The NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) Show is held less than a mile from Disneyland. One is a commercial shrine to prepubescent entertainment and sensory overload. The other is a theme park.
Or, maybe I should say the NAMM Show is Disneyland without the lines. Except, there are lines if you want to get your picture taken with a B-list rock star. The only time I was tempted to stand in one of those lines was when I saw Bootsy Collins signing autographs. P-Funk and bluegrass have a lot in common, but that’s for another column.
Actually, I did see one of my musical heroes there the other day when I made the pilgrimage up the 5 (yes, we say “the” before Interstate numbers out here—get over it) to the 110th annual National Association of Music Merchants trade show.
As I filed into the Anaheim Civic Center guess who the first people I saw were? You’ll never guess. Del and Jean McCoury. Yes, Del. At NAMM. You could have knocked me over with a Sennheiser EW500 lapel mic.
I caught up with them. The thing about Del and Jean is that they’re comfortable anywhere. They may as well have been at the coziest bluegrass festival in east Tennessee rather than at the NAMM show where the ambient decibels were pushing those of a Boeing hanger.
Del was radiating his usual smiling Delness. He told me that he and the band had played a show for CF Martin & Company the night before and that he was headed to their pavilion to hang out. He introduced me to Larry Barnwell, the District Sales Manager for Martin, and I tried to get a photo of them with my iPhone, which I mangled, but didn’t want to keep them standing in the middle of the aisle any longer.
Anyway, we said our goodbyes and I watched that crown of white hair and unaffected elegance walk on into the dense throng of black t-shirts, blue jeans, and leather. The crowd naturally and unknowingly parted before them.
My mission here was simple: to find as many instances of bluegrass as I could, eat lunch at In-N-Out Burger, and escape from Anaheim as fast as possible.
I always think I want to go to NAMM, but as soon as I’m there, I feel like I’m surrounded by every nightmare rock soundman I’ve ever encountered, including the guy who took one look at our bluegrass band, screamed, “YOU’VE GOT NO D.I.s?! NONE?!” and packed up his gear.
I’m not really into gear. I respect great acoustic sound engineers like Eric Uglum and Ben Surratt who understand all that stuff and who can create whatever soundscape you want by using a double-ought-ooja-cum-spiff-X230-J-pre-condenser-thing-a-ma-bob. I like stuff; I just don’t understand it.
And I’m not really into shiny new instruments. I like my 1988 HD-28 Martin guitar, which I bought mail order in 1988. It arrived. I strummed a G chord. Said, “Great.” And I’ve never wanted to buy another guitar since.
Still, I like hanging around people who are passionate about those things and NAMM is the best place for that. For people-watching, you can’t beat it.
My plan was to have no plan—to wander aimlessly up and down the aisles responding to whatever I ran into. I figured after running into Del and Jean that I was cosmically tied into some serious serendipity (and yes, that’s also the way we talk out here).
NAMM reported a few days after the show that there were 95,709 attendees over the four days, a 6% increase from last year, with 1,441 exhibitors, including 236 new ones. All good news for the music merchandise industry, but bad news for anyone trying not to get run over or lost in the crowded halls of the Civic Center.
At one point, I found myself in a kind of Escher loop in the drum area. And no, I’m not making a point about drums, although I did have fun with some of the responses I got when I asked where they kept the banjo drums. One guy looked at me like I had just opened up a new market for him. So, next fall look for even louder banjos.
I wandered over to the Saga pavilion where three teenagers were playing acoustic instruments. They had never picked up a mandolin or bouzouki or banjo before and they thought they were the coolest things ever.
You may read a lot this year about how smartphones and tablet apps are the new instruments, but wooden instruments and steel strings still have a magic pull. To me, these three kids were the real story at NAMM.
Maybe it’s Mumford & Sons, or the Punch Brothers, or Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers. Whatever it is, acoustic music is alive and well and attracting new audiences—both young and old. It was kind of thrilling to know that if they stayed with it, these kids would eventually discover that silver-haired guy signing autographs over at the Martin pavilion.
I kept wandering and was looking at a really nice electric stand-up bass made by NS Design when I looked up into a face I knew from somewhere before, but couldn’t immediately place. He had the same look on his face about me until we both checked out each other’s nametag (always an awkward moment).
Mike Kropp! Banjo player with Northern Lights and all-around good guy. He’s now Director of Sales for NS Design. NS is Ned Steinberger, who Mike introduced me to, and this time I did get a photo. Mike told me he’s been coming to NAMM for something like 20 years, which deserves some kind of medal. I asked him how it was going this year and he said there was a lot of interest from the bluegrass and acoustic community in the electric stand-up basses and electric fiddles they sell—a good sign.
I tried to record an interview with him, but I messed that up also. I told you, I’m not good with gear.
Stopping by the Acoustic Guitar magazine booth, I introduced myself to Scott Nygaard, the senior editor, whom I had not met before, but have wanted to meet, as I’m a fan of his playing. He was also upbeat about the show and the crowds and their booth was full of attendees. I wandered on, in my giddiness walking off with the latest copy of Acoustic Guitar, which I realized later might not have been free. Scott, if you’re reading this, I swear I’m getting a subscription.
I can’t say that bluegrass was a big story at NAMM, but it was definitely one of the stories. The banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars looked comfortable amid all the hype. I went by the Deering Banjo booth where the Kruger Brothers were concertizing to a large and appreciative audience. I couldn’t get within 40 feet of it—another good sign.
And I stopped to say hello to Tanya Ogsbury at the Ome booth. She was showing off their latest model of the Jubilee old-time banjo, the one I play. This one had a great new wooden rim and a terrific sound.
I also ran into Bob Carlin who was there with Gold Tone banjos, which he plays and endorses. Bob seems to have the largest collection of minor league baseball caps in the world. He was sporting the Nashville Sound that day.
After about four hours of wandering, though, I had reached the saturation point. I couldn’t remember why music was so important. I started to feel like it was just another commodity—like pork bellies. Loud, flashing pork bellies sticking out of black t-shirts and blue jeans. I was a little faint.
So, I headed out into the high, blue sky of a Southern California January and took a deep breath. I could still hear the hum of 10,000 people intoning the mantra of NAMMMMMMM.
At first, I didn’t listen to anything on the drive down the coast to San Diego. Just the golden silence. Then, around Oceanside, I put on some Del McCoury.
And went home.