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Dave Matthews' Ovation Guitar

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:15 am

The Ovation Celebrity is often referred to as the “shiny black guitar” because of how it gleams.

For some, the glistening finish of a particular Shiny Black might engender a psychological glow as well. The guitar, after all, had been Dave Matthews’ mainline instrument during the period of 1991-92, when he was penning the foundational songs that would help launch the Dave Matthews Band into the stratosphere of international fame.

But there is something else about this guitar that imbues it with a radiance that only can be felt. And that has to do with how and why Shiny Black will have come to be on the auction block from May 15 to June 5.

Bidders worldwide are expected to vie for the chance to own the musical icon. The auction website for the guitar that now features an autograph and short message from Matthews is www. charitybuzz.com.

Charitybuzz specializes in handling items that have been donated by celebrities to benefit charities. The proceeds from the auction of the guitar will benefit the Music Resource Center in Charlottesville.

The story of how this came about begins in late 1992 in the Hardware Store Restaurant on the Downtown Mall. At the time, singer/songwriter Blue O’Connell was working in the Book Cellar Bookstore located in the basement of the popular eatery.

O’Connell and Matthews became acquainted in the late 1980s, when they were trying out songs during open-mike nights at the Eastern Standard Restaurant. They would run into each other while performing at fundraisers and other musical events around town, and they became friends.

“One day I was done with work and was walking through the Hardware Store Restaurant and Dave was there having lunch,” O’Connell said recently. “He asked me if I’d like to join him, and I said sure.

“We started talking about music, and this was the time when his band was getting a lot of notice and people were standing in long lines outside Trax and in Richmond to hear them. During the conversation, I mentioned I wanted to get an Ovation guitar because they’re durable for travel.

“I also was starting to play gigs in larger rooms, and it’s a good guitar to plug in. Dave said he had one for sale, and we could look at it after lunch.”

The guitar was at Ron Lessard’s music store on Fourth Street. He is the father of DMB bass player Stefan Lessard.

“When we walked into the music store, I see this black Ovation guitar that is in beautiful condition,” O’Connell recalled. “I heard Dave say to Ron, ‘Oh, just give it to her for $200.’

“I knew it was worth more than that, so it was a really good deal. Afterward, Dave walked me home to where I lived on Altamont Circle, carrying the guitar all the way for me.

“When I started playing it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to take me to a new place.’ I thought that because my classical guitar had nylon strings and I couldn’t do certain things on it that I would be able to do on the Ovation with steel strings.”

Shiny Black was O’Connell’s main guitar for more than a decade. But when she became a certified music practitioner she started playing her classical guitar more, and would use the Ovation only when she played in large rooms.

“I wasn’t playing the Ovation very much, and when Dave became so well known I was scared to travel with it,” O’Connell said. “I knew it was really worth something because it was the guitar he probably used to create the foundation of his music.

“I thought, ‘Here’s such a beautiful guitar and such a meaningful guitar, to just let it sit and not be played is not good.’ I thought a lot about what I would do with it.

“When I started thinking about selling it, I thought, ‘Well, how would I sell it?’ I thought about eBay or whatever and that I could probably get a fair amount of money for it.

“But what would I do with the money? I could pay some bills, save for my future, blah, blah, blah. It didn’t do anything for me.”

As O’Connell ruminated about what to do with the guitar, she thought back to when she was growing up in Chicago and found a second home at the nearby parks and recreation center. She practically lived there, taking classes in art, drama, music and dance.

At the center, O’Connell was encouraged to be creative, and that led to her digging out her mother’s old Harmony guitar. She was soon singing, strumming and writing songs.

“I was thinking about all this when it just came to me,” O’Connell said. “I could give the guitar to the Music Resource Center and they could sell it and use the money to help the kids.

“I know the Dave Matthews Band had a lot to do with starting the center, so I thought that would be a full-circle thing. And I remembered I was about those kids’ age when I started playing the guitar, and how much it meant to me to find a way to express myself and connect with others.

“What clinched it for me was an early conversation I had with Sibley Johns, who is the director of the center. She said, ‘I can promise you that your gift will change lives.’ Right then I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s the feeling I was looking for.”

The Music Resource Center is the brainchild of actor, composer and musician John Hornsby. With the help of the Dave Matthews Band, he and other local musicians opened the doors on June 17, 1995.

The center is an after-school music education program for students in grades 6-12. Activities offered include music lessons, audio engineering, songwriting, voice coaching, dance and help with performance skills. More than 600 students frequent the center each year.

“We use music as a carrot to bring young people in and off the street at a time when statistics indicate adolescents get in the most trouble,” said Johns, a musician with a master’s degree in counselor education from the University of Virginia.

“Our goal is to get young people engaged in something they enjoy doing, and music appeals to teenagers. About 60 percent of the students here are free or reduced lunch eligible, so we know they don’t have the resources necessary to buy instruments, take lessons or be in a recording studio working with professional musicians, which is a pretty awesome experience.

“Every day I see lives being transformed through the opportunities here. I know when I was their age, my guitar and songwriting was an outlet for me, and I know that’s true for Blue as well.”

The famous guitar came along at a time when it can do the most good for the center. Johns said the recent years of economic strife have greatly reduced financial support for the arts at the federal, state and local level.

“For example, in better times we used to get about $25,000 a year from the Virginia Commission for the Arts,” Johns said. “Now we get about $7,000.

“So we will use the money from the auctioning of the guitar to help fill the hole that has been created by dwindling support during the last three or four years. I was just blown away by Blue’s generosity and obvious caring and concern that young people here have the same opportunities she once had.

“I’ve known and admired Blue for many years and have thought she was an incredibly kind and thoughtful person. But I was flabbergasted by her thoughtfulness and generosity in hoping that perhaps this donation could help raise the next generation of young musicians.”

Aside from being a great sounding guitar, the Ovation was a reminder for O’Connell of the friendship she shares with Matthews. A glance at it could spark a memory like the long ago summer when Matthews’ sister, Jane, lived next door and was kind enough to let O’Connell do her laundry there.

“Who would have known that all those years ago when Dave was working at Miller’s and playing down at Eastern Standard that he would end up being heard all around the world,” O’Connell said, smiling. “And that guitar was with him when he started.

“Whenever I would see Dave after he became famous he would always ask me how my music was going. I remember once saying, ‘Are you kidding. I just saw you on national television and you want to know about me? I’m playing down at the nursing home.’

“Another time I was sitting in Greenberry’s with a friend and Dave came up and gave me a hug and kiss. My friend was like, ‘Oh my God, you know him?’ He never seemed to want to be treated like royalty or something like that.

“He has always presented himself to me as like the neighbor next door. I try to see him that way, too.”

The shiny black guitar is steep with meaning and significance in the world of music. But perhaps what is most precious about it for O’Connell has nothing to do with song or sound.

“I remember I bought the guitar at the end of 1992, because my father had recently passed away and I was given some money,” O’Connell said. “I thought about what I could do with the money to create a legacy for my father.

“So I used it to buy the guitar and record my own album which I titled ‘Lines of Change.’ I dedicated it to my father.”

Parting with her beloved guitar hasn’t caused O’Connell a bit of sadness. Quite the opposite.

“There’s a movie called ‘Happy’ in which they interview people from around the world,” O’Connell said. “Some of the people lived in pretty poor conditions, but they judged happiness based on how they were able to contribute and connect with other people.

“I’m not wealthy, but I had something that is valuable and could possibly help a lot of people. If it does, that would make me very happy.

“And maybe one day Dave and I could sing a duet. I would really like that.”

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