Let’s talk a bit about another banjo icon, someone who touched the lives of thousands of banjo players over a long career, but without the widespread attention that has come to someone like Béla Fleck, whom we discussed earlier this morning. That’s because this icon wasn’t known primarily as a player, though they were, in fact, a highly skilled and experienced banjoist.
It was an an educator and an entrepreneur that Janet Davis influenced the banjo world, someone to whom we all owe a serious debt of gratitude. Her monthly columns for Banjo NewsLetter helped countless novice pickers understand backup and accompaniment concepts in the Scruggs style, and the company she built with her husband shipped instruments, parts, and accessories all over the world at a time when most music stores didn’t know a thing about banjos.
We shouldn’t actually refer to her contributions in the past tense. While her retail business, Janet Davis Music, is no longer in operation, Janet’s deep catalog of instructional books, DVDs, and CDs are still available online. And she is in the process of digitizing her vast collection of tablature for all the bluegrass instruments and offering them for online purchase as well.
Things got started when she and her husband, Jim, started selling banjo tabs, along with bridges and strings, from their home in Texas in 1978. They built a successful micro-business through advertising in bluegrass publications, and giving workshops at festivals all over the country. Just as Wal-Mart was revolutionizing the retail distribution market, they moved to Bentonville, AR where they could take advantage of the vast amount of merchandise being shipped there from all over the world.
Janet Davis Music expanded rapidly while retaining a focus on servicing the bluegrass market. Soon they were not only the largest distributor for Gibson banjos, but for high end guitars and mandolins as well, plus most every budget and student model stringed instrument you could imagine. Their growing purchasing power allowed them to bypass retail jobbers and distributors and obtain strings and accessories directly from the manufacturers, often buying and shipping them in by the container load. The lower prices they could offer made them a leader in mail order music even before the Internet arrived to further recast the retail model.
Of course, she and Jim were quick to take advantage of the online world when it emerged, and their store became a primary shipping point for bluegrass products of every kind, both coming in and heading out.
All this time, Janet continued to write for Banjo NewsLetter, teach at camps, and crank out book after book for Mel Bay Publications, where she now has almost 100 titles listed. Before there were Skype lessons, or even DVDs, these books opened the eyes and ears of banjo pickers worldwide thanks to her diligence.
By 2012, the Davises were ready to look at retirement, and they were able to sell the company to a family named Thompson, who continued to run it as Janet Davis Acoustic Music, eventually shortened to JD Music Company for the first and last name of the new owner, James David Thompson. But the difficulties of brick-and-mortar retail in today’s business climate, along with other factors, made it impossible for the business to continue, and it closed down in February of this year.
Even in retirement, Janet plans to keep up with the banjo, and says that part of her reason for retiring from the retail colossus she had built was to return to what had attracted her to the music business nearly 40 years ago – bluegrass music, the banjo, and sharing her joy in it with other people.
You can visit her new web site, Janet Davis Publishing, and see the many individual transcriptions she has on offer at very reasonable prices. And if you’ve benefited from her books, DVDs, columns, and customer service over the years, maybe drop her a note of thanks.