Allen Sudduth has returned to the remains of his home six times. He already knows he lost everything — including all his musical instruments, collected over a 50-year span of playing and performing — after the Tubbs Fire ripped through his neighborhood of Coffey Park. But he can’t stay away.
“[My wife] Kris and I snuck in the day after the fire. It was still hot, but we had to see,” Sudduth explains. “It takes a while to say goodbye.”
Sudduth, a guitarist, songwriter and recording engineer, is one of many musicians in the artist-centric community of Santa Rosa who lost prized instruments in the fire. “My favorite guitar was a Telecaster that I put together 10 years ago with the help of a lot of really great people. It was just right,” Sudduth says. “Everything I had -- amps and effects and guitars -- was just the way I wanted it.”
While the loss is hard to process, Sudduth has seen firsthand the goodwill in his musical community, and the ways Sonoma County musicians step up during tragedy to help one of their own.
A Life of Music
Sudduth was born just five miles away from Coffey Park, at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, in 1952. He began playing in bands at the age of 13 in the 1960s, with his first gigs held at school dances and the local Boys' Club.
In the early '70s, while playing with the local rock band Synergy, Sudduth learned about record production — a path that deepened when Sudduth landed a position at a studio in San Francisco.
“I loved recording, so I applied for a job at Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco, which was one of the top places in the world at that point,” Sudduth says. “I wanted to produce, and I wanted to learn enough engineering to be able to communicate with a real engineer. But it became my career.”
Sudduth went on to become an in-demand studio engineer at Wally Heider, and at Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, working with local luminaries like John Fogerty and Tom Waits. He spent so much time in recording studios that he met his wife in one: for the recording of a “live” Roy Rogers set, Sudduth set up a bar and invited 40 people to watch the performance. One of the people who showed up became his wife. (The music bug even caught his kids: his 31-year-old daughter Laura is a singer/actress in New York, and his son Ben, 28, is a musician and analyst for Pandora.)
As the years went on and the studio business declined, Sudduth pursued less engineering work and started his own business. Today, he still does some studio work, but "I’ve just done sessions that I wanted to do," he says, "and I'm much happier that way,” Sudduth says.
At his house in Coffey Park, where he lived for 35 years, he also kept a set of vintage drums and a collection of reel-to-reel tapes from past sessions, including all of Synergy's master recordings.
"There was even a great live tape, but none of that exists anymore," Sudduth says.
Grabbing One Guitar
When the fire hit his home in the early morning of Oct. 9, Sudduth and his wife jumped in a car and drove south to a sister’s house. Before he ran out the door, Sudduth grabbed one guitar: his dad’s 1939 Martin D-28. Sudduth grew up playing the guitar, and says it’s irreplaceable.
"Over the years I had told my wife, 'If anything ever happens, I'm grabbing the Martin,'" Sudduth says. "When it came time to go, we grabbed just a few things and I just automatically grabbed that. It couldn't be replaced because of its sentimentality."
Beyond sentimental value, guitars like Sudduth's Martin regularly sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Sudduth kept a file of serial numbers and pertinent receipts for all his vintage instruments, but that, too, burned in the fire. Luckily, the luthiers and other repair shops he'd hired kept meticulous records, so he’s been able to pull together an accurate list of his collection for the insurance company.
Before he began filling out his claim, he spoke to a cousin who had to deal with insurance after losing everything in a fire a few years ago, and who gave Sudduth the perfect advice.
“He said, ‘The claim is not closed until you say it is,’” Sudduth says. "Meaning I shouldn't feel pressured to do anything, by any timeline or anything like that."
Back to Playing Loud
Today, weeks after the fire, Sudduth already has five new guitars — even before full reimbursement from his insurance company — thanks to the North Bay music community.
The help began when Sonoma County fixture Jim Corbett, a.k.a. "Mr. Music," asked Sudduth to play with him at an upcoming Peacetown benefit concert in Sebastopol. The group, called the SoCoAllStars, included many beloved local musicians like Sudduth, Corbett, Frank Hayhurst of Zone Music, multi-instrumentalist Alan Watt and others.
Before the show on Oct. 21, Sudduth spent the day sifting through the ashes at his burned home. After a quick shower, Sudduth arrived at the venue, Ives Park, a few minutes before he was due to play. His friends told him not to worry about bringing any equipment, that it would be waiting for him on stage.
"Somebody handed me a guitar, it was plugged into a great amp, and I turned to my friend and I said, 'I'm gonna play f-cking loud," Sudduth says.
The band played a blistering set to a crowd of around 1,500 people. For 45 minutes, Sudduth was able to forget all of his worries. Afterward, Hayhurst walked him off stage and took him aside.
"He took off this cool old guitar that he'd shown me backstage, and he said, 'Here, this is yours,'" Sudduth says.
After the show, Corbett wrote Sudduth a check for $500 to buy a new amplifier. He was also given new guitars from the manager at Prairie Sun Studios and the owner of the Last Record Store.
"We're in a temporary home right now," Sudduth says, "so my biggest problem as far as guitars goes is finding where I'm gonna stash these while I'm living somewhere else."
And though he pines for some of what he lost, Sudduth says the experience has taught him that “everything is replaceable.”
“It really hurts," Sudduth says, "but it's kind of liberating in a way."
Hear Sudduth play guitar on a song he co-wrote with Doug Jayne, "A Place Called Home":
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.