Share This Episode
Our American Stories Lee Habeeb Logo

The Poor Farmer Who Crafted Guitars to Serve God

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 17, 2023 3:01 am

The Poor Farmer Who Crafted Guitars to Serve God

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

On-Demand Podcasts NEW!

This broadcaster has 2154 podcast archives available on-demand.

Broadcaster's Links

Keep up-to-date with this broadcaster on social media and their website.

July 17, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Ed Stilley was plowing his field when he had a heart attack—and a vision. God told him that if he made and gave away musical instruments to children, he'd see his family would be taken care of. There was only one problem....Ed had never made a musical instrument in his life. 

Support the show (

See for privacy information.

Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

It's summer at Starbucks, where the brightest drinks and the funnest flavors are all yours for the sipping.

So whether you need to beat the heat, beat the crowds, or just take a beat, refreshing favorites are a tap away with the Starbucks app. For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio, in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG, so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition.

Listen to find strength in community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we return to our American stories. Up next, a story you won't forget from deep in the Ozarks about the time-honored tradition of guitar making and a man who made it his mission, not for monetary gain or any sort of fame.

Let's get into the story. Some people really resonate with Ed's work and some don't get it. It's interesting when I show this to other musicians, these instruments, some musicians just embrace it and think it's the neatest thing they've ever seen in their whole life. It's hard to get it out of their hands once they've got it. Other musicians play it and think, well this is not a very good guitar. Why are you so interested in this? They just don't get it.

They just flat out don't get it. So my name is Kelly Mulholland and this is my wife Donna. Hi. And this Ed's Stilly thing has been very much something we did together.

And it kind of is parallel with our own relationship. I think we met 26 years ago and soon became a folk band called Still on the Hill after that. And actually we are talking from our Ozark Instrument Museum.

That's right. Right now we're surrounded by instruments made by people from the Ozarks. But primarily one whole wall is nothing but instruments made by a man named Ed Stilly. She's the one that discovered Ed Stilly. Yeah, a friend of mine was giving me a massage and I was over at her house and on her mantle there was Ed Stilly guitar and I was like, what is that? And she said, oh I used to live in Hogscald Holler next to this man named Ed Stilly that made just hundreds of these strange instruments. And I said, oh my gosh Kelly has got to meet him.

And so she took us. We got escorted to Ed's place down in Hogscald Holler, which is just all by itself. It's a very isolated community in the Ozarks. And it's just like you walk back in time.

It looks like it's 1930. This shacks and all these, you know, just basically what you might think of as a hillbilly existence. And they do have electricity now, but only recently have they added those sorts of things. They still were drinking water that was just coming down the hill in a creek into the, called the Hogscalds.

The Hogscald is a limestone formation right by the house where they would scald hogs in the little limestone pools. That's kind of a whole nother story, but when we get there, there are dozens and dozens of instruments being underway and they're all just fantastic folk art. And we're thinking this can't be, you know, it's just too good to be true. And so we developed a relationship with Ed. He's very, very welcoming to us right away.

And we start visiting regularly and we just go over there and see what he was doing. But ironically, Ed does not consider his instrument making art. It is just his mission to tell about God. This was a very devotional mission for him.

And the reason for it all, we found out very early when we asked him a very simple question, we say, Ed, how did you get doing this in the first place? And his answer was kind of unexpected. He said, well, I was plowing my field like I always do with my mule and he must have had a heart attack and there was nobody there to help him. And so he was laying on the ground and wondering what his fate would be. And at this moment he had a vision that he was a tortoise, a giant tortoise swimming in a raging river. These are his words, I'll never forget.

His five children were little tortoises hanging onto the shell. And he knew that he had to get the family to the other side of this raging river. And if he did, the Lord was going to tell him what his purpose was and what he was to do with the rest of his life. And so when he got to the other side of the river, what he heard was kind of unexpected.

He was told to make musical instruments and give them to children. And a vision passed before my eyes. Was I dead or alive? I prayed, Lord, take me to the other side. I became a great tortoise swimming like hell, my five little children clinging to my shell. And from a raging river deep and wide, that day I heard the Lord confide. Shed your vanity, shed your pride, and I'll see you make it to the other side. And I knew that moment my fate was sealed when the Lord told me he'd make me a deal. I'd deliver my children to that shore. He'd show me what these hands were for, build guitars in his name.

That's what I'll do until my dying day. So we love that story that he told us about the tortoise and the river. And we turned that into a song that we eventually called Take Me to the Other Side. And we played it for countless people over the years.

And it's just become an anchor in our world. Back to having to make musical instruments. See, Ed had never made a musical instrument.

Ed had made barns and chicken coops and fences and gardens, you know, everything you need to do in the Ozarks to keep the family fed. But Ed had never made a musical instrument. He had an old guitar. He had a Sears and Roebuck, no, a Silver Tongue guitar that he received way back in like 1940. And he used that to preach. So he was a remedial guitar player and an exceptionally good preacher-singer. Knew every single hymn and all 30 verses of every single hymn.

Living encyclopedia of hymns. So he's told to make musical instruments and has no idea how to do it. And he also has no resources to ask. He doesn't know anybody that's going to tell him how to do it. And he doesn't have any books that show him how to do it. So he just figures it out one instrument at a time. And that's what I think is most interesting about Ed's story is that he basically reinvented the wheel. And what a story you're hearing. Ed has a heart attack laying on the ground and has this vision.

And Americans have visions and we talk about them and we're not embarrassed to. God told him to make musical instruments and give them to children. And then we hear this beautiful song about that experience. Shed your vanity.

Shed your pride. Take me to the other side. He had never made a guitar, but God told him to. And he just figured it out and in the end reinvented the instrument. When we come back, more of Ed Stilley's story here on Our American Stories. Experience the power and design of the all-new, all-electric 2023 Nissan Ariya.

This is the total package. Premium finishes, a lush interior, unrivaled tech and unbelievable torque. All powered by an electric heart. Nissan has been pushing the boundaries of what's possible for 90 years. Loaded with new electric and semi-autonomous technologies, the Ariya is Nissan's most powerful EV ever. When you're ready to unlock the thrill of driving, do it in luxury. Do it in the all-new, all-electric Nissan Ariya and see for yourself why the Ariya is the EV for people who love to drive. Visit to learn more about the all-new 2023 Nissan Ariya. Available features, limited availability.

Contact your dealer for local inventory information. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Four tickets for just $80 all in can only mean one thing. The Sun is out, outdoor venues are open, and Summer is live. Get four tickets for $80 all in and choose from over 2,500 of this summer's highest shows like 50 Cent, Avenged Sevenfold, Counting Crows, Pentatonix, Pepe Aguilar, and more. The best summer ever starts with tickets to all your favorite artists. Don't miss out. Four tickets for just $80 all in, on sale July 19th through August 1st.

Head to slash summers live. And we're back with our American stories and with Kelly and Donna Mulholland. They're telling the story of Ed Stilli, a poor farmer in the Ozarks, who they befriended after learning about his unique guitars, guitars he made for a rather divine purpose.

Let's get back to the story. You know, there's a great tradition in guitar making and people learn from each other, but Ed just started from scratch. And so his first instruments were really strange and crude and the fret placement had nothing to do with the proper fret placement. So they couldn't really play music. They were just experiments, but he just kept trying. And eventually he learned how to put the frets in kind of the right place and he'd use his old silver tone as a model.

So he eventually figured out how to make a playable instrument. We're sitting here looking at this array of Ed Stilli instruments while we're talking and the shapes are all over the map. There's one here that's rectangular like a box. There's this giant butterfly shaped one. There's one that's oval. They're all different shapes. There's a real good reason for that. He was not trying to be clever or funny or whimsical in his shapes, even though they look like that.

They look kind of cartoonish. But the fact is we found out right away that the shape is really a result of his weird process, his unorthodox process that he used to build. He started with bending the sides. So he had this old piece of wood with pegs in it and he would boil the wood that was going to be the sides. In a hog trough overnight.

Yep. They're all a crazy quilt of Ozark wood. There was somebody over at the sawmill that was giving him runoffs. They call it cutoffs or slab wood. It's kind of the waste product from a sawmill. It's the last piece cut.

He'd say, their trash is my treasure. And once it became supple, he said he'd just bend them until they were about to pop and, you know, he could start to hear a crack and he just bend it randomly as far as the wood would allow. And then once it was dry in the morning, he'd take it off the pegboard and it would kind of stay bent. And then whatever that shape was, that was going to be the guitar. So he would piece these little curved pieces together and then he'd build a top to fit. Opposite of real guitar making. But before he put the top on, he would start this strange process of adding metallic components. And the metallic objects were basically to compensate. He didn't have any power tools when he first started, so it was impossible for him to make the wood thin.

A real modern guitar, well not me, any guitar, is made very, very thin and lightweight and that's why it works. His were the opposite. It was frustrating because they didn't ring and sing out. You know, the instruments were so heavy. They were like almost a quarter inch thick wood. So he started turning to metallic objects. Something that you could flick with your finger and it would make a ringing sound. Pot lids and saw blades and springs and stuff. Glass jars, chainsaw sprockets, tin cans, wind chimes. You know, I'm sure I'm forgetting some other objects.

We've had all these, by the way, we took them all and had them x-rayed. It's really fascinating to look at it and kind of figure out why he did what he did. And you said, Ed, why did he put all this in there? He said, to better speak the voice of the Lord. That was his pat answer.

You can hardly argue with that. But it was interesting, he never heard the word reverb. He did not know what reverb was. And in creating reverb, like in amplifiers and stuff, they have plate reverb and spring reverb. And Ed was creating reverb in his instruments just by osmosis without even knowing that that's what he was doing. He accidentally reinvented spring reverb and plate reverb without knowing about either technology or the word. So if you give a strum on one of his instruments, you can just really hear the reverb ringing in it. It's amazing. It's a very magical thing.

And he used, the reason they're this red color is he used barn paint, barn red, barn paint because it's very, very cheap. And then a really sweet thing is like every instrument in recent times has true faith, true light, have faith in God carved on the top. And for years, Ed wanted to get a router so that he could just route the letters and stuff. And he's prayed and prayed and prayed. And finally his family just said, they just broke down and they bought him a router. And he said, my prayers have been answered.

And it's so cute. But they all say that on them, true faith, true light, have faith in God. Really. That's all Ed was interested in. He had one purpose in doing this, and that is for you to read those words. That was no small thing to Ed. He wanted people to see that.

And this probably a good time to mention his connection to the family Bible. It was really interesting because we had been out in his workshop and there was a Bible sitting out there that had been, it had been weathered, some rain had fallen on it and some mice had gotten to it and stuff. And I thought I wanted that as just kind of archival and maybe use it as a art project or something.

I just thought that would be really cool. So I asked Eliza, I said, Eliza, can we have this, this old Bible? And she was embarrassed that it'd been weathered and not treated well.

So she said, no, not that one. And so she took me into the extra bedroom and there was a bureau, a dresser drawer with six drawers in it. And she opened the drawers up and every drawer was filled with Bibles that he had read. He would wear out a Bible in a couple of years and there would be his writing all over the margins.

He would write in every little underlying things and he would totally wear it out within two years. And they were all in little plastic sacks and everything. And so she gave us one that is just one of our treasures. Yeah. I love to show people this Bible because it's astounding.

It looks like it's being, it's composting in real time. I mean, it's just literally falling apart, but if you flip through the Tinder pages, there's no section of it untouched. And then you realize that that's a three year use. And then he just went on to the next one. You think that's the Bible, but it's not. It's one of many Bibles.

But the really profound part of that is that's really key to understanding why it is such a time capsule, a living time capsule. Because when he was a young man, he decided that his devotion was really his priority and that he would, for the rest of his life, never read anything except the Bible. That's all he needed. He didn't feel deprived. So he never read a book, a magazine, a newspaper, never listened to the radio, never listened to the television. It was only the Bible. And for that reason, the fact that he was in an isolated little community without any technology, he didn't basically notice that the 20th century happened.

He lived his life the way he lived when he was a young man for the rest of his life. And it's just astounding. It's almost as if you have found a pure time capsule where you can actually visit early America in a way that I can't imagine finding.

So it's very valuable in that way. Oh, you know, our relationship, it's been so wonderful over the years. You know, I know y'all can't tell on the radio, but I have very long hair and some people might see me and think I'm a hippie. So you would think such a traditional person might have a judgment about that.

But there was never a judgment about that at all. From the very beginning, we showed up on the doorstep and he just they both welcomed us in with open arms. Yeah. I think we were some of the few people outside of their immediate family in their immediate circle, kind of more of the worldly people that were part of their life. And that felt like a huge, huge honor. And when Ed was crossing over, he was in hospice, they wanted us to come and sing to him.

And we spent days at the hospice. You know, the one thing I think that really is important about what Ed did is artistically, back to where we started is the very idea that he didn't even know this was art. He wasn't craving recognition.

That was not part of what he needed. Per Ed, it was 100% devotional. That was the motivation.

That's the intent there. So but artistically, you know, it is art, you know, whether he likes it or not. And, you know, and that's what's interesting to me is that very, very rarely can you find an artist that does not suffer from the burden of their own ego. You can't just decide to be an Ed Stilly.

You know, no matter how hard you try, you can't be Ed Stilly. When Don and I make art, we're constantly self analyzing and second guessing ourselves. Is anybody going to like this? Is this going to be good for our concert?

Is this good? You know, we're constantly doing that to ourselves. And that's our ego. And we can't seem to escape it.

I don't think anybody can. But Ed did. And we've been listening to Kelly and Donna Mulholland tell the story of their friend Ed Stilly. You can go to still on the if you add instruments and some neat x rays of them. And a special thanks to Katrina Heine for collecting this story and Monty Montgomery for audio pre and post production. He did it with leftover wood from a local sawmill.

Their trash is my treasure on every guitar. True faith. True light. Have faith in God.

Ed Stilly's story here on Our American Stories. There are some things in life you just can't trust. Like free couch on the side of the road. You never know. Or the sushi rolls from your local gas station. You never know. Or when your kid says they don't need the bathroom before the trip. But there are some things in life you can trust. Like the HP Smart Tank Printer with up to two years of ink included and outstanding print quality.

You know, you can rely on the HP Smart Tank Printer from HP, America's most trusted printer brand. Four tickets for just $80 all in can only mean one thing. The sun is out, outdoor venues are open and summer is live. Get four tickets for $80 all in and choose from over 2500 of this summer's highest shows like 50 Cent, Avenged Sevenfold, Counting Crows, Fentatonix, Pepe Aguilar and more. The best summer ever starts with tickets to all your favorite artists. Don't miss out. Four tickets for just $80 all in on sale July 19th through August 1st. That's a slash summers live. This July premium entertainments on us Xfinity Flex unlocks access to shows, movies and music so you can always try something new for free each week like singing hits with Stingray karaoke, exploring shows from abroad with Acorn TV, sampling everything available on max like season three of the righteous gemstones, falling in love with pics from hallmark movies now and turning up with I heart radio's hit nation playlist. Discover new free content across the best streaming apps every week of the year. No strings attached. Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-17 04:26:43 / 2023-07-17 04:35:56 / 9

Get The Truth Mobile App and Listen to your Favorite Station Anytime