin singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves. "Lost in this world with no one to save me from myself."

Happy with his work with the Ramblers, Conley said he has no intention of pursuing a full-time solo career, as Cleaves has done. There may be a Muddy Marsh Ramblers record in the near future and, farther down the road, maybe even a solo album, but for now, he's content writing mostly for himself and hearing the occasional compliment. "I never thought anyone would hear any of these songs," he said. "It's always a treat when somebody says, 'I like that.' It's like, 'Gee, thanks.'"