Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Background

My long term interest in traditional American music, American history, vintage instruments and acoustic science is sort of the perfect storm – and the process started many years ago.

  1. First, I spent my professional life as a university researcher in acoustics and signal processing (Georgia Tech). It was a fine, satisfying and rewarding career – my greatest visible success was setting the low bit rate speech communication standard first for the US federal government and then for NATO. As part of these activities I received the 2014 IEEE Jack Kilby Medal for Signal Processing. I spent 40 years immersed in the science of sound and DSP.

  2. I came from a expatriate Appalachian family that immigrated to North Florida, before and during the depression, to work in the construction trades. My father, while in High School, had played in an traditional string band. I played the grooves off of “Wabash Cannonball” when I was a kid. 

  3. The other trick I learned as a kid from my resourceful, craftsman family was how to live better than your income by trading skills, searching for good junk, and fixing stuff – the search for good deals was a major and useful form of entertainment which I learned as a kid.

  4. I was educated in Boston (MIT) in the 60s, and acoustic folk revival music was the music of my youth. I bought a Gibson LG-1 in 1962, played and sang “folk music,” and met and married a “folk singer” – who was beautiful, has a great voice and also was a trained biologist who supported me through my graduate education. A killer combination!

  5. After coming to Atlanta to work in 1971, I developed a huge interest in 19th and 20th century American history – I pretty much gave up recreational reading for the study of history for about 20 years. This also included the history of 20th American music. My wife also loved to search for bargains at flea markets and such, and we decorated our lives and home with historical artifacts – many of these were (usually cheap) musical instruments which we could also play.

  6. Somewhere in the early days we came up with a vintage Martin – a 1943 00-17 that was actually in good playing condition. Well it blew us away – we had never heard anything like that! We would just put that guitar on the couch and play individual notes and listen to them until they faded out – we were hooked.

  7. In the late 1970 we found the bluegrass culture of the Southern Mountains – populated with people who shared the cultural values (and dialects) of my youth. As folkies, we believed this to be a dying culture fading into history – what was found was anything but. The music was an intrinsic part of the culture and was very powerful – it made our puny folkie skills almost irrelevant. Virtuosity was common, not only on the instruments (guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass), but also in the extreme vocal styles of the mountains. We heard things in those misty mountain parking lot jams that we did not believe were possible – something so strong it could never be captured on stage or in recording. 

  8. The bluegrass culture of the 1970s was also an instrument culture, albeit narrowly focused – mostly on old Martin dreads, prewar Gibson mandolins and banjos, fiddles, and old Kay basses. These instruments were discussed hour after hour, and passed around between songs in the endless jam sessions in the parking lots of small mountain festivals. By the late 70s, this community already knew all the stuff that the rest of the world would not recognize for another 25 years.

So by 1980, all the pieces were in place – a shared (with my wife) love of traditional music, an aspiration to be part of the traditional bluegrass community, a scientific interest in sound, and a drive to find bargains. Well I have always been better able to make money by building things (my degree is in engineering) than by investing – I just never had the passion to learn the stuff I would need to know to invest in the stock market. So when were were looking for a way to store retirement money, vintage instruments seemed like a good alternative. Here we did have the passion to know (and to play) – so we decided we would allow about 10% of our retirement money to be invested in instruments.

And so it started. My goal was not to collect instruments, but to collect historic sounds. Thus we never (or seldom) bought multiple copies of the “same” instrument. A major focus is bluegrass instruments because we aspire to play that, but also “lesser” instruments to populate our broader traditional and folk revival interests. From an investment perspective, we often bought classes of instruments which were not “hot” – D-18s rather than D-28s, 000s rather than dreads, and (if truth be told) Gibsons rather than Martins.

Our passion exploded in the 1990s when I needed a lot of stress release from intense technological professing and entrepreneuring – we wanted something that did not have anything to do with technology.

I am now retired and guess I can say I am living my dream – really our dream, because this was all done with my wife. We have a bluegrass band (THE NEXT BAND), which has slowed down now but which played a lot starting in the early 1990s. We are not really good musicians in a profession sense, but we gig maybe 40 times a year and play in three of four times that many sessions of various sorts. People bring me instruments all the time so I can play them. And we have a great collection of old instruments which we get to interact with every day. 

We were inducted into the “Hall or Honor” of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

The people we have met, the music we have played, and the stories we have heard are breathtakingly beautiful.  You can't make this stuff up -- no one would believe you!

THE NEXT BAND 2000


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