On a blustery December day, scattered leaves dance across the sidewalk along North Market Street, not far from the glass façade of the Delaware History Museum and the ornate and aptly named Grand Opera House. Passersby in this stretch of downtown Wilmington seem largely preoccupied while hurrying off to work or to the myriad trendy coffee shops and bistros that have surfaced here in recent years.
It’s a hectic Friday morning in the stately, red-brick building housing David Bromberg Fine Violins. Adorning the paneled walls are rows of vintage and exotic fiddles as the 73-year-old proprietor and his small staff labor in different rooms and immerse themselves in the appraisal, purchasing, selling and restoration of high-end violins, violas, cellos and bows.
A visitor approaches Bromberg in a corridor, extending his hand and saying he’s a fan of his music. The tall, bespectacled storeowner smiles sheepishly and nods awkwardly. Bromberg begins to rush off but turns when the stranger mentions that he enjoyed Beth Toni Kruvant’s documentary, “David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure.”
“Yes, she did a good job, didn’t she?” Bromberg responds politely before beating a hasty retreat.
Perhaps it’s that penchant for attempting to hide in plain sight that has served Bromberg well in his musical career for more than a half-century.
If his name sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Besides releasing more than a dozen albums under his own name, Bromberg — an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and singer known for his eclectic tastes in music, ranging from folk and the blues to rock and country — has performed and recorded with such famous folks as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Grateful Dead, Carly Simon, Donovan, John Sebastian and the Eagles, just to name a few. He also produced John Hartford’s groundbreaking 1971 album “Aereo-Plain,” considered the forerunner of the “Newgrass” movement and genre.
But in 1980, Bromberg — an alumnus of the Greenwich Village folk scene and onetime pupil of blues-gospel legend Rev. Gary Davis — suddenly quit the music industry and wound up in the violin industry.
In 2002, he and his wife, artist Nancy Josephson, relocated to Wilmington from Chicago and became immersed in the downtown renaissance of the First State’s largest city, located less than 70 miles from Baltimore. Among Wilmington’s cultural activities in which he has been involved is the hosting of the annual Bromberg’s Big Noise Music Festival and the reopening of the historic Queen Theater near his shop. (His visage even appears on a downtown mural featuring fellow famed musicians and onetime Wilmington denizens Bob Marley, Cab Calloway and Clifford Brown.)
Meanwhile, since moving to Wilmington, Bromberg jump-started his recording and performing career after a 22-year hiatus, releasing the Grammy Award-nominated “Try Me One More Time” among other albums in recent years. Today, besides being branded “the Godfather of Americana Music,” Bromberg is considered the foremost collector and authority on American-made violins.
A Philadelphia native who grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y., Bromberg will perform with his quintet on Feb. 23 at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis. Jmore recently spoke with him about his life and career.
Jmore: So of all places, why’d you relocate to Wilmington?
Bromberg: My wife and I are East Coasters and were tired of the Chicago winters, and we figured we didn’t have enough money to go back to New York. So we decided to look around for somewhere warmer, and my old tour manager was living in Wilmington and we decided to explore it. We liked it.
Anything in particular that you liked about Wilmington?
People are quite nice here across the board. It was actually a little scary for us at first, being around New Yorkers so much of our lives. We kept wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.
Have you gotten involved in Wilmington’s Jewish community?
Not especially. I’ve met some members of the community, but I’m not an organized religion kind of person. I just don’t believe in it. I just don’t.
You’ve become involved in Wilmington’s civic and cultural life. Do you consider yourself a pillar of the community?
I’m not sure what that really means. Some people say I have been, but that’s not a goal of mine. I will say that things here are getting better, and I’m happy about that. That’s good for business and good for everyone.
Do Wilmingtonians treat you like a celebrity?
Not really. Some people might know who I am, but to a lot of people I’m just the guy with the violin shop down the street. And that’s fine with me.
Do you perform in Baltimore or Philadelphia much?
No. Philly occasionally, but not a lot. As far as Baltimore, as long as I’ve been performing — which is a long time — I’ve never known of a place there for me to play.
Yes. You must remember my audience generally sits and listens and doesn’t stand throughout a show. Baltimore is the only city of a significant size I can say that about. There’s really no place there for me to play, for my kind of audience. The Rams Head in Annapolis, people can sit. But not at the one in Baltimore [Rams Head Live!].
So how’d you start fiddling around with violins?
Well, I was doing quite well with my [musical] career, playing large venues. But I was on the road constantly. I was burnt out and too dumb to even know it. When I was off the road, I wasn’t practicing, writing or jamming. So I needed something new to do.
At the time, I was living in Northern California and started playing a little fiddle. I was just fascinated by it and wondered, “Maybe this is what I should do?” So I decided to learn how to make violins. There are people who can look at violins and tell you who made it and where. I wanted to become one of those people. So I took four years of classes in violin making in Chicago and became one of those people. I identify and appraise violins.
Do you still play the violin?
Yes, but I don’t think I play well. Playing the violin is pretty complex, so it’s hard for me to really call myself a violinist when there are so many other incredible people out there.
You’re considered a guitar virtuoso. Did you every contemplate becoming a luthier or working in the guitar industry?
No, I never did.
Do you enjoy being called “the Godfather of Americana”?
Not especially. But on the other hand, it doesn’t hurt. They could call me worse. But getting all those accolades doesn’t really mean much to me.
Ever get tired of people asking you about Bob Dylan? After all, you’ve been associated with him, off and on, for decades.
A lot of people are curious about him, but how do you really describe someone? He’s different. He has moods. But he’s brilliant. He may be the only true genius I’ve ever worked with.
And you’ve played with half of the Beatles — George and Ringo. What was that like?
Those guys were an absolute pleasure to work with. Very down to earth and sweet. What escapes many people — strange as it is to say — is how good [the Beatles] were. Watch Ron Howard’s movie [“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”], you’ll hear that nicely mixed sound from their Shea Stadium concert [in 1965]. They couldn’t even hear themselves or each other, but those guys were perfectly in tune. That’s incredible.
Among the countless musicians you’ve worked with, who stands out?
That’s hard to say. Certainly Rev. Davis. Mississippi John Hurt was a very sweet man and a wonderful player. I also thought a lot of [the late singer-songwriter] Jim Ringer. I’ve just enjoyed so many players over the years. It’s hard for me to say anyone in particular.
Do you consider yourself a living link between the old-time players and today’s generation of musicians?
No, I don’t think of myself in that kind of way. I don’t want to assign that to myself. I’ve been very lucky to meet and play with some really great musicians, including the first generation of blues musicians and the first generation of bluegrass players, and even the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
Have a favorite David Bromberg album?
Well, I like the new one, “The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues.” And the one before it, “Only Slightly Mad.” I tend to like the later albums.
The earlier ones are tough for me to listen to. It’s hard to listen to your own voice when you were younger. That’s how I feel about some of those albums. But there was some good stuff on them.
Ever regret having taken such an eclectic — and less commercial — musical route?
I kind of like it. I understand it was not the course a lot of people would take, but it worked for me. I wanted to be able to do anything I heard by someone else on guitar. And I did it.
Do you listen to music today that you like?
I really like Mary Gauthier — she’s brilliant. The Milk Carton Kids are great, and so are the California Honeydrops. Those bands are excellent.
Working on a new album?
You could say we’re in pre-production. We’re going to do something different. We’re going to record and video. I’ll be performing all acoustic with the group of musicians I usually play with, sitting in a circle and probably releasing the tunes as video and then on CD. I’ve written at least one song for it, and then we’ll play other songs that we like.
Do you still participate in regular weekly jam sessions with amateur musicians in Wilmington?
Yes, we still get together at a coffee shop downtown.
It must blow their minds that they’re playing with someone with your musical resume, who has played with Dylan and the Dead and so many others.
I guess, but there’s a lot of talent in a lot of places. I enjoy it. It keeps my hands on the guitar.
Any advice for budding musicians today?
Go to a city that is a center of the [national] media. If you’re someplace like St. Louis, it will take you a number of years to get to be well-known. But that won’t extend outside of the city limits. If you go to a New York or a Los Angeles or a Nashville, when you get noticed, the national press will already be there so you’ll be well-known faster.
If you were talking to a younger version of yourself, what would advise?
I would tell myself to be as generous a person as I can be. You can always do better.
See David Bromberg perform with Donovan and John Sebastian (Courtesy YouTube):