Banjo. Vinyl. Violin. Lessons. These are the words that adorn—and some of the things you’ll find at the top of—the worn staircase of Vintage Music, a combination instrument repair shop, recording studio and music store in downtown Dahlonega, Georgia.
At the top of the steps, you’ll find a creaky shop with a star-studded floor and string instruments lining the walls. Proprietor John Grimm will be up there, either repairing an instrument, teaching a lesson or simply practicing the banjo behind the counter.
Grimm, 67, has owned and operated Vintage Music on the Dahlonega square for more than 30 years. After buying and selling guitars as a hobby, Grimm closed his stained-glass studio and opened Vintage full-time.
“I always kind of traded guitars, and before I knew it, I had a couple guitars in the store,” Grimm said. “Then I just started selling more and more guitars, and I just dropped the stained-glass part.”
Though instrument repair doesn’t seem like the most social business, Grimm finds an intrinsically human element in fixing instruments.
“To fix [an instrument] up and put it back in their hands and have them play it and have them smile, that really feels great,” Grimm said. “I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a physician and heal people, but in a way, you’re doing that to a musical instrument.”
In addition to owning the store, Grimm also teaches and performs old-time music. Old-time, a predecessor of bluegrass and country, came about in the 1920s and 30s in Appalachia. Grimm first heard it in his early 20s, and has been practicing and preserving it ever since.
He says the internet is responsible for bringing the music to a new generation of players — instead of sneaking a tape recorder into the Smithsonian, as Grimm said they used to do, young musicians can easily find YouTube tutorials for the same tunes.
“When I first started playing, you wanted to make sure that the music was preserved, that these old fiddle tunes stuck around,” Grimm said. “Now, there’s a lot of young people that’re into it.”
Old-time practitioners, of which there are many today, convene at events such as the Gordon County Fiddler’s Convention, which Grimm attended on Saturday, March 31, 2019. Fiddlers, buck dancers, singers and other musicians gathered to jam and compete with the tunes they’d learned.
“A lot of these people… they’re friends, but they’re mostly friends because you see them at events like this,” Grimm said. “So it’s that thing that draws everybody together. You want to see your musical buddies.”
Grimm plans to release a record of “new old-time tunes” — original songs written in old-time style. There is considerable debate in the old-time community about whether new music can be added to the traditional repertoire, but Grimm plans to do it anyway.
“I kind of don’t care, in a way,” Grimm said. “I just want to put it out there. It makes me happy; if other people like it, they do. I’m not expecting to sell thousands of CDs. I mean if I do, that’d be great, but that’s not the point.”
Gemma DiCarlo is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. This story was produced during the 14th Annual Woodall Weekend Workshop in Dahlonega, Georgia.