In the middle of Market Street, just a stone's throw from Compton Park in Wilmington, Delaware, you'll find David Bromberg Fine Violins, a shop that specializes in appraisals, acquisitions and sales of rare instruments.
The tall, bespectacled fellow behind the counter might look familiar. Perhaps you've seen Mr. Bromberg before — as a folk/blues singer and guitarist, he was Columbia Records' second-biggest seller in that vein in the early 1970s (the first was Bob Dylan, whose Self Portrait and New Morning sessions — recently reissued, to great acclaim — prominently featured David Bromberg on several virtuosi acoustic instruments).
Bromberg, who studied blues guitar under Rev. Gary Davis, co-wrote a song with George Harrison, played fiddle on an Eagles album and was a guest at The Last Waltz, had a roughly 10-year career exploring American music in all its (dis)guises. He played solo, in duos and small groups, and with an expansive rock 'n' roll Big Band. The Grateful Dead backed him on his second album.
In 1980, he called it quits, packing up his wife and guitars for Chicago, where he enrolled at the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making.
(You read that correctly.)
Bromberg has released three albums since his (sort of) return to performing a dozen years ago; the latest, a blues/rock band album called Only Slightly Mad, brings "The Godfather of Americana" to Randy Wood Guitars' Pickin' Parlor for an intimate solo show Saturday, Dec. 14.
We reached Mr. Bromberg at the violin shop.
You stopped making music to learn how to make violins. Why?
David Bromberg: The first and most obvious thing is, I got burnt out. At one point I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. And that is going to do it to you. I was too stupid to realize that I could ever burn out. The conclusion I reached was that I wasn't a musician, if ever I had been one. I didn't want to be one of these guys who gets up onstage and does a bitter imitation of something that he used to love — and there are guys like that on the circuit. I hadn't gotten to that point, but it was coming.
Did you set a time limit for yourself away from the stage?
David Bromberg: Oh, I didn't think I would ever play again. If I had realized it was burnout, I would have taken nine months off and been fine. But instead I felt that I had to find another way to live my life. At the time I was living in Marin County, and the only intellectual stimulation I found was in the violin shop. It fascinated me how a violin maker could look at a violin, and tell when and where it was made, and sometimes by whom. Without looking at the label, 'cause labels are very often changed and switched. And that's what I wanted to learn. In order to do that, the first thing I had to learn was how to make them myself so I would understand the different methods of construction. So that's why I went to violin-making school. I went to school for four years, and after I graduated I spent another 18 years studying old violins. I'll never learn it all. No human ever will — like music, it's a bottomless pit. But I really enjoy it. The only thing about doing all this is that I regret, and it's not that terrible a regret, is that I sold all my guitars, one by one.
So are you a craftsman, or a dealer in vintage instruments?
David Bromberg: I'm not interested in making them. I think there are plenty of really fine instruments already made, and some very good makers. I don't use edge tools. I don't do repairs. People will bring me instruments, and I tell them what I can about them from looking at them. Generally, I can tell them what country it was made in, and more or less when, and sometimes by whom. But sometimes I don't know. And one thing I learned is, when I don't know I say I don't know. And that's an important thing to learn, because your customers want you to know.
Did customers know who you were? Did they ask why you weren't doing the thing you were famous for?
David Bromberg: During those 18 years, I worked out of my house. I didn't have a shop. I dealt only with violin shops. Nobody particularly asked. I very rarely played gigs — I did actually do a few now and then. But it was far from a regular thing. I really didn't miss it; I found the violin thing totally absorbing. I did a little playing and singing at home, and I learned a lot about singing during that period. My singing these days is way, way better than it used to be.
So what changed?
David Bromberg: We got tired of the Chicago winters. We moved to Wilmington, and the mayor told me that there used to be live music all up and down the street on which my shop was, and where I lived. So I figured the only thing I could do — and I didn't tell him this — was "I'll start a couple of jam sessions to get something started." I figured that I would endure these for a few months, and they'd live or die, you know? But word got around somehow that I was doing this, and some really fine musicians would show up. And I began to get some chops back, and I began to really enjoy it. That was really the key — I was enjoying it once again, I felt like I was a musician, and I decided what the hell? I'll give it a shot.