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Decades after America’s folk revival, specialty music stores keep afloat

Folk music isn't dead.

Jackie Dieterichs, right, who started the Bucks County Folk Music Shop with her husband Karl, strums a 12 string acoustic electronic cutaway guitar for prospective buyer Donald Corum, left, in their shop in New Britain, PA.
Jackie Dieterichs, right, who started the Bucks County Folk Music Shop with her husband Karl, strums a 12 string acoustic electronic cutaway guitar for prospective buyer Donald Corum, left, in their shop in New Britain, PA.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Karl Dieterichs remembers the exact day he and his wife, Jackie, opened their music store in an abandoned New Britain farmhouse that had no electricity or running water.

It was July 15, 1966, a Friday. Business started promptly at 9 a.m. with exactly one order from Philadelphia.

From the start, their family store, the Bucks County Folk Music Shop, would carry only acoustic instruments, bucking a tide of stores lined with electric guitars that catered to rock enthusiasts. Their acoustic ensemble was appealing to folk musicians in the mid-1960s, the zenith of the American folk revival.

Decades later, far from the heyday of traditional folk, the Dieterichses' shop endures.

In business for more than half a century, the shop is one of the nation's oldest stores for acoustic stringed instruments. Even as big-box music stores and online retailers, such as Amazon and Guitar Center, have seized customers' interest, the Dieterichses and the few other specialty folk-music shop owners have been able to sustain themselves with a wide selection of instruments and niche services, such as instrument appraisals and repairs.

"Younger people are still interested in these instruments, but they don't play them traditionally," said Jackie Dieterichs, standing behind a repurposed candy counter her husband had bought in the 1960s for $35. "They're doing their own thing. Like the five-string banjo — they don't necessarily play it bluegrass style or old-timey style."

And from there, some contemporary musicians who mesh elements of folk with country, rock, or pop have gained varying levels of modern eminence: Iron and Wine, the Lumineers, the Well Pennies. Once, it was Bill Monroe, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and (begrudgingly, to folk-music purists) John Denver.

"Everything goes in waves," said Keith Brintzenhoff, president of the Kutztown Folk Music Society, who bought his first banjo from the Bucks County Folk Music Shop in the late '60s or early '70s. "Meaning, like, Bob Dylan was popular in the '60s, and before that, they had the folk-music revival."

Folk music that is recognized for decades becomes traditional, Brintzenhoff said, but only if it lasts.

"I felt there was a need for what you see here," said Karl Dieterichs, 79, a former engineer and longtime folk musician, waving toward walls of guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and violins, a sea of blond and tawny wood at his store.

The Dieterichses hired music teachers, such as Federico Betti, a native of Italy with a penchant for Irish folk music, to teach adults and kids alike. The Dieterichses' daughter, Kim, handles customer service and answers the phone.

"We've never given up the acoustic stringed instrument," said Karl Dieterichs, who is semiretired and lives in a house just yards from his store. "For most shops that are similar to us, they had to change to electrics to survive. And we're one of the very few nationwide that has stayed acoustic stringed instruments, which makes us pretty unique from that aspect."

Music shops that once exclusively stocked acoustic instruments weren't able to resist customers' steady interest in electric guitars and amplifiers. That was true for Meadowood Music, a Blandon, Berks County, shop owned by couple Paula Taylor and Mike Andrews.

Meadowood Music moved to Blandon in 2005 after five years in Kutztown, home to Kutztown University and college students who repeatedly asked for electric guitars, not acoustic ones, Taylor said, gesturing to a narrow corridor in her music shop where brightly hued electric guitars hang on the walls, delicately suspended by their necks.

The rest of their shop resembles the Dieterichses', with guitars, violins, banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, and dulcimers lining its walls and shelves. In the back, there is a repair shop, and the couple tout a long list of music instructors.

Taylor, like the Dieterichses, describes the merits of various music companies, the artistry of specific instruments, and the culture around folk music without pause.

"I would say there's an awful lot of interest in acoustic music," said Taylor, noting that contemporary folk artists play music that evolved from earlier generations.

It shows, too — there's the well-attended Philadelphia Folk Festival each year, and regional folk-music societies that span the state.

At least here," she said, folk music "is alive and well."

That means at her shop, like the Dieterichses, all kinds of people show up interested in playing folk music.

"You'll have somebody sitting in their work boots and their Make America Great Again cap sitting right next to the guy who's got the pot leaf on his T-shirt, and a macramé bracelet and his Birkenstocks," Taylor said. "And they're playing music together. And they wouldn't ever talk to each other in any other setting."