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What Do Gators, Guitars & the Grand Ole Opry Have in Common? ROBERT PRESTON Knows

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

 

“If you achieve success, you will get applause.  Enjoy it–but never quite believe it.” ~ Robert Montgomery (1904-1081) 

After I read that quote, I felt like the late American actor, Robert Montgomery, may have been speaking to Robert Preston.  No, not to another late American actor, not that Robert Preston.  I’m talking about Robert Preston the leather worker.  Preston would have taken his advice for sure.   He’s got a good thing going, but he’s as humble as anyone I’ve ever talked to, and even he isn’t quite sure how he’s in the position he’s in sometimes.  Well, like any really great story, the best place to begin is on page one.

Once upon a time, Robert Preston attended a Jake Owen concert in Tallahassee, Florida.  As luck would have it, Preston had the best seats in the house, front and center.  For most people, that would have been as good as it ever gets, and on that particular day, in Preston’s mind, it probably was too.   Life has a funny way of taking the most ordinary moments and turning them into something that expands into something so large, it takes a lot of unrolling to trace it back to that seemingly average point in time.  As I said before, Preston is a humble guy.  He doesn’t forget.  As much as he can, he remembers every link in the chain that took him from Robert Preston, taxidermist to Robert Preston, leather worker to the stars.  He’s a detail person.  I really love detail people.

Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography/Think Country

That day at the Jake Owen show, there was an opening act.  The artist was a guy named Eric Durrance.  Remember that name, Eric Durrance, because he’s a pivotal character.  Without him, there would be no story.   In Preston’s own words, “The guy just hit me, I don’t know why,  maybe the way he sang, and I thought, ‘You know what?  I’m gonna be friends with this guy,’  and sure enough a couple of weeks later we were at a bar and he and his band were playing there.  They took a break and we started talking and it just became a fast friendship.  Come to find out, he co-wrote the Jake Owen song, ‘Eight Second Ride’, that’s why he was opening up for Jake.  It all started out in that moment.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Durrance

That moment being the one when Preston’s mind clicked, the one while he watched Eric Durrance up on stage and just knew this was someone he was destined to be friends with.  He didn’t make any attempt to connect with Durrance after that first show.  It wasn’t until a seemingly random visit to a bar a couple of weeks later that their friendship began.  So, was it random?  Once you hear this entire story, you can decide for yourself.

I mentioned Robert Preston was a taxidermist.  That’s true, he was, for close to 20 years.  He lived in Florida, so it’s not surprising that he specialized in alligators.  He did plenty of life-sized alligators, but there were also many clients who only wanted the heads mounted, leaving Preston with a whole lot of alligator hide left over to tan for leather.  Preston said, “I’d, have all this gator hide and wonder what I was gonna do with it.”  Not owning a sewing machine at the time, there was not much he could do.  “Hand sewing gator hide is tough,” Preston told me.   That gator hide may have been sitting around for a while just gathering dust, but finally, it was going to find its purpose.

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

By now, Robert Preston and Eric Durrance had been hanging out for a while and Christmas time rolled around.  Preston thought it would be cool to make his friend a gift, so he turned to all that alligator hide and made Durrance a guitar strap with his last name on it.  “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, so I had his name embroidered on it because gator hide, you can’t really do much with it.  You have to inlay everything because it’s not very workable.  So, I had his name embroidered, then I inlaid it into the gator hide and I gave it to him and he loved it, but after looking at it a few times, I thought, ‘You know, I really don’t like it.’  His last name is ‘Durrance’ and it’s really long and I just didn’t like it, so I said to him, ‘I’m gonna make you another strap, only this time I’m gonna bring you in on it.  I wanna know what you want.’  He was like, ‘Oh, man, you don’t have to do that,’ but I wanted to.

Photo courtesy of Eric Durrance

Durrance decided he wanted his new guitar strap to have the initials of his band, Tobacco Rd Band, on it.  “I made a brown, gator hide guitar strap with TRB on it and it, gave it to him and he loved it, and it was ten times better than the first one I gave him.  He inspired me, I guess you could say.  I’m just a small town guy from Tallahassee and I never thought anything about it.  I just thought I did something for a buddy of mine, but then he ended up taking it to Nashville.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Durrance

Every year, thousands of hopeful people come to Music City believing with a lot of hard work and determination, they’ll catch a lucky break.  It isn’t every day that someone has lady luck on their side via someone else traveling to Nashville.  Let’s let Robert Preston continue this tale.  “So, Eric Durrance went to Nashville where he was recording his song, ‘That’s Country’ with Colt Ford.  That song was a smash for him, it’s done really well.  While he was there, I got a text from him that said, ‘Hey man, I got a guy who just saw the guitar strap and he just loves it and he wants to order three of them.  He’s gonna call you in a minute.  His name’s Chase Rice.’  I’m just sitting on my couch eating dinner, thinking, ‘Okay.  I’ve never heard of Chase Rice before.’  The reason is it was just when Chase Rice was getting out there.  Then, sure enough, about ten minutes later, I’m on the phone with Chase Rice and he goes, ‘Man, I love this strap.  It’s perfect.  It’s beautiful.  I want three of ’em with my logo on ’em, but I don’t have my logo yet, so we’re gonna have to wait on that, but first, I want you to do a strap for a buddy of mine.’  I asked him who his buddy was and he said, ‘Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line.’  It was insane.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

If Robert Preston was cruising along enjoying the scenery in the right lane, he was about to reach the point where he’d slide on over to the fast lane and hit the gas.  Preston continued, “It was crazy because it was about six months after ‘Cruise’ came out.  It was a ginormous song.  The funny thing about this was, I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Brian probably three months before this at a concert where Eric opened up for him.  It was a Corey Smith concert, but Florida Georgia Line were the middle act.  We were all hangin’ out backstage and I didn’t even know who Florida Georgia Line were at the time.  You know, it’s crazy how fast things go.  So, Chase says, ‘There’s three things the strap’s gotta have on it.  His initials, it’s gotta have Florida on it and it’s gotta be really badass.’  I’m like, ‘Okay, well, I think I can come up with something.’  So, I sat down immediately and it was dark, but I’m on cloud nine trying to figure something out.  I went through five or six designs and sent them to him and he finally nailed the one he wanted.  It was a Christmas present for him, so I was trying to hustle to get it done.  I got it done, sent it to Chase and then I didn’t hear from him.  I didn’t hear from anybody.”

I think we’ve all gone through this.  We’ve sent someone something and were eagerly waiting for their response, then nothing happens.  We immediately think the worst, but before complete panic set in, Preston rationalized that the strap was a Christmas present and he’d hear something after the holiday.  Christmas Day came and went and still nothing.  Now, he was a little nervous.  Was Rice that unhappy with the guitar strap that he just didn’t bother giving it to Kelley at all?  Finally, three days after Christmas, Brian Kelley posted a picture of his new guitar strap on Twitter.  Preston recalled,  “It exploded.  My doors blew open.  I mean, Facebook started getting really busy, the comments, everything.  It was crazy. ”  Preston texted Chase Rice to say he’d seen that Kelley received the strap, to which Rice responded that Kelley loved it.  “I was good,” said Preston.

Photo courtesy of TheBoot.com

 

“I didn’t know where else it would go.  I just did a guitar strap for a major country act, so I thought that was it, my 15 minutes of fame were over, you know, I’d never do another one,” Preston recounted.  Oh, how wrong he was.  He continued, “For some reason, in the beginning, every time something new happened, Eric Durrance was involved and I just don’t know why.  I was at an acoustic show with Eric and another buddy of mine, and we were just leaving the gig and my phone rings.  I look down and it’s a 615 number.  I’m like, ‘I don’t know anyone in Nashville.  Why do I have a 615 number calling me?'”

“So, I answered my phone and the voice on the other end says, ‘Hello, is this Robert?’ I said it was.  He said, ‘This is Brian Kelley from Florida Georgia Line.’  My first thought was, ‘How did you get my phone number?’ I was like, ‘Hey man, what’s goin’ on?’  He goes, ‘Hey dude, I just wanted to call and tell you I love this strap.  It’s the best strap I’ve ever worn.  It fits me like a glove and playing baseball for FSU, and knowin’ what an old, worn glove feels like, it fits me just like that.’  That was the best compliment that I could ever get.  He went out of his way to call me and thank me and tell me how much he loved it.  I told him, ‘Yeah man, thank you.  I really appreciate that.  That means everything to me.’   Then he goes, ‘But, I want you to make me another one,” and I’m like, ‘Um, okay, but I just made you one.’   Then he tells me that this one would be for a friend of his.  ‘I want you to make one for a buddy of mine for a gift.’  ‘Who’s your buddy?’  ‘Jake Owen.’  That was a full-circle moment, and I always thought it would be Eric Durrance who would be the one to get one for Jake, but it went to the next level.”  Indeed it did.

Just as always, Preston went right to work on Jake Owen’s guitar strap.  He came up with some ideas, sketched them out and sent them over to Kelley.  The designs were approved, Preston made the strap, shipped it out and then everything went silent.  Again.  Only this time it was a much longer period of silence.  Preston remembers feeling a little uneasy about it.  “You know, as an artist, you just want to see your work.  Where did it go?  I swear it took six, maybe eight months before Jake got that strap because they were on different sides of the country all the time.  I messaged Brian a few times. ‘Has he got that strap?’  ‘Man, we keep missin’ each other and it’s hard to get on the same venue and all that.’  I’m like, ‘Well, I hope he gets it someday.’  Well, finally he got it and he posted some pictures of it online and it just blew the doors open again.  You know, that’s the thing, it just kept going, and every time I’d think it was over I would be sitting somewhere and it would just happen again.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

By this point in our conversation, Preston had dropped a few names.  He’d begun to develop a little following, but as fascinating as things were already and I was so interested in hearing more, I had to stop and interrupt him.  There was something I had detected and I needed to mention it.  “You seem like a pretty humble guy who was amazed each time something big happened for you,”  His reply confirmed my thoughts.  “It still does to this day.  To have 20 different straps on the Grand Ole Opry, like when Mark Wills messaged me out of the blue about doing a strap for him for his one-year anniversary for being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, I was blown away.  I mean, I’ve got my head in the sand here.  I’ve got so much work.  Just little stuff for custom orders for people that are fans of mine, and I really don’t think about the guitar straps a lot because I’ve got so much other little stuff going on.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Yes, little stuff would be a distraction, and I’ve seen photos of his “little stuff”.  It’s really gorgeous and certainly worth a look, but let’s face it, those guitar straps are what started it all, and they’re what put him on the map.  I told him that too.  He wholeheartedly agreed with me, and he said the map must be fairly large, as evidenced by a conversation he had with a lead sales representative from Guitar Center a while back.  According to Preston, this sales rep who has dealings with many major artists, asked him a question that took him aback.  “He asked me, ‘So, how does it feel to be famous for the famous?’  I said, ‘Huh?’  ‘Man, I hear about you all the time.’  So, that was very humbling to hear that they’re talking about me and I’m just over here, just little old me, and you never know who’s gonna be the next one to reach out.  I try to push my name as much as I can, but  I’ve found that it’s word of mouth more than anything.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

It sure seems that way.  Artist to artist, whether they’re buying each other guitar straps as gifts or just seeing someone else wearing one.  This business has built itself very organically and nobody is more incredulous than Robert Preston himself, but if you think this is where it peaks, think again.

As I researched Robert Preston’s work prior to speaking with him, I looked at photos of  many of the guitar straps he has online.  It was mind-boggling how many country stars he’s made these straps for.  I was trying to remember them off the top of my head and realized there was no way I could ever list all of them, but just to name a few, there was Jimmie Allen, Lorrie Morgan, Jesse Keith Whitley and Michael Ray.  These are just major players.  I found photos of straps that he made for side musicians I know, not to mention all of the great pieces he creates for non-celebrities.  He makes other things as well.  Handbags, wallets, jewelry and so much more.  While talking about some of these other guitar straps he’s made, we returned to the topic of big artists.  Preston told me he’s made so many straps for so many people, he didn’t know who to talk about most.  That’s where doing my homework ahead of time paid off.  I gave him a little help.

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

In addition to writing for Think Country, I also have a little “side job”.  I serve as an Administrator for the Riley Green Fans group on Facebook.  The group was started by Green’s former guitar player, Ben Miller just to show his appreciation for all Green had done for him.  Miller approached me to ask if I’d help out by being one of the page’s Administrators, and I agreed.  While going through Preston’s photos, I saw a photo of Riley Green wearing one of the guitar straps Preston made.  Naturally, I saved a copy of the photo and posted it on the Riley Green Fans Facebook page.  I mentioned I would be interviewing the person who made the guitar strap seen in the photo.  I thought it was only fitting that maybe we should talk about that one.  So we did.

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Preston elaborated, “I have a friend named Norm Brewer that has been friends with Riley since he was still playing small gigs and struggling.  I actually met Norm when he messaged me out of the blue to do a strap for Justin Moore.  I guess Norm’s a ‘mover and a shaker’ kind of  a guy.  He’s in the scene, I guess you could say.  He’s friends with all these guys and he reached out to me to do a strap for Riley Green, and this was right before Riley’s breakout song came out.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure I don’t mind.  I’ll do something for him,’ and Norm said, ‘I’ll pay for it and whatever.’  I told Norm I’d kind of need to meet with Riley to know what he wants.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

“So, there was a show in West Palm Beach, Florida, I think it was, and Riley was playing it.  I was messaging with his tour manager to meet up with him and it was weird.  We got into the venue and I’m with my oldest son and we’re sittin’ there waitin’, kinda talkin’ and textin’ back and forth, trying to figure it out.  See, I’m used to goin’ back and sittin’ down and talkin’ it out and everything.  It kinda caught me off guard because it was Riley and his tour manager that came out.  They came up right outside the gate where the buses were and it was a very impromptu kind of a thing.  I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen, you know.  So, I walked up and Riley was really nice, he’s a really nice guy, and we talked for about 15 minutes and went over the guitar strap and everything.  He gave us tickets for really good seats and after I went back home and just started workin’ on it.  It was kind of a go-between, and that happens a lot with these artists.  There’s always a go-between, because they’re so busy with everything else, but I was working with his tour manager and Norm to get the design right.  I couldn’t speak directly to Riley after the meeting, which is frustrating sometimes, but we got the design nailed down and everything. ”

“Norm was actually wanting it by a certain day because Riley was playing in Vegas, and Norm was going out there to see him.  So, there’s a picture with Riley and a guy, and that’s Norm giving him the strap.  See, here’s the thing, that’s one of the criteria for me to do a strap for a major artist, I have to have a picture of me with the artist and my work, because it sells itself.  I haven’t been able to get that picture yet with Riley with everything that’s been going on.  There were a couple of times where I almost got it and then I wouldn’t be able to go to the gig or whatever.  It’s gonna happen, but he’s been wearin’ it proud and it’s one of those things, as soon as I can get a picture of someone wearing one of my straps, I post a picture of it, and here comes another order, here comes another three orders.  It just snowballs, and the pictures are what made me keep going through all of this.”

Photo courtesy of Norm Brewer

I couldn’t help but mention that getting that photo with Riley Green as soon as possible would be beneficial for Preston’s business, as Green is riding quite a wave of success right now.  Preston certainly agreed and also mentioned how much he hopes live music returns soon.  Not in a restricted format, but just as we knew it before.  Almost listlessly, Preston sighed and said, “It’s all we really do for fun is go to concerts.  It’s work, work, work and do concerts.  So, it’s kind of what we do to blow off steam.”  I can relate to the live music withdrawal.  I think there are an army of us that can.  Hopefully it won’t be much longer before we can get back to the full concert experience.

While perusing all of the the stunning photos of Preston’s work, I realized how much work he really does do for the general population, not just big stars.  I asked him what the process was for the average person looking to purchase something from him.  Let’s say they were interested in a custom guitar strap, what do they do to get the ball rolling?

Preston explained how it works.  ” They can simply message me on Facebook or Instagram (links below).  Say they have an idea of what they want, or if they don’t, I can kind of take them through the process of how I come up with an idea and it’s really simple.  You message me, kinda tell me about yourself and I kind of play with it from there.  That’s kind of what sets me apart from a lot of other guitar strap makers.  I’ve had people say, numerous times, when they go to look at my stuff, ‘You do such beautiful work, but I don’t really know what to do because it’s so all over the place, there are so many different looks,’ and all that.  I said, ‘It’s because I don’t have a look.  I don’t have a style.’   I just go off of what the artist wants.  You know, a lot of people, even some of my biggest competitors, they have a look, and you can see exactly who made that strap by lookin’ at it because they have certain things that they do repetitively.  I try to just make it personal to the utmost point that I can, and I give ’em three sketches to choose from.  They can take those sketches and kind of tweak it a little bit, and there’s some people you just can’t please them, but I give ’em three and they pick the one they like most and I kind of just go from there.  It never ends up the same with the sketch.  I always end up adding something extra, but once it’s done I send them a picture and they pay the balance and I ship it out.  It’s been a pretty good, smooth process so far.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

There’s always that one though.  By that, I mean the one bad apple in the bunch.  Everything’s running as it should and then you get blindsided.  Not even the guy making cool stuff from gator hide is immune to a rare customer problem.  I’ll let Preston tell you this story.

“I’ve only had one bad experience.  I’m not gonna mention any names, but I poured my heart and soul into a gator hide guitar strap.  I met him and delivered it.  They told him he had to pay for it.  So, I got there and there were a bunch of other big name artists there and I kind of had to say,  ‘You know man, you haven’t paid for it yet.’  Everybody there, their jaws just dropped, like, ‘Huh?  You just told him he had to pay for it?’  So, it didn’t go as planned.  We were supposed to hang out and have a good time, which is the way it should have went, but the strap was beautiful.  It’s been on national TV many, many times.  It got passed around the whole group and everybody was ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over it and then it finally stopped at the biggest guy in the whole bunch, and I could kinda see what was happening.  So, I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll take that back now,’ and one of the other artists said, ‘What, is it not finished yet?’  ‘No, he hasn’t paid me for it yet,’ and everybody just stopped.  I was in a tough predicament because all these guys were over 6’2″ and I’m not.”  

Look, I don’t care who you are.  Everyone deserves to be paid for the work they perform.  In Preston’s case, a great deal of thought and time, not to mention labor, went into creating that guitar strap.  He should have been paid at the time agreed upon.  I was glad to learn there was more to the story.

Preston continued, “I think after I made that uncomfortable for everybody involved, they said they had a meet and greet to go to and they would be back.  They said he would message me when he was done with the meet and greet and I’m thinkin’, ‘Yeah, sure you will.  I’m sure this is gonna go nowhere,’ but he did.  I met with one of the other tour managers and gave him the strap, got paid for it and I never thought he would actually wear it, but he did.  So, it ended well, but I didn’t have any fun, let’s put it that way.”

As Preston laughed a little after telling that story, I expressed my relief that he did get paid, but what an awkward situation that must have been.  Can you imagine?  Hopefully it sent a message.  Everyone is just trying to make a living and earn a decent day’s pay.  Preston put in the work and he was there to collect his paycheck.  Nobody is exempt from paying their bills.

On to happier times.  In sharp contrast to his worst experience, Preston shared his favorite memory from doing guitar straps. “I was eating dinner at favorite local restaurant and I look at my phone and there’s a message from Daryle Singletary.   I was like, ‘Whoa!’  Here’s the thing.  I was a big, huge fan of Daryle Singletary in the 90’s.  I was a kid and I always thought he was much older.  You grow up listening to these guys and you think they’re way above you.  Come to find out he was only three years older than me.  So, when he messaged me, I was starstruck.  I’m not gonna lie, I was so excited I almost couldn’t finish my food, but he messaged me and said, ‘Hey man, I’ve been wanting to get with you to do a strap for me with my logo on it, a real country and western kind of feel and all of that.’  For him to reach out, that was life changing for me.  I really dove in after that one and really started putting my best foot forward. So, to have him wearing my strap, it was the best strap that he had, and it’s the one that’s got all the pictures nowadays, the Grand Ole Opry and things like that.  It was surreal.  I’d never expect anything like that in my life.  More than that, and people that are close to me know this, Daryle also introduced me to the love of my life. “

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Let’s just stop here for a second.  I’m a sucker for a good love story.  I enjoy hearing how people meet their significant others.  Not everyone had Daryle Singletary as a matchmaker, so I settled down a little more in my chair to hear this part.  Preston went on to describe that special day when he and Kim met.  “So, Kim is a long-time friend of Daryle’s.  We met at a Daryle Singletary show.  I was hanging out with Daryle after the show.  The whole band was there because it was in Central Georgia and after the show, the fiddle player, Andy Varner, and I, we were gonna go hang out at a local bar before they hit the road.  It ended up Andy was friends with Kim as well, so we all went hangin’ out and everything.  We didn’t really talk much, we were just kinda there.  Then when we went back to the bus, because they had to leave at midnight, Daryle came off the bus, we were all kind of in a group, and the girl, Kim, she’s like, ‘What do you think about this guy here?’  Daryle was like, ‘Robert? He’s a pretty good guy.’  You could kinda tell he looked at me like… (laughs) I’m like, ‘Huh?’ (laughing) He gave me the thumbs up and, you know, changed my life, really.  It’s been amazing ever since.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

I was happy for them.  That’s a really fun story and I said to him, “Isn’t it funny how this all started because you went to a Jake Owen show and happened to be in the front row watching the opening act?”  He responded, and in my mind, I could almost imagine him over the phone shaking his head, still in disbelief as he said these words, “I pinch myself all the time.  How did I ever get here?  The thing is, every time I do a strap, I try and do it better than the last one, so I feel like I’m constantly learning new things and pushing the envelope a little bit farther so the next one is even better.  I think people don’t know what they’re gonna get.  People don’t know what to expect from me, so it’s been an interesting ride.  I never know who could be next.”  My next question was, “Do you have someone in mind?  If your phone rang and they were on the other end it would blow your mind?”  He sure did.

George Strait.  (Laughing)  I was actually thinking about that earlier.  That’s funny.  Of all the people, I’m a huge George Strait fan.  I mean, there’s no bigger name for me, even Garth Brooks.  I mean, I love Garth Brooks’ music, but George Strait is the ‘King’, and if he called, I think I’d be so intimidated, what would I do?  I mean, what do you do for the biggest name in country music?  It would blow me away.  It really would.  He’s semi-retired now, I guess, but it could always still happen.  I will tell you this, next to Daryle’s strap, probably my most cherished strap of all-time was Joe Diffie‘s.  We were actually supposed to be hangin’ out in Panama City right before he passed away and we didn’t go because of everything.  It was just Kim was really nervous about it, so we decided not to go.  Looking back, I really wish we would have went.  I would have much rather taken a chance to see him one more time, you know, but I did get the opportunity, and it was very special to me, that I’ll never forget.  I was his guest the last time he played the Grand Ole Opry.  I did Mark Wills’ strap for him, and I was delivering Mark’s strap the night after Joe was playing the Grand Ole Opry, so I got like, a two-for-one kind of a deal.  Joe and his wife Tara invited me to come see him play, and we brought the strap and everything.  It was really, really nice, but gee, you look back, and God, I wish I had spent more time.  We hung out a little bit, but he had to go to a gig the next night, so we kinda hung out for a minute, I said thank you for inviting me and they left.  Tara and I are good friends and I actually did the strap for her as a gift to him, so that was the most special strap I think I’ll ever do.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

By this point, something was whirling around in my head so I brought it up.  “Did it ever occur to you that some of your work might end up in the Country Music Hall of Fame?”  Preston replied, “That’s a dream.  I’ll be honest with you.  When I first started this, my dream was to have a guitar strap on the Grand Ole Opry.  That was my ultimate.  ‘I would love to see a strap on the Grand Ole Opry!’  I lost a lot of nights’ sleep over that, hoping and praying, and then Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line was the first one to wear it on the Grand Ole Opry.  Then to have 20 on the Opry now is amazing in itself.  I still count!  Even to this day!  (Laughs)  I’m constantly looking to see who’s next.  It would be an honor to have either Daryle’s or Joe’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame.  I think they both need to be there, they definitely deserve it.  So, if they ever want to do a display of their stuff, those would be amazing pieces.  I know there are a lot of guitar straps in there of a lot of different leather workers work, and to be in there, that’s the pinnacle, there’s nothing else, you can’t go higher.  So, that would be amazing.”

Photo courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame

I mentioned Preston having a friendship with Joe Diffie’s wife Tara.  It would seem to me if the Country Music Hall of Fame ever wanted to do an exhibit of Diffie’s memorabilia, she might think of including that guitar strap, not just because they know one another, but because it really is a beautiful and meaningful piece of work.  Preston said, “Tara or Holly (Singleton).  After Daryle passed away, I was kinda like, ‘What’s gonna happen with the strap?’  I don’t want to see it sittin’ in a guitar case somewhere.  It deserves to be seen along with his boots and hat and the famous picture from his funeral, the way they had it staged, something like that, you know?  I was always thinkin’, that’s okay, maybe it will be passed down to his children.  Well, I ended up being asked to do, from Holly, to do two straps for his children.  So, I got to do matching guitar straps, just like their daddy’s, for them for their birthday last year.  So, that was special.  I actually made ’em matching belt buckles with his logo on them.  So, yeah, they’re set up for sure.  That would be a very special moment, and I would definitely be there for the unveiling of that.”

Preston continued on, “I used to go to Nashville twice a month during the heyday.  Seemed like I was always in Nashville to promote.  You gotta be in the scene, you do.  I tell people, you don’t have to move to Nashville, you just gotta be there.  I’ve just put everything I’ve got into it and it’s paid off.  I’m blessed.  I could work seven days a week and still not be caught up.  So, whatever I’m doin’, I’m gonna keep doin’ it.  That a good quote from Brian Kelley.  When he gave me that phone call way back when, he said, ‘Man, whatever you’re doin’, keep doin’ it ’cause people are watchin’.”  Yes, there’s no doubt about that.  People are definitely watching.

“Man, whatever you’re doin’, keep doin’ it ’cause people are watchin’.”  ~ Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line to Robert Preston

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Then there was Luke Combs.  You know, the guy with all the number ones?  Preston had dealings with him when he was still a relative unknown to most of the world.  “I was on the phone with Luke Combs at one point, but that didn’t work out.  We had a glitch or something, then “Hurricane” hit and it was really hard to get a hold of him, then he blew up.  I’ve got a funny story about him.  When I delivered the strap to Justin Moore, Luke Combs opened up for Justin.  Actually, it was a Kid Rock show and Justin was the undercard.  I kinda stood next to the line for Luke’s meet and greet and we got to the end of the line, and I walked up to Luke and I said, ‘Hey man, I see you got that new strap,’ and Luke went nuts!  He went, ‘Hey, this is the guy that made my strap,’ to his guitar player, and I was like, ‘No man, that wasn’t me.’  His guitar player was lookin’ at me like, ‘No it ain’t.  It ain’t you.’  (Laughing)  I always thought we’d come back together and do a strap, but he’s got a great artist doin’ ’em.”

Photo courtesy of Think Country/Westney Photography

I asked if it was an artist from California who does incredible leather work.  Preston acknowledged that it was.  “Yeah.  She’s very, very good.  She’s on my heels, I’ll tell you that much.  She’s done some great work for a lot of big name artists.  Luke Combs, obviously, and Ashley McBryde.”  Her work is really gorgeous, but as Preston had said earlier in our interview, some artists have signature techniques that are instantly recognizable, and in my opinion, her’s would be one I think I could pick out.  I wondered if a guitar strap’s artist wasn’t easy to identify immediately, was there a good chance it might be a Robert Preston?  I posed the question.  “You wouldn’t believe how many people message me from concerts and ask, ‘Did you do so-and-so’s strap?’  I actually had someone do that for Riley Green.  I’m like, ‘Yeah, I sure did.’  I guess it’s the thing now, you know.  The bigger artists are getting their straps done, and it’s kind of a rite-of-passage to wear a custom strap.  So, it’s a competition between guitar strap makers to see who’s gonna come up with the next big strap, you know?”

As long as it’s a friendly competition, I think that’s a great thing.  Generally, as large as the music business seems from the outside, it’s a small world on the inside.  Everybody tends to know everybody, or is somehow connected to someone else.  Preston agreed, it’s all good.  “Oh, yeah, I have the utmost respect for the other guitar strap makers.  Adam Fisher is another one.  He does amazing work, and he’s got that classic country look and real heavy saddle tooling and things like that.  I can do it all, I just don’t have the clientele that wants that, so it’s really cool to have people looking for a guitar strap on social media and asking for recommendations, and your name pops up and you see the group that you’re in, and it’s a very respectable group.  It’s funny.  I talk to them and their fans are the same as mine.  I used to chase people to get their work, and things like that because I just wanted to be that guy.  I wanted to be the next one to have that person wearing my strap.”

Robert Preston doesn’t need to run after anyone anymore.  They come to him.  His reputation speaks for itself.  Word of mouth is working for him.  Sometimes things don’t go his way but that’s okay.  There’s always a reason and Preston knows there’s room for everyone in his business.  “It’s so nice to see, I’ve lost a couple straps to my competition, and I see the person wearing ’em and I’m like, ‘You know what?  That’s great, because that person did a better job than I would because it’s more their style.’  I could have done something and it would have been really cool, but it wouldn’t have been that cool.  That’s what they specialize in and I’m happy for’em.  Just like with Luke Combs, that’s his style.  You look at those straps and they fit him to a T.  She’s got that whole pinup girl kinda thing goin’ on.  It really works.  I don’t really do pinup girl things and that kinda look.  We can all share the wealth, I guess you can say.”

What’s Preston working on currently?  Anyone we know?

“I’m actually working on one for Shenandoah‘s lead guitar player, Jamie Michael, so that’s gonna be a cool strap comin’ up, but I guess with the COVID thing, it’s not really at the forefront.  Nobody’s touring so it’s kinda like, eh, they’re really not thinkin’ about how they look anymore.  It’s puttin’ a cramp in my style, but hopefully things get back to normal here soon and I can get the next big one comin’.  I prefer the older artists because I feel like I relate more.  I’m just an old country boy, so it kinda works better, and they play the Grand Ole Opry a lot.  I love going to the Grand Ole Opry every chance I get.  I’m waiting for Travis Denning to play there again.  He told me he would let me know when he played so I could go be his guest.  That’ll be really cool.”

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Photo courtesy of Robert Preston

Can you tell that Robert Preston is a big fan of the Opry?  I loved his passion for it, so I asked him who he thought should be the next member of the Grand Ole Opry.  He hesitated a little before saying, “That’s a tough question.  It seems like they’re going out of order.”  I understood what he meant.  Artists that have been around for years and seem to have earned their spot are being left behind, while newer artists, barely out of the gate are being inducted.  A lot of country music fans question that system.  “Yeah.  Gene Watson was just inducted.  We went from Kelsea Ballerini to Gene Watson.  It’s very strange how they’re picking ’em, but I always thought Jake Owen would be in the Grand Ole Opry.  I think he should be, but he doesn’t go that route, he’s chosen a different path, I guess.  There’s so many.  I’d like to see either Riley Green or Travis Denning as members of the Grand Ole Opry.  Riley, I think, would be the first one because he’s got such a country deal, but apparently that’s not what they go off of.”

Mainstream popularity has a lot to do with it these days.  What sells to a younger demographic and keeping up with what’s fresh is what the Opry appears to look at when choosing new members.  Obviously, they’re still going back to classic artists such as Gene Watson, but they’re definitely trying to maintain a youthful audience by inducting artists that those fans identify with.  Preston went on, “I think Riley Green, of all the artists I can think of off the top of my head, I think he should probably be the next one.  Travis Denning just celebrated his first number one with ‘After A Few’, so he’s on his way.  It was funny, when I did Riley’s strap, Norm, the guy I did it for, he’s actually friends with Travis Denning too, so he’s the one that wanted me to do Travis’s strap.  So, come to find out Travis and Riley are really good friends.  They’re buddies.  So, Travis is right behind him.  He’ll even tell you, he’s right on his heels, so it’s pretty cool to watch them grow together, because it’s that reachin’ back for the guy to give him a hand, that’s what Riley’s doing.  It was pretty cool to see how it’s still a family.  It’s all a family.  We’re all in the country music family, so it’s cool to see the big guy helpin’ the little guy move up.”

As for the state of country music, and the music industry in general, what are Preston’s thoughts?  “It’s got to be hard for the artists.  I hope things get back to the way they were, but I think it’s gonna be next year before we get back to havin’ a full blown concert, so thank God these guys make a lot of money so they can afford to be off the road.”  The big artists, yes, but what about the small artists?  Preston agreed it was tough for them, but he did see some positives.  “You know, I found the ones that are just tryin’ to make it with live streams, their fan bases are so loyal, they’re doin’ Pay Pal and puttin’ those kinda links up.  They make good money.  Virtual tip jars, they didn’t do well before COVID.  Superfans here and there would maybe drop something in,  Hopefully it gets over quick and we can all get back to enjoying life and singin’ along.”

Amen Robert Preston.  There’s nothing better than enjoying life and singin’ along.

Robert Preston can be contacted at:

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/prestonleather1/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/rprestonleather1/

*Featured image courtesy of Robert Preston

 

 

 

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Patti McClintic
I’m Patti. Rock music is my first love. My daughter, who was a country fan as a teenager, dragged me in when I'd drive her to school and we would have radio wars in the car. I'd have on my rock station and she would switch it to the country station. Guess who always won? As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so I did. patti@thinkcountrymusic.com First it was all modern country, but my parents were big Merle Haggard fans. I went along with them to a Merle Haggard/Phil Vassar show at the local fair and that was it. I was hooked on the Hag. Since that day, I've become a fan of bluegrass and I continue to explore all facets of the country genre. I guess you could say, I'm all in. When I'm not up to my neck in any kind of music, I enjoy genealogy, history, my granddaughters and my addiction, SongPop. I guess it could be worse, right? I'm a Buffalo, New York girl living in a Nashville, Tennessee world, and I'm livin' the dream with my husband, my dog and my two cats.
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