By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent
Funny how memory works. You can think about something that's familiar to you, research the subject in the ways encouraged by Google, and begin the work of reporting on that same subject because, after all, that's your job, and then in a moment, a millisecond, something internal kicks in and it's no longer about information, it's about how you felt in your bones and your heart when that subject first became familiar to you.
That's what happened during the process of reporting on the fortunes of family-owned CF Martin and Company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. They make Martin guitars, the standard in the industry for, oh, around 175 years. From Dylan and Clapton, to Elvis and Johnny Cash. Threesomes like the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul & Mary. Duos like Simon and Garfunkel...you get the idea.
Nightly News producer Bob Adschiew had pitched the story to me and I'd said "sure." His take was that family owned businesses, which make up 90 per cent of the businesses in America and employ 60% of all workers, had unique challenges and opportunities in the tanking economy. With the economy cratering last fall, Martin, like other businesses, considered all the options while some stopgap measures – a freeze on hiring and overtime, for example – were put in place. But because of the unique nature of the business, not just ownership but employees handing down their love of the craft from generation to generation, the current boss, CF Martin IV, refused to resort to layoffs or even a temporary plant shutdown. They'd continue to make guitars...by hand. Each instrument went through 60 work stations and over 300 individual processes, all visible to anyone from the public who wanted to see how it's done.
We did, and it was fascinating of course. But it was the company's solution to the economic crisis, the same solution employed by CF's great-grandfather during the Great Depression, that triggered my memories in that special way. The solution – with the average guitar costing $2-3,000 and a few special works of art going for as much as $100,000, not the kind of numbers that'll deliver you from a recession, especially when your product is the quintessential discretionary expense – Martin decided to make a cheap guitar. Cheap by comparison, hundreds, not thousands of dollars. No inlays, or fancy finishes, just good solid construction out of those same find wood.
Walking through the part of the plant where the new line was being produced, as painstakingly as ever, it happened for me. I remembered my first guitar, in college, and could hear the songs I'd played (not all that expertly, I should say) as I sang my son to sleep many nights. I'd had a Puerto Rican friend then who'd taught me some Spanish guitar, Maleguena and some of the riffs Jose Feliciano was then popularizing, and the rest of what I played was that odd simplistic mix of familiar favorites – House of the Rising Sun, Girl from Ipanema, Puff the Magic Dragon, a few dozen others. As a kid I'd played classical piano but was never a natural musician, it was always hard work, mastering a score and playing it well enough to allow others to listen. But the guitar, while difficult, was all about pleasure, playing the instrument, seeing its effect on my toddler son.
So of course, before I left the CF Martin factory floor, I bought one of their Series 1 guitars.
How could I not? Even as it was being tuned and inspected for a final time and placed in its case, I could hear all those songs and longed to play them again, I could see my son's face and the color of his bedroom walls.
And for those moments I wasn't a reporter on a story, but simply someone who remembered something special and who had a chance to revisit that memory again.