Parlor Picking's New Golden Age
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
October 21, 2008 - 8:45 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Parlor picking sounds as old fashioned as a taterbug mandolin.
But a powerful fresh musical movement is afoot that might as well borrow those words as a label.
Almost everyone in acoustic music agrees that we are in a second golden age of American string instrument building. It's just incredible how both small-shop luthiers and established factory companies are cranking out wonderful string instruments by the thousands.
Those instruments are helping to sustain a major influence in American music, one pretty much invisible to mainstream media and the general public—the second golden age of parlor picking.
You can go into almost any town in America and someone is going to own an acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle or banjo that is of a quality suitable for professional use, even though the owners are usually hobbyists.
In fact, it wouldn't be uncommon to turn up some exceptionally good instruments, world class in nature, owned by musicians who are playing for fun but who play real good.
We don't see parlor picking on the news or showcased on network television, or even off the beaten tracks of public television.
Our folk/bluegrass/country stars do make it onto radio and television and Internet. But they're hard-working road musicians, denizens of the studio, concert hall, festival stage, barroom and coffee house.
Parlor pickers are home bodies making music alone or with their buddies. They play for fun but they're also laying the groundwork for an acoustic musical future that will go who knows where.
Picture a grandfather clock with a decoration on the glass in front of the works, such that at one peak of the swing the pendulum is visible and at the opposite peak it is hidden behind the decoration.
Both peaks offer equal forces in the clock's movement. One is visible and one is not.
Our acoustic music stars are highly visible. Their influence is powerful and easily defined.
But what's not seen by the general public are the thousands of people buying, collecting and playing expensive, high-quality musical instruments.
When I hear the word parlor I think of women in long skirts and men in serious shirts tuning up a mandolin or guitar, getting their reference note from the person sitting at the piano, while out on the porch a fiddler runs through some riffs before coming inside to join the picking party, sometime about 1910.
But for the use of electronic tuners, we'd all fit right in. We're walking antiques.
People today are paying big money for instruments made for the first golden age of parlor picking, before Victrolas and stereos took over for live musicians. Part of the price paid is for good craftsmanship and now-rare woods. But part also is the feeling that comes from holding something designed for kindred spirits of an earlier time who also valued self expression via music.
My dictionary's first definition of parlor is: "a room set aside for the entertainment of guests; formal sitting room, an old-fashioned term."
I've noticed that when modern home builders copy Victorian floor plans they often include the parlor but also add on a family room. So, most modern families sit in the family room entertaining themselves in front of the electronic mind-numbing machines, while the parlor is used as a place to put expensive furnishings meant to look showy but not be used.
Most pickers, though, return the parlor to its rightful use. They haul in an old give-away piano and leave guitar stands at the ready for practice and jam sessions. Garage sale collectibles, like old Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitars, are hung on the wall.
If we don't have a parlor, we slyly take over the corner of a room for musical purposes and pretend it is one.
As individuals we're oddities in our community.
But as a group, our numbers make us a force on the American arts scene.
Companies with names such as Weber, Martin, Santa Cruz, Collings and Gibson are meeting consumer demand right now by making and selling literally thousands of high quality mandolins, guitars and banjos each year.
Below them are dozens of manufacturers who make instruments by the hundreds, sometimes copying popular designs and often breaking new ground.
Then below that is another tier of small-shop makers who each make dozens of instruments each year, often of astounding quality. But there are hundreds of such shops.
All these levels of makers compete each year for sales with instruments made in all the years before that are offered for resale.
Meanwhile, there are only a few dozen musicians working at any one time who will crack the ranks of the all-time greats. Then there are a few hundred who are just a notch below, but still excellent and stars in their field. Add in several thousand people who earn a full-time living playing acoustic music. Chip in maybe 10,000 semi-pros that could but don't for various reasons.
Pros absorb only a small percentage of the high-quality instruments floating around.
Hobbyists are buying them and playing them in the parlor. Children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighbors are hearing those instruments played and being influenced. The new stars and influences in acoustic music will come from those ranks.
Some hobbyists scratch by as players. But many are very, very good musicians.
Many baby boomers learned to play with secret daydreams about rock 'n roll or bluegrass glory. Most have kissed those dreams goodbye.
But what remains is the music and a wondrous feeling about the instruments they make music with.
We've become caretakers of musical tools and traditions, but it's a watch that we now realize is passing with startling speed.
The comfort comes from knowing that we've done our part so another generation can put new strings on our well-cared-for instruments, marvel at them, and carry the music on.