A special guitar story

Merced man reunites custom guitar with original owner

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 12, 2013 

— Matt Wright will have to let go of his favorite guitar because it's the right thing to do.

Around 1989, the 42-year-old Merced man fell in love with the custom-made guitar when he first saw it at an area pawn shop. Minutes later, he bought it for about $200.

"Little did I know what I was getting into," he said.

More than two decades later he found out a dark, but compelling secret about the guitar. It had been stolen and once belonged to a well-known artist in the Austin, Texas, music scene.

It had been handmade by Ted Newman of Austin for alternative country artist Joe Ely, who has toured with The Clash, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark, among others.

Ely had performed at a concert in San Francisco in 1986 when the guitar and the rest of his gear was stolen, Wright said.

Over the years, Wright did lots of research to try to determine the origins of the distinctive guitar, but he was never able to pin it down. Recently, he turned to social media, including a YouTube video, and managed to trace the guitar to Ely.

"His shoulders dropped," his wife, Dawn Wright, said of when her husband saw a photograph of Ely with the guitar. "He said, 'I gotta give it back.' "

Wright did just that on Tuesday night.

Ely was performing at Slim's Presents in San Francisco and he invited Wright to go see him play. That's when the guitar and its original owner were reunited after 27 years.

"It's the right thing to do," Wright said of giving back the guitar. "It's a neat guitar, but obviously to him, it's more than that. It's too bad that I have to give it up, but it's such a neat story -- I'm glad to be a part of it."

That doesn't mean Wright won't miss it.

"He's loved his guitar for 24 years," his wife said. "This has now come full circle."

Ely's publicist, Lance Cowan, said it's a pretty amazing story. Wright had no legal obligation to return the guitar, he said, that's just part of his character.

"It's a remarkable gesture on Matt's side," said Cowan, who estimated its value at $25,000. "He obviously understands the bond between a musician and his instrument."

Wright, who is an artist himself, initially noticed that the guitar was very unique, especially because it had no markings, it was worn and it had billiard-ball fret markers.

The guitar is one-of-a-kind, Cowan said. Ely, who loves pool, designed it with billiard ball fret markers -- giving it a unique touch -- and other elements to give it a one-of-a-kind look. Many people were interested in buying the guitar from him over the years, Wright said.

"I decided to keep it as part of my collection," he said.

Until the recent developments unfolded.

"They all have a story," he said of his guitars hanging on a wall in his Merced home. "But this one is a little special."

Story with a twist

So special that even its theft takes a twist.

Cowan said from what he understands, the guitar was stolen along with other gear and the tour itinerary. Ely kept receiving calls to his hotel after the theft. The San Francisco police asked him to keep the caller on the line so they could trace the call.

The call was traced to a number in the Police Department. At that point, Cowan said, Ely stopped receiving calls and never got of his equipment back. However, he did receive an apology letter from now U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor of San Francisco at the time, he said

"Ely thought he would never see it again," Cowan said of the guitar.

Strangely enough, things that Ely once owned seemed to be coming back to him, Cowan said. He recently was reunited with a few other belongings, including a fiddle and his very first recording.

"It's almost spooky, but wonderful," Cowan said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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