Of Music, Manners, & Dreams...
I’d like to talk about the social trappings that can be attached to instruments and the effect they can have on a young player. In order to explore that subject to the depth I’d like from my own experience, I'll have to mention a particular brand. But before I begin, I’d like to make the statement that I have nothing against that particular brand, Martin. In fact, I think they are a fine brand and make excellent instruments. My discussion is about people and attitudes, not about the brand, so please understand that I actually have admiration for the Martin Guitar brand and their instruments, as you'll see by the end of the story. With that said…
I am from Dolly Parton country - the heart of "Olde Tyme" music. No kidding, my hometown literally kicked out the Grand Old Opry in the 1920s because the city fathers “didn't like their kind,” and stuck with Olde Tyme music. Olde Tyme music is literally the music of the old timers! Musicologist have gone up into the Southern Appalachians and researched this musical form and have discovered that it is actually the music of Elizabethan England. Much of it is set in the church modes. It traveled over the ocean with the settlers and moved up in the hills, where it has been passed down as an oral art form with very little change from the 1500s. While it influenced Country Music, it isn't Country Music.
It must be understood that the offical guitar of the Olde Tyme Music movement is the Martin guitar. What was it that Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol? "This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." Now, as a result of this fact, in my community a certain "rite of passage" had developed. Everyone in the community knew you had become someone when you "got your Martin." It was that simple. At a gathering, an eight-year-old could get up in front of a crowd and play "Soldier's Joy." The grizzled farmer next to you, farmer, mind you, not guitarist, would look over at you with a twinkle in his eye and say, "Ain't he something? And that there is a Martin guitar. He got his Martin, at eight." It was like some universal musical and spiritual meritocracy existed. If you were good enough, the skies would part and a Martin would descend to you from, uh, I don't know where. The eight-year-olds surely couldn’t afford them. Clearly, a Martin wasn’t something you simply bought, it was something you earned. It was a badge of rank bestowed from on high.
Now, I did begin to notice that my well-to-do friends got their Martins before the rest of us, regardless of skill or legitimacy. That did cause a pinch of doubt about the orthodoxy to grow in my wondering heart, but I was still a believer. I waited for mine. It can't be denied that a Martin guitar DID give Martin players more audible authority than someone with a plywood box possessed. While I was still working as as soda jerk to save up for a decent guitar, the more well-heeled youth around me rather gleefully flaunted their Martins. When my turn came in a jamming circle, they'd look me in the eye, smirk, lean into their "lap cannons," and drown out my little plywood special Silvertone. Some of them would also chuckle amongst themselves that only a Martin was good enough, even though that was a Gibson slogan. They'd do that right among us other guys who clearly couldn't afford one. **Um, guys, we are sitting right here.** Nevertheless, as I got better, I just assumed that eventually even I would "ascend" and "get my Martin." Only, I never did.
With a little growth and distance I eventually came to realize that people were simply using these excellent guitars as status symbols. I was able to differentiate between the guitar brand and the attitude. As I did get better instruments, I suppose the big result in me was that I always felt that it was important for me to go out of my way to make sure that I didn't say or do things to discourage beginners about their instruments or themselves. That's not a bad thing.
But, you know what? One day, many, many years later, actually fifty-one years after I started playing, it actually did happen to me. I finally "got my Martin." To celebrate my fortieth anniversary in the recording industry, my lovely, thoughtful wife bought me a Martin. Lovely!!! However, it still feels kind of strange and wonderful to have gotten my Martin. But to be honest, the real gift from heaven descended on me July 5th, 1980, when my lovely wife married me.