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Folks You Should Know: Audey Ratliff

March 5th, 2012 12:47 pm by Staff Report

Folks You Should Know: Audey Ratliff

Audey Ratliff offers three standard mandolins, the R-5, A-Style and Country Boy, plus any customization a musician desires.

By Pam Cox

CHURCH HILL, Tenn. - Most folks around here might not be familiar with the name Audey Ratliff but, in the world of bluegrass musicians, his name is synonymous with the highest quality, hand-crafted mandolins in the business.

Billy Panda is a Nashville studio musician and owner of a Ratliff R-5 mandolin.

"Heads turn and jaws drop every time I take my mandolin out of the case," Panda said of Ratliff’s work. "The construction and playability are absolutely first rate. The intonation is superb…the fret work is perfect…and the inlay and binding are as elegant and well-executed as any I’ve seen."

For the last 30 years, Ratliff has been making some of the world’s finest mandolins in a small workshop near Church Hill. Ratliff grew up around music, with his father, Tom, playing the Dobro.

Around age 14, Ratliff decided he wanted to play the mandolin. Since he is left-handed, the Ratliffs couldn’t just walk into a store a buy a mandolin. Ratliff had a man who lived near Rugby, Tenn., make him a left-handed mandolin. That "peaked" his interest in learning to build musical instruments. He ordered a book on how to make mandolins and, according to Ratliff, "it’s been a downhill slide ever since." At the time, Ratliff was in his early 20s and, by 1982, he was making mandolins full-time.

Ratliff offers three standard mandolins, the R-5, A-Style and Country Boy, plus any customization a musician desires. The Country Boy is the newest, lower line that offers the same quality mandolin but without all the "fancy embellishments."

All of his mandolins are handmade to the old world standards of craftsmanship. The back, sides and neck use curly Maple that Ratliff can get within a 100 miles of this area. The soundboard, however, is most often made from Western Spruce. But, it can’t be just any piece of Western Spruce. The best sound quality requires the wood to be "quartered out," instead of a straight cut through the wood.

His mandolins feature a hand-engraved tailpiece, mother-of-pearl inlay, Ebony fret board and bridge and the highest quality keys. In the last 30 years, Ratliff has made 1,050 mandolins that have been sold around the world. He has dealers in Switzerland, Germany and England.

Demand for Ratliff’s mandolins stays backed up.

"If I’m not behind, I’m unemployed," Ratliff laughed. When asked how he knows that he has achieved the "right combination" of wood and materials to make an exceptional mandolin, he laughed again and said, "That’s a black art. In making a musical instrument, you never know what you have actually achieved until that instrument has been played for six months or so."

"There are so many variables. Each mandolin has 15 different pieces of wood, each with different characteristics. You just make every mandolin to your standard of excellence," he said.

Owners of Ratliff mandolins often stop by the shop for a photo with the maker. "It’s not uncommon for folks who own my mandolins to stop by the shop for a photo," he said. "Then you sit down and play with them for a while, and they hit a chord that just knocks you back and, you think to yourself, Holy Cow, did I really make that... ."

Aside from making mandolins, Ratliff makes the occasional banjo, guitar and dulcimer. Ratliff is an extremely talented musician in his own right and plays mandolin and sings with the Tennessee Skyliners. He additionally offers mandolin and guitar lessons on Monday and Tuesday evenings at his shop in Church Hill.

Ratliff is a real personable fella and, even though he stays busy building mandolins, performing and giving lessons, he’ll stop what he’s doing and chat with musicians and friends who stop by. For more information on Ratliff Mandolins, visit the website at or call Ratliff at 423-357-4381 to discuss having him make you a mandolin.

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