By Michael Eck
The tale of Tom Bedell is unique in the world of music manufacturing, and for many reasons. Tom was, as he likes to say, the youngest person ever to show at the bi-annual National Association of Music Merchants gathering; and also, the longest to stay away!
Bedell, with his wife Molly, heads Two Old Hippies, which embraces a flagship lifestyle store in Nashville as well as Bedell Guitars, Breedlove Stringed Instruments and Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments in Bend, Oregon.
The music bug bit Bedell young, and it bit hard. By age 13, he was not only playing guitar, but offering lessons at the local music shop in his Spirit Lake, Iowa hometown. But even as an eighth grader, Bedell had a visionary mind, and soon he opened his own studio in his parents’ basement.
His father, Berkley Bedell, who would become a U.S. Representative from the state’s sixth congressional district in 1975, had a successful fishing tackle company, and, as a result, had developed trade contacts in Japan. Young Tom, sensing a historic music retail structure, spoke to his dad about finding a source for guitars from the east. He received his first catalog just as The Beatles were breaking on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The time was right. Soon Bedell was importing instruments, at first for his students, then for everyone.
Teaching his sister how to apply the eponymous labels on the headstock, and urging an older friend with a license to drive him around to the region’s guitar dealers, Bedell was in business. By 16, he’d opened two self-titled shops of his own and was helping droves of young people, just like himself, find their way to music.
It was then, in 1968, with his own line of Bedell Guitars going strong, that Tom found himself in Chicago, at the Conrad Hilton, for his first NAMM. It would be over 30 years before he would attend again.
At 18, Bedell made the first of a number of life changes, stepping away from music to pursue an undergraduate degree at Stanford before studying law at the University of Iowa. The family concern, begun in 1937 as Berkley & Company, passed from father to son, and with his usual passion, Bedell became immersed—hook, line and sinker—in a world of reels, rods, floats, nets, spears and gaffs.
He retired in 2007, but as he admits, with a wink, “I wasn’t very good at it.”
An opportunity to rescue an Aspen, Colorado music store recharged Bedell, and rekindled a longstanding dream to not just sell instruments, but to build them. And to build the best instruments available, beautiful tools like your Weber mandolin.
To extend an obvious metaphor, Bedell took to the task like a fish to water. When he acquired Weber in 2012, he had only one goal, to craft the best traditional mandolin available anywhere.
He remains on task, noting that for 2018, Weber is developing new finishes, many with darker hues and stunning vintage sunbursts; bringing dovetail necks to the Yellowstone and subsequent models in the line; and working carefully (as covered in a recent post) to apply smart science to refine the remarkable Weber sound.
“We’re making the instruments of yesteryear sound better than ever!” Tom smiles. “Weber mandolins have all the classic bluegrass bark, but with a melodic sweetness all their own.”
“I’m so proud of our team here. Our luthiers are bringing skill and passion to every instrument, to every piece of wood, to every fret and every inch of binding. You should see the smile on Mike Fischer’s face as he carves the swallowtail on the scroll of our F-style mandolins. He’s so pleased to be making art that will make music.”
Two Old Hippies is more than a clever marketing handle. It reveals how Tom and Molly view the world. No clear-cut wood, for example, will ever knowingly go into a Weber mandolin. Bedell is outspoken about stewardship and has quickly become an industry leader when it comes to the sustainability of great forests around the globe.
“I just think there’s a connection between Mother Nature and the trees that grow and the music that we make,” Bedell told The Music & Sound Retailer in 2014. “I go out and I do a lot of the wood sourcing. When we go out and we find a salvaged tree—and you think about the 400 or 500 years that it grew—that’s when Columbus was arriving on our shores.”
That same care—a holistic view of how the world can operate and cooperate—is shown in the weekly meetings he has with the team around the table, not to mention the occasional luthiers’ dinner at his house. Everyone’s idea is valid, and many of the wonderful innovations at Weber—like the brass inserts that greatly improve the strength and sustain of the Weber ebony bridge—stem from these freewheeling discussions, each punctuated by Tom’s hearty laugh and warm smile.
You’ll feel that care in your Weber mandolin, that pure energy that emanates from Tom Bedell.
As for NAMM, Tom doesn’t just attend the big show each winter and summer—he’s now on the board of the NAMM Foundation, actively advancing participation “in music making across the lifespan by supporting scientific research, philanthropic giving and public service programs.”
Yeah, he’s back.