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MUSIC ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS : Strumming Along : Traditional, Unamplified Sounds of Earlier Era Are Finding a New Voice


On a balmy Tuesday night earlier this month, 250 people filed cheerfully into Ojai's Matilija Junior High School auditorium. They were a folk music crowd--thirtyish and open-collared--and they sat on hard wooden seats, facing a stage adorned with fiddle, guitar, Autoharp, piano and hammered dulcimer.

The crowd had come for John McCutcheon, the Virginia-based performer whose tools these were, but also for the tools themselves: Traditional musical instruments, challenged in the marketplace by high-technology these past few years, have come through as popular as ever in Ventura County and elsewhere.

"I could have ended up like you," McCutcheon told the audience as he fingered his banjo. "I got good grades in school and all that. But I started playing the banjo, and everything started going to hell from then on." He was smiling, of course, and many in the crowd were smiling back.

"I remember when I first heard Pete Seeger," McCutcheon, 37, said in an interview a few days before. "It was inviting, like saying, 'You can do this.' He never said that, but the message was there. 'You've got this wooden box with strings across it. And you can make music on it.' "

That sense of invitation still exists. Since 1987, musical instrument merchants nationwide have reported a resurgence in sales for unamplified instruments from guitars to drums. In 1988, the last year for which figures are available, an American Music Conference survey showed that acoustic guitar sales were up 26%. Bowed string instrument sales--including violins, cellos and basses--were up 12%. Percussion and wind instrument sales also rose, but less dramatically.

Those reports followed several flat years in the mid-1980s, when many consumers were drawn to a new crop of electronic keyboard instruments and electric guitars.

At the same time, the recording industry has found ready audiences for such acoustically oriented artists as singer-guitarist Tracy Chapman and singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby. Windham Hill Records, the Palo Alto "New Age" record label that was founded 14 years ago, reports annual sales of $25 million.

"It's like a revival in folk music, really," said Becky Lowe, who with her husband, Tom, has been presenting folk concerts around Ojai for 10 years.

The Lowes, who said they pass any profits along to the performers, organized McCutcheon's concert. In March, they brought a New England folk trio named Matamora to the Ojai Woman's Club and drew about 100 paying customers.

On May 5, the Lowes will again occupy the Woman's Club, this time to present Figgy Duff, a Newfoundland sextet that at various times employs accordion, harmonica, bouzouki (a mandolin-like instrument that originated in Greece), fiddle, guitar, hammered dulcimer, bodhran, flute, whistles, concertina, harp, keyboards and electric bass.

In Ventura, the City Bakery presents occasional acoustic performances. On April 27, folk singers Fred Starner and Larry Penn will play there. The cover charge is $3. On June 2, an appearance by the local group Acoustic Medicine is scheduled.

Musicians can't always take this new interest to the bank; several local observers say they haven't noticed any particular increase audiences for acoustic concerts. But an unscientific local survey suggests that the acoustic revival has not left Ventura County behind.

Electric guitars continue to outsell acoustics 2-to-1 at McCabe's Music in Santa Paula, by the estimate of clerk Marco Avelino, and a salesman estimated that acoustic guitar sales were up only slightly at Henson's Music Center in Oxnard. But at Henson's Music Center in Camarillo and Heck Music Center in Ventura, the story is different.

"We are selling quite a few more acoustic guitars than we did, say, two years ago," said Andy Feldman, assistant manager at Henson's in Santa Paula. "I would say I sell three acoustics to every electric. Two years ago, it was probably two electrics to one acoustic."

"Tracy Chapman came up," said saleswoman Daphne Jones at Heck Music Center, "and all of a sudden everybody was coming in."

Nadine Bunn, co-owner of Folk Mote Music in Santa Barbara--which sells no electric instruments--reports that her store's sales in the second half of 1989 were up 15% over the second half of 1988.

Ben Chapman, a co-founder of the Old Time Fiddlers' Assn. in Ojai, estimates that the group's membership--380 players and enthusiasts--has grown by 75 or more in the last two years. From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, the association takes over the Oak View Community Center on Valley Road for jam sessions.

"There is a lot of interest," said Seabury Gould, an Ojai guitarist and keyboard player who has been performing and teaching in Ventura County for 10 years.

"One of the signs of a good musician is that you can unplug him and he still sounds good," Gould said. "If a musician is completely relying on electronics, something is wrong. . . ."

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