Years ago, the legendary steel guitar player Don Helms said to me, “Hoss, if you start liking that hand-tooled leather stuff, all of a sudden everything you see needs it.” Helms went on to say, “I went to see the Statue of Liberty with Hank Williams when we played New York City one time. We were standing there looking at it and I told Hank, ‘Wouldn’t it be pretty if the whole base of that thing was covered in leather and hand-tooled like a western saddle?’”
Well, if it is ever decided that such a thing is to happen, I know exactly who should be called. His name is Terry Lankford. To begin with, when it comes to the fine art of tooling leather, there’s no better than Terry. He’s a true master. I’ve been taking ideas to him since the early 1990s. The first thing I remember asking him to do was a hand-tooled binder to go around a legal pad as a gift for Johnny Cash. And, as Don Helms said, beyond that, there was no turning back. Mirrors, doors, a church altar, checkbooks, guitar straps, boot bags, belts, and a hat box are just a few of the items that I’ve called upon Terry to do. The reason I nominate him for the Statue of Liberty job is, he will not back down from anything. For instance, I called the famous Lankford studio one afternoon and asked Terry, “Are you busy?” His answer was, “Not too bad.” I said, “I’ll be right over.” I went to see him, plans were made and a few days later, he was into customizing the entire interior of my bus. When the job was completed, band members, management, a camera crew flanked by journalists, and interior technicians gathered in the bus company’s parking lot to meet Terry and to look upon the beauty of his grand undertaking. A writer asked him, “Mr. Lankford, what do you think?” Being a man of few words that he is, Terry’s reply was, “Never done one before, have now, looks pretty good.”
Terry began tapping on leather when he was fifteen years old. A family friend who as he put it, “Put names of the backs of belts,” took him to Tandy Leather in Nashville and bought him some tools and supplies to get started. Terry was a naturally gifted artist who even at a student level, quickly learned the importance of form and function. He once said to me, “If it’s pretty but it won’t work, what good is it?” Part of his practicality comes from his knowledge as a working cowboy. He lived the life and understands the nuances, and other needs of each individual denomination of the world of rodeo. He creates with that in mind and he applies the same cowboy wisdom to everything he makes, and always with ultra cool style. True cowboys and cowgirls are some of the most highly stylized individuals walking the earth. Whether it’s the way they wear their hats, their scarves, the way they ride, walk, talk, it all comes down to a fiercely unrepentant sense of individualism. That’s Terry Lankford, and it’s a day to day belief system that he lives by. As Festus Hagan on Gunsmoke said, “It’s his code.” And that way of life spills down into all of his creations. Terry’s pieces are a reflection of his soul. The formula is integrity, skill, artistic excellence, individualism, practicality, and beauty. Terry’s pieces, whatever they are, speak for themselves. All of them are one of a kind creations that are useable works of art, which instantly qualify as heirlooms or objects that will no doubt, in time, be displayed in museums to be admired and studied for ages to come.
The magic happens on North Petway Street in Franklin, Tennessee, in Terry’s converted home garage. It’s a wonderful studio in disguise. As you would hope, the place smells of leather, there’s usually a saddle or two in various stages of completion or repair, yet another black and white leather guitar strap or covering like the ones he did for Waylon that’s been ordered by another Waylon fan. You’ll find purses, bridles, and smatterings of dust that’s heard years-worth of tall tales from the road and range, cantankerous philosophies, and country music coming from an invisible radio on a shelf I’ve never seen. The empire is guarded by a damn nice cactus and a shiny silver padlock on the door. Of course, the centerpiece of it all is the oak tree-like presence of Terry Lankford, a bona fide American original, master artist, and one of my dearest friends.
Visit Mr. Lankford at www.lankfordmade.com or call him at 615-573-1566