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The ballad of a classic guitar shop

Performers have found more than instruments and audiences over the years at McCabe's.

September 27, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Most Southland music fans know McCabe's Guitar Shop for the innumerable folk, country, blues, jazz and world-music concerts presented over the decades in the tiny back stockroom that can hold about 150 folding chairs when all the instrument cases are shoved out of the way.

But in 1958, Gerald McCabe opened the doors on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica intending to focus on furniture design and restoration. His timing coincided with a booming interest in folk music that spurred millions of Americans to buy acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins and other non-amplified musical instruments.

Someone brought in a damaged guitar one day and asked if McCabe could fix it -- it was made of wood, after all. McCabe and partner Walter Camp soon began repairing instruments and offering new ones for sale, and the little shop quickly became a hub for musicians living in or passing through Los Angeles, many of whom would perform in the intimate space after hours.

"Walter figured that if you're paying rent on a place 24 hours a day, why close the doors at 5?" said Robert Kimmel, a former member of Linda Ronstadt's Stone Poneys band who was hired in 1969 as McCabe's first official concert director. "He was giving music lessons at night and then started doing concerts on the weekends."

McCabe's is now a Southern California institution. It's been a home to touring musicians and a supportive launchpad for aspiring local ones. It's frequently been more than just a stage, serving as a catalyst for a song, an album, a band, a friendship.

Loudon Wainwright III recorded a live album there, John Hiatt's 1987 breakthrough album, "Bring the Family," grew out of his association with McCabe's, the Ditty Bops practically grew up there and Richard Thompson played his first U.S. solo show there thanks to concert director Nancy Covey, to whom he's now been married for 25 years.

On Thursday, Thompson will participate in a tribute to the music venue scheduled to take place at UCLA's Royce Hall. The lineup includes Jackson Browne, Odetta, David Lindley, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Peter Rowan, Peter Case and the Ditty Bops.

To mark the occasion, Calendar invited several performers to share their stories of the musical community that has grown up at McCabe's.

Dave Alvin (singer-songwriter)

The weird thing about McCabe's is I'd never really felt comfortable there. The whole vibe is comfort, and you talk to all these artists who say it's so relaxed. Maybe that was true for others, but if you've got a loud band and you're playing in a sweaty club where people get drunk, that's where I'm comfortable.

I did a Monsters of Folk show there [in 1998] with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Chris Smither and Tom Russell, and that one was pretty emotional for me. It was part of a tour where we did the whole country in two weeks. When we got to McCabe's and did that show, with the four of us there on stage, it was a defining moment for me. . . . At gigs before that one, I always felt that if they had nothing better to do, they'd let me play. After that, I kinda felt like I belonged there.

John Chelew (concert director, 1984-1996)

It's been such a great meeting place for so many different people. Arlo Guthrie was getting ready to go on stage one time, and Allen Ginsberg was there because we had him booked the next night. He said, 'Let me talk to Arlo; I haven't seen him in 20 years.' And they had this wonderful discussion. Sometime later, Arlo was playing the new Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier, and he started fingerpicking one of those "motorcycle blues" kinds of storytelling songs, and he starts talking about seeing Ginsberg after 20 years at McCabe's.

It was a great example of how this place has a way of reminding people of some of their strengths, or renewing connections they may have lost, and the way that music reminds us of who we are and who we can be.

Nancy Covey (concert director, 1975-1984)

I had booked [accordionist] Flaco Jimenez to play, and then I get a phone call one day from this guy who gave me his name and said "We hear that you have Flaco Jimenez coming. We want to open, and we'll play for free." That sounded pretty good to me. I thought, "OK, how bad could they be?". . . . He said, "We're called Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles."

They were getting known by then in East L.A., but they definitely were not known on the Westside. They became friends, and I invited them to our wedding. . . . Through them Richard played on their record. There was a connection there.

John Hiatt (on the genesis of "Bring the Family"):

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