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American Way strikes a chord with the world’s most renowned acoustic guitar: C.F. Martin. There was a time, though, when disco nearly killed this music star.


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I pulled into Nazareth / was feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead / I just need some place / where I can lay my head

IN EARLY 2008, the author of these lyrics actually pulled into Nazareth, Pennsylvania, an acoustic guitar in tow, to visit the C.F. Martin factory. Robbie Robertson needed some work done on his 1927 Martin 000-45 nylon-string model. In amazement, C.F. Martin employees examined the ultrarare instrument, which had been built 80 years before in Nazareth and still retained its original ivory pegs. They then recalled the apocryphal tale about the creation of Robertson’s song. As the story goes, four decades ago, while working on music for the Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink, Robertson was stuck with writer’s block. The first line of the song just wouldn’t come to him. He happened to turn his guitar over, and in doing so, he noticed the manufacturer’s label stamped inside the hole. It read “C.F. Martin, Nazareth, PA.” He thought, Why not? and incorporated the town of Nazareth into the opening lyric. Supposedly, the rest of the song then fell into place, completing what is now a classic tune that we’ve all heard at some point in our lives. (Even if you don’t get the rest of the lyrics, at least now you know the origin of “Nazareth.”)

Stories such as this one circulate constantly through the C.F. Martin company. The world’s most recognizable name in acoustic guitars, Martin celebrated its 175th anniversary last year. For a musician, a Martin represents the ultimate in quality, the best that money can buy. Each model is still handmade at the factory in Pennsylvania, and vintage Martin guitars can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nearly every recording you’ve ever heard features a Martin, whether it’s of country, folk, rock, pop, classical, or Hawaiian music. You name an artist, he or she has played a Martin, including Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Beck, Neil Young, John Mayer, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Elvis Presley, Sting, Kurt Cobain, Paul Simon, Jimmie Rodgers, the Kingston Trio, Richie Sambora, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the Dixie Chicks, Lucinda Williams, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. It’s almost scary how one guitar has so thoroughly saturated music’s landscape.

BESIDES MAKING THE world’s finest guitars, C.F. Martin is also notable for several other reasons. Most importantly, its success and longevity despite America’s rampant outsourcing of labor. In a business climate where manufacturing is often moved overseas, virtually all Martin guitars are still made in the United States -- and sold with a lifetime guarantee for the original owner.

Martin’s 850 employees enjoy profit sharing, and many have been there for decades. “Coffee-break” guitars hang from walls in the factory so workers can play during their downtime.

To lessen the drain on natural resources, Martin also offers guitars made from sustainable woods and nonwood materials. And here’s another anomaly in American business: The company has been run by a member of the same family for six generations.

But there wasn’t always a rosy success story. In the early 1980s, C.F. Martin nearly made its last guitar.

“We had peaked out in the ’70s, somewhere in the range of about 22,000 units,” says Martin’s current CEO, Chris Martin IV, a friendly, sandy-haired man in his 50s.

“In 1983, we were making 3,000 units. We were on the brink of just barely being able to pay the rent. We talked to these people, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll buy your business. We’ll fire the board; we’ll fire upper management. And we’ll pay you 30 cents on the dollar.’ “

It would have been an ignoble end to a long legacy. Chris’s great-great-great-grandfather, Christian Martin Sr., founded the company in 1833. He learned the craft of making guitars in Vienna and then moved to New York City and opened a music shop on Hudson Street. He sold instruments and handcrafted his own guitars in the back room.

In 1838, he moved his operation to Nazareth, a small German-speaking religious community in rural Pennsylvania. Using his original tools from Europe, Christian continued to produce more guitars. The earliest models were numbered with the style of guitar, followed by the price. A 3-17, for instance, was a Model 3 selling for $17.

As more family members joined the company, they introduced new models: mandolins for the growing population of Italian immigrants, ukuleles for the burgeoning craze for Hawaiian music, and new sizes for orchestras and entertainers, such as the yodeling Jimmie Rodgers, country music’s first superstar.

Rockabilly and rock-and-roll stars like Elvis and Ricky Nelson popularized the name further, and the 1960s boom in folk music took sales of Martin guitars through the roof. Sales peaked during the 1970s era of country rock, with artists like Jim Croce and Crosby, Stills, and Nash playing Martins.

AT THE TIME, the reputation and legacy of the company was totally lost on Chris Martin IV, then a young man working at a guitar shop in Hollywood. He had studied economics at the University of Southern California, and he had no talent for music and little interest in the family business. He was also lousy at guitar sales.

“This was the 1970s. Westwood Music on Westwood Boulevard,” Chris recalls. “The owner, Fred Walecki, was very astute in terms of getting Martins in the hands of professionals in the Southern California music scene. I think Fred thought I knew a lot more about my family business than I did.

“I was useless,” he continues.

“They’d ask me the history, why they should buy this model. They expected me to know everything. I just felt like such an idiot. That’s when I was like, if I’m gonna do this, I kind of have to start back at the beginning.”

Chris quit college, went to work at the factory in Nazareth, and ended up studying management at Boston University. As he observed the family business, he noticed that things were on a downhill slide. His father, Frank Martin, had begun importing inferior guitars from Asia and had acquired several unsuccessful side projects -- very un-Martin-like products such as banjos, drums, and electric guitars.

“I get the impression that all my other ancestors, [except for] my father, really got into guitar building,” Chris says with a shrug. “And into the aspect of, How does it work? What makes it work? My father wasn’t a bad businessman. But the thing that he was involved with, it could have been anything -- golf clubs. Had it been golf clubs, he might have been more excited about it.”

Chris’s father had also purchased expensive manufacturing machines -- which didn’t work. They sat idle on the factory floor, as a monument of incompetence. Frank finally retired, leaving the company in shambles.

IT WASN'T JUST Frank’s unwise expansion projects that dragged the company down, though. A drastic change in sound was sweeping through the music industry. Nobody was interested in acoustic guitars anymore. Upon rejoining the company, Chris felt the change ripple through the factory.

“After the Eagles, business tanked. Thanks to disco and the Yamaha DX7 and all the keyboards, you didn’t need a guitar player anymore. We were losing money. The banks called the loans,” he says.

Astonishingly, the board of directors brought back Chris’s grandfather, C.F. Martin III, to run the company. Although in his 90s, the man did know something about the guitar business. He was able to stop the financial bleeding, but he soon passed away, leaving Chris as chairman of a respected brand on the verge of collapse.

Chris never aspired to be in charge, but there was nobody else in the family who was interested. He knew the only way the company could survive was if he reached out to the employees, the people who actually built the best acoustic guitars in the world.

“I said to everybody, ‘Look, if it’s 3,000 guitars, let’s make 3,000 really, really good guitars.’ That resonated with the people who wanted to hear that but weren’t hearing it.”

The company began profit sharing and set about focusing on just doing what they do best. And then, in the mid-1980s, an extraordinary series of circumstances caused opportunity to come knocking on the door of the C.F. Martin company.

Keyboards were becoming passé in popular music as acoustic acts like Lyle Lovett and Suzanne Vega took center stage. Simultaneously, a new generation of Boomers was coming into wealth, and people could finally afford the Martin they’d always coveted. Acoustic guitars were cool again.

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In 1989, MTV debuted its Unplugged series, and viewers watched artists such as Eric Clapton and Nirvana playing stripped-down acoustic versions of well-known songs.

“Many, many of the artists were playing Martins,” says Chris. “The irony is, most of them were plugged in. But it was very discreet. Just don’t look at the cord coming out of the bottom of the guitar!”

Sales soared as a result, and demand was so high for Martin guitars, the company was forced to double the size of its factory. More models were introduced, including the popular Backpacker travel guitar, which even took a trip aboard a space shuttle.

FROM 1990 TO 2003, C.F. Martin sold 500,000 guitars -- more than in the previous 150 years of the company combined. Artist series models were designed in partnership with well-known musicians, including Stephen Stills, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett, and George Jones. Martin started offering public tours of the factory in Nazareth, and in 2006, the company opened a museum filled with rare guitars and historical artifacts.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by guitars and memorabilia, Chris enthusiastically describes one museum display in particular: the Martin D-45. Originally built for “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry in 1933, the oversize dreadnought model is adorned with the fanciest accoutrements that were then available. Only 91 D-45s were made before production stopped in 1942, and the mythology surrounding the instrument boggles the mind. Collectors refer to it as the holy grail. An original prewar D-45 sells on eBay for as much as $1 million.

Martin desperately wanted a D-45 to showcase in the new museum. A vintage dealer approached him, and a Martin employee was dispatched to inspect the D-45. It wouldn’t do -- it had been repaired and sounded inferior.

“Another dealer called up and said, ‘I have your guitar, a D-45 for your museum,’ “ Martin recalls. “I said, ‘How do you know?’ He said, ‘I know.’ “ The dealer brought the guitar to Nazareth, and Martin called a meeting of employees in his office to see the D-45. The price was $270,000.

“One fellow I work with, he said, ‘Can I try that?’ He picked it up, curled up in a fetal position, and played it. And he looked up at me and I knew: That is our guitar.”

Chris smiles. “It’s possibly the best sounding guitar I’ve ever heard. It was the top of the line, and it’s been used, not abused, for 65 years. It came into its own.”

A bit later, Martin’s manager of artist relations, Dick Boak, takes me on a tour of the museum. Halfway through it, we come to the aforementioned D-45. Boak pulls out a key and unlocks the glass wall shielding the legendary guitar. He grabs the guitar, fishes a pick from a pocket, and hands them both to me. The wood is beautiful, old, and strong. The holy grail. My God.

I drop to one knee, cradling the D-45, and I’m so nervous I can’t do more than play a few chords. The sound is amazingly loud but with a soft and warm tone. It’s like playing a quarter-million-dollar stick of butter. People wandering through the museum stop and watch, as if to say, “Who’s this guy? Why does he get to play the D-45? He doesn’t seem to be very good.” I quickly hand it back, afraid I’m going to drop it.

THE FUTURE looks great for C.F. Martin. Sales are booming, thanks to both music pros and loyal “dedicated amateurs,” according to Chris. Music-school educators who themselves grew up with the guitar are now teaching the instrument to their students. Employees are still excited to work for a company that makes the best of its kind. And, at any given moment, somewhere in the world, somebody is plucking a string and tuning a Martin, the most recognized acoustic guitar in the world.

JACK BOULWARE owns four guitars, but someday, he’ll get a Martin -- even if he has to strum on a street corner.