August 2013
Simple Times

Knives and guitar music ...If you ain’t living for God, you ain’t living.

Mike Naylor playing one of his guitars.  

When Mike Naylor was a youngster, knives were a symbol of manhood.

But his dad wouldn’t let 12-year-old Mike have a knife, fearing he’d cut himself.

Not one to be deterred, Mike crafted a knife from the metal of a sardine can with a handle carefully carved from pine bark, not knowing that small tool, which he still has, was a forecast of things to come.

In his square 12x12-foot workshop adjacent to his two-story, hand-built Sugarland Lake log cabin, Mike has honed steel into knives for the likes of movie and TV stars Tommy Lee Jones and Sam Elliott while also making more utilitarian implements for everybody from south Alabama hog hunters to African guides and outfitters.

But it wasn’t a simple journey. At least not at first.

  The Naylors’ log house built by Mike.

While a talented artisan in making knives, Mike is also an extremely talented guitarist, touring the country with both Mel Tillis’ and Marty Robbins’ bands as well as his own band Southern Sounds of Alabama.

While Mike clearly is naturally musically inclined, he doesn’t solely "play by ear" but is also a trained musician who can read music.

"I can read music, but I just never let it get in the way of my playing," he laughed.

"Mel and I never got really close, but I toured with his band about 4 years," Mike explained.

Mike Naylor displaying a knife he designed especially for hog hunters.  

But Marty Robbins was a different story. Marty gave Mike a special guitar he still treasures. The pair became close friends. So close that, when Marty died from heart disease in late 1982, Mike began to re-examine his own life.

"I wanted to get off the road. I wanted to come back home where people knew me and cared about me. I was coming home to my roots," he explained.

"The lifestyle of the highway is not made for a country boy. Being on the road with a band is too reckless, too involved, too much temptation, too much alcohol. It’s a hard life to follow."

Mike eventually quit both smoking and drinking on the same day.

"I’m still the same old me," Mike said. "I just don’t have some of the habits I used to have.

"I’ve just got back to the simpler, country ways of living. It’s really simple. I’ve learned that if you’re not living for God you’re not living. In a way, I guess you could say I am a different man than I was back then."

Mike’s wife of 23 years, Linda, had always wanted to live in a log home; so about a decade ago, Mike decided to make that happen for the love of his life.

He cut all the timber for the house – mostly hickory – in south Alabama. And from beginning to the finished home took about 3 years.

"I don’t know exactly how many logs it took, but it’s a two story. I used a lift, a tractor and even a boom truck to get those top logs on. I built it to Linda’s specifications."

While the log house has a rustic feel and is filled with antiques, old tools and even a huge antique cook stove, it also features modern amenities like central heat and air.

The workshop was a work in progress growing as the house grew.

"I’m glad I was able to get all that done before my two heart attacks," Mike stated.

Now Mike plays the guitar primarily in church and makes knives whenever somebody has a special request or whenever he gets a new idea.

He primarily uses Damascus hammered steel for the blades and crafts the handles from everything from deer antlers to ivory. The steel presents its own set of problems because it is so hard it can’t be cut with a torch and must be meticulously cut with a variety of grinders.

The knife for Jones was probably one of the most expensive he’s crafted: the blade was of Damascus steel with silver guards, a silver end piece, an ivory handle and had Jones’ name inlaid in gold.

Jones picked up the knife himself on a quick trip through the Birmingham airport.

Elliott’s knife was a more traditional bone-handled Bowie knife which is seen in its sheath on Elliott’s hip during one of his many Western movies.

While Elliott initially sent some of his "associates" to pick up his knife, he and Mike eventually became friends ,now having hunted turkey together in DeKalb County a couple of years ago.

Many of the sheaths for the knives Mike makes are carefully sewn by artisan Richard Davies. Richard was introduced to leather-craft as a young Boy Scout.

He’d grown up on a cattle farm and thought the leather smells were "intoxicating" in the tack room when he traveled to a store near Birmingham with his dad to buy feed.

Now he makes the sheaths from everything from traditional leather to hand-tanned deer, preferring to use vegetable-tanned leathers to help keep the knives they protect from rusting.

While Richard once took a basic leather-crafting class, much of his work comes from the heart as does Mike’s.

"I’ve never taken any kind of class in this," Mike explained. "God has just blessed me with this gift and I work by trial and error. A lot of times I get an idea and just make a knife from that. But many, many, many other times I do custom work. And ‘custom’ covers a lot."

The hilts or the guards that keep your fingers from hitting the blades are machined carefully from brass in the more detailed knives Mike crafts.

"It can be as simple or as elaborate as you want," Mike said.

Holding a knife with a long curved blade, Mike noted it is used by hog hunters who require a blade "that goes all the way through the hog."

Other knives have been made for Native Americans, some for actual use and some for more decorative or ceremonial reasons.

Mike has never really advertised his knife-making, although he’s been featured in magazines, newspaper articles and on TV and radio shows.

"I guess it’s just mainly word-of-mouth," he stated.

"I’ve been blessed to have a good church, a good wife, a good community, a good home." Mike emphasized. "I can play my guitar. I can make knives. I can be content."

You can contact Mike Naylor at 205-237-0907.

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.