“I get paid to do what I would do for free” – Woody James, Ohio Music Shopby Kelly Krepelka
But on a Thursday night in downtown Kent, musicians get “old school” lessons singing open mic at the Ohio Music Shop.
When owners Woody James and Jeff Fulkman started making guitars in 2009, they did not know it would eventually lead them to starting a business that, as far as they were aware, would be the only music store that is also a studio, live performance venue and bar.
“Our intent was not to open a store,” Fulkman said. “We were going to sell our guitars door to door to other music stores.”
After selling to four or five distributors they tried to sell to Woodsey’s, Fulkman said, which at the time was Kent’s only downtown music store. “We wanted to get feedback from Kent players.”
Woodsey’s did not want to stock them.
“He was selling our pedals, he loved our pedals, but he’s in a lot of different businesses,” said Fulkman. “He does band instruments and lessons and he provides sound for all the local venues. Guitars is just a small portion of what he does. He felt he just had enough guitars. After about the third or fourth attempt Woody said, ‘We’re gonna open up a store right downtown here and see what happens’.”
James took out a lease for the shop around the corner on Main Street, and they began their business as the Ohio Music Shop. At first, the intention was to sell their own products– Woody James custom guitars and Old School Effects pedals, said Fulkman– but the owners wanted tailor to individual needs of musicians, from pros to amateurs.
Open Mic Thursdays started the first week when the shop opened in May 2010. But what started as old pro jam sessions became a learning forum for local, state, and national up-and-coming young artists. The emphasis, said the shop’s owners, was to build confidence in young players who have little performance experience.
“Woody and I both teach guitar here,” said Fulkman, “and we thought when our students get to a certain point, we’d put them up on stage and have them do a song. But most of the kids that we teach– and adults– have never played in front of anybody before… So we’ll drag them up, maybe play with them the first time, and they’re scared out of their minds.”
“We’ve been told we have the best open mic around,” said James. “You can get up there and forget a line or a chord, and no one will judge you. Everyone always claps. It’s a great place to suck.”
Emily Gambone, 17, is a high school veteran of the amateur music scene. She plays guitar and sings in Noize From The Basement but will often attend Ohio Stage Open Mic Nights and play solo, acoustic versions of songs from her band.
Emily’s father, Jeff Gambone, became a partner in the company because he was impressed with the impact the store had on Kent’s culture.
“It’s getting to the point that she can come here and start networking with people her age and people who are older who have some insight into the business part of it.”
Gambone said the music scene in Kent is unique because it is self-perpetuating. Older musicians help guide and promote younger artists.
“Sometimes with older musicians, their ship has sailed, and they’re actually disgruntled about the business. But everyone here is so encouraging because any one of them could become big stars,” said Gambone. “Emily loves hanging out here, and all the kids love the homey type of atmosphere.”
The music circuit in Kent, in addition to being receptive to new musicians, also provides a good network for the pros.
The Last of the Red Hot Burritos is a rare rockabilly band in Kent. Though it is not a common genre in the area, there are enough players around who can play the style. Steel guitarist Mike Dialesandro, for example, said he moved to Kent for the music because of its long history.
Mike McClosky, who plays bass for the band, said, “the music thrives because local bar owners support local music and the town frequently hosts music events like the Folk Festival and BluesFest.”
Jennifer Maurer is a founding member of Cleveland-based Zydeco band Mojo Music. Though she studied at Yale, she came home to be a part of the community of musicians she said is unique to Ohio. “The community of old time roots and blues and old-time fiddle is like a soulmate,” said Maurer. Coincidentally, Fulkman from Ohio Music Shop said he played at point in Mojo Music.
“In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kent was one of the most important music towns, I think,” said Fulkman. “There were maybe twenty places to play and there were really good bands.” He noted The Raspberries, who had national hits like “All By Myself,” The James Gang, Joe Walsh, Glass Harp, and The Numbers Band as some of the greatest bands to come out of Kent.
“It’s coming back,” Fulkman,said “They’re opening new places all the time.”
New bands, like Noize From The Basement, Gambone said, are trying to rediscover the music.
The owners of Ohio Music, too, say that their range of services– custom guitar work, equipment repair, open mics, and private lessons– are playing a role in keeping the local music circuit thriving.
Both James and Fulkman started in music at a young age, playing in various bands.
“I’ve played 4,300 shows in every state and 31 countries,” said James. He was an original member of The Mottley Odds, and between 1965 and 1969 played intermittently with Joe Walsh in The Measles.
“I entered Kent State University the same quarter as the May shootings in 1970, so that was the end of that,” he said. He moved to England and made a living touring and working as a sideman to various artists.
“The music scene was amazing there in 1970,” he said. “The Beatles broke up, and there were other forms forms of rock and roll, hard rock heading to metal. I was a sideman, playing guitar for America, then playing congas and singing. I could play keys, guitar, percussion, and then could fix the guitar and amp. It was a good living. The nice part about that was that’s when you could make money doing it.”
Woody James’ 2009 album “Unfinished Business” has a song entitled “All Right Now” that combined 96 tracks. Sixty-four people were required for the wrap-up, which James said would not have been able to happen without his old friends. The song is about this moment, this time, he said. What he believes is important is making good friends, making good music, and having a good time doing it.
“I get paid to do what I would do for free,” James said.
“This whole venture began when I reached that point in my life, basically my retirement, and I got bored. I started building guitars. I had been building them all along but was not actually involved in the production of it. Before that I was building them for luminaries, various people in the business,” James said.
“The major manufacturers, the big guys, Fender and Gibson,” James said, “are building thousands of guitars a day, and I have absolutely no desire to do that.”
“I think what I do best is envision something,” James said. “Half my life has been ‘What if?’ I’m always thinking about stuff and try to come up with better ways of doing things.”
For James, a new venture of getting into the production of guitars was a natural fit, combining his extensive musical experience with his background in electronics.
“Most times in life, the way something looks on the outside is nothing at all like it is on the inside. I’m a perfect example of that,” James said. “Some people may think I’m just a fat, old hippie, but the majority of my income over the years has come from designing products and patenting them and then either licensing the patent or producing the product. I was involved in lasers for many years,” he said.
His most recent patent is a laser that’s used for detecting chemical and biological warfare.
“You would not think of me as somebody doing that; but because of my background in lasers and electronics and spectroscopy and spectrometry, I’ve been able to do it.”
One of the songs on “Unfinished Business” is called “Nothing is the Way it Seems.” James said, “In most cases I can’t think of anything that is exactly the way it seems. Part of it’s our own expectations. We come into what we think is going to be a grand event, and we get there and it totally sucks…The other side of it is that regardless of how well you plan, shit happens, you know…. With me shit happens a lot…. You just gotta be prepared for that and have that understanding going in.”
As for any “unfinished business” in his life today, James said there is always something else to do.
“When you think about it,” he said, “it makes it an amazing adventure. Life in itself is a great adventure. Just sit back and enjoy it. We really don’t have the ability to affect much in the world, except for ourselves, hopefully. Sit back and enjoy the ride.”