Story Jason Browne | Photographs Luisa Porter
Even if you lumped Columbus, Starkville and West Point together as one big city with 20-mile stretches of highway between suburbs, the Golden Triangle still wouldn’t hold up as some kind of one-stop-shop metropolis. You can’t just scoot in from Kosciusko on a day trip to get your sweatpants tapered and buy Gushers communion crackers with the wine in the middle.
But according to Google, the only place for hundreds of miles to offer both guitar and amplifier repair in the same store is Backstage Music in Starkville. Otherwise, you’re driving to Oxford, then Jackson. GT, stand up!
The man we have to thank for this distinction is master tinkerer Tony Foster, one of three owners of Backstage, who jumped on the grenade of not being a rock star so North Mississippi and West Alabama (and some Tennessee) axe men and women can continue to struggle with the opening chords to “Stairway To Heaven.”
Like most teenage musicians, Foster learned to fix his own gear in the ’70s due to a dearth of YouTube DIY videos. He even went as far as calling repairmen in Texas and New Jersey on his corded phone for advice. And those guys, including Ken Fischer of Trainwreck Amps fame, actually gave it to him. They didn’t even make him buy anything.
Where Foster’s story deviates from the norm is that the equipment he worked on continued to operate, emboldening him to crack open even more stuff.
“I always worked on my own equipment before doing a job for a customer. I wouldn’t do something I wasn’t sure about,” says Foster.
Which is very ethical, but also takes a lot of time and trial and error, because there are thousands of things that can break on electric guitars and amps. Foster has fixed them all.
To give you an idea how often these things break, Foster does repair and restoration work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day at Backstage. Thankfully, his partners know how to run a business.
“I stay busy. It’s not often I don’t have something to do,” says Foster.
Mostly it’s the common brands. Marshall amps. Fender guitars and amps. Foster’s done so many, he figures at this point he could rebuild a Fender amp from the ground up in a day. But every now and then he gets a challenge.
“There’s a lawyer in the Jackson area who’s a collector of really obscure amplifiers. Mostly from the ’40s and ’50s. He’ll bring me two or three at a time, and those are some real head-scratchers sometimes.”
Foster even has a few famous clients that send equipment his way from Nashville. Folks like John Jackson, who played guitar for Bob Dylan, Shelby Lynne and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, who shouted Foster out in the liner notes to the band’s “Hernando” album.
But as much as Foster is an electronics repairman, he’s also a consultant. He’s been playing guitar since his teens and continues to do select gigs with his band, the Juke Joint Gypsies. And over the years he’s tried endless combinations of strings and pickups and bridges on his own guitars. So if you want your guitar to sound like Eddie Van Halen’s, he can make that happen.
“I have a pretty good idea what I need to do to a guitar to get as close to the tone that I want to hear. When a customer brings in a guitar and wants to change it, I talk to them about what kind of music they play and what guitar players they want to emulate. And if they have a particular sound in mind, I have a really good idea of how to get it there.”
And don’t worry. Your baby is in good hands when you drop it off.
“Guitars are really personal things. When I work on somebody’s guitar, I really try to work on it like it’s mine. Really show it some love and not cut any corners whatsoever,” says Foster.