0912 Bob Tedrow
Homewoood Musical Instrument Co. is located across from Homewood Park. Photos by Dale Short. Bob Tedrow owns Homewood Musical Instrument Co.
In these days of technology, there aren’t many businesses that proudly proclaim themselves “150 years behind the times.” But when you walk into the brick storefront at 3027 Central Avenue, time instantly becomes a more fluid commodity.
The background music transitions seamlessly from Django Reinhardt to 1950s rockabilly, and to points even further afield. Out the front window, at the edge of the parking lot, a 1928 Model-A Ford has the shop’s logo painted on its doors.
Bob Tedrow, proprietor for some 25 years of Homewood Musical Instrument Company, acknowledges that neither his family name nor his chief fascination (antique concertinas) are especially familiar in Alabama: “The Tedrows crawled out from a hole in the bank of the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania and Ohio during the early 1700s,” he said. “Two brothers had migrated here from a little town named Teterow, Germany, and changed their name to Tedrow.”
Although he vividly remembers the hot jazz piano his grandmother, Belle, played during his childhood (coincidentally, she drove an MG TD sports car—“My behavior is clearly her fault,” Tedrow observed), his first hands-on experience with music was the banjo he bought when he was 16 years old.
“Since I didn’t know how to play the banjo, the obvious thing to do was take it apart,” he said. “It had all these little nuts and bolts and screws. So I cleaned it up and put it back together—incorrectly, as it turned out. And played it out-of-tune for the next five or six years, without realizing it. Which apparently didn’t say a lot in favor of my musical abilities.”
But Tedrow says his most formative musical education came during what he calls “The Great Folk Scare of the 1960s, when I played protest music but didn’t know what I was protesting against. My friends liked rock-and-roll, but I enjoyed playing the banjo. And as a result, the whole Sexual Revolution passed right by me.”
Nowadays, Tedrow and his fellow craftsman Jason Burns face a constant stream of ailing instruments that arrive on their doorstep via FedEx and UPS from around the world. Apart from the mechanical challenges of repairing them, Tedrow said he’s simultaneously intrigued by the instruments as works of art: “I think almost all musical instruments have a beautiful artistic component. I like vintage banjos, especially. They have a unique cachet to them because they weren’t necessarily built on a pattern, whereas violins are mostly based on the same model, with subtle differences. The same goes, usually, for guitars.
“But banjos are just wild, because their builders typically had a vision of their design that was particular to that individual. So they can be anything. They’re works of visual art, as well as of sound.
“In addition, I think almost everybody likes to feel that connection with the past that you get when you play a vintage instrument. It just feels ‘right.’ And when you play old music on an old instrument, you’re actually creating antique noise.”
Among the links on the store’s website is a shout-out from the Wall Street Journal with the headline, “The sweet sound of a Concertina warms the soul.” In addition to repairing old ones, Tedrow also produces new ones for clients. The benefits of the concertina, he told the WSJ blogger, are obvious: “What other instrument combines reeds, springs, levers, fancy woodwork and leatherwork, beautiful tone, and lovely old-time appeal with the portability of a six-pack of beer?”
In between his career of selling and repairing, Tedrow creates opportunities to play music as often as he can. “I haven’t gone many days in my adult life without playing music of some kind,” he said. “I enjoy playing with my neighbors, my wife, my kids, with Jason. I don’t play in clubs any more, though. Four-set nights in smoky bars with a 10-pound banjo around your neck gets old after a while. Actually, a pretty short while.”
When a visitor points out a discrepancy between the shop’s display sign and its website—one says “150 years behind the times,” the other “83 years behind the times” —Tedrow takes it in stride.
“We’re still trying to pin that down, so we’re flexible,” he said, pointing to the antique car out front. “This week, we’re gauging our behind-ness on the age of my car.”
Dale Short is producer of the weekly radio show “Music from Home,” which is archived on carrolldaleshort.com.