Every year since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service selects one fir tree to become the Christmas tree for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. In 2022, the lucky specimen was a seventy-eight-foot red spruce from Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina—the fourth from the state to receive the honor. But this particular tree, nicknamed Ruby for its scientific name Picea rubens, was slated for an arguably greater destiny.
Before Ruby went on a seventeen-stop tour of her home state and was adorned with lights and ornaments made by North Carolinians, the majestic “People’s Tree” had to be harvested and milled. In the process, the “butt log”—the branchless base of Ruby’s trunk—was removed and set aside for local artisans.
One recipient was Pisgah Banjos, a sustainable, Asheville-based company that is using the tree to make instruments for the IBMA Foundation’s Arnold Shultz Fund and the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which honors the instrument that originated in West Africa. Both organizations support people of color in the bluegrass and old-time music communities through grants and programming.
Another was Ken Jones, who started building guitars seventeen years ago when he couldn’t afford a nice instrument of his own. He honed his skills at the noted Weaverville, North Carolina, shop Dream Guitars before opening his own operation, Mountain Song Guitars, where he mostly focuses on repairs but builds a handful of guitars from scratch each year.
Greg Phillips of the North Carolina Forest Service had seen Jones’s work and reached out. “He didn’t even know if red spruce was a viable wood for making instruments,” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘It’s actually my very favorite species of spruce to use for the tops of the guitars.’”
Jones is currently hard at work building a guitar from Ruby, who supplied the pieces for the instrument top and internal bracing. The center of the trunk contained just the right grain pattern for a guitar. “There’s the sweet spot in the middle of the tree,” he says.
When completed, the guitar will be given to the forest service, potentially for use in a fundraiser to benefit their programming. But Ruby’s musical legacy won’t end there. “I’ve got enough wood for probably five more guitars,” he says.