What do you hear when you drop an accordion from a 10-story building?
“Applause,” quips Jack Brantley, one of the few artisans in the Southeast qualified to patch the long-suffering instrument back together and restore it to tunefulness. Brantley is among Atlanta’s longest-practicing accordion repairmen, a highly specialized vocation with little competition, owing to the complicated inner workings of perhaps the only instrument more maligned than banjos and bagpipes.
“Accordions are so uncool that they’re cool,” says Brantley, owner of Jax Music Shop near downtown Decatur. (Motto: “Subvert the dominant paradigm—play accordion.”) “People associate them with Lawrence Welk.”
Brantley, 62, has been tinkering with a variety of vintage instruments since his college days at UNC–Chapel Hill and his post-grad years in Marin County, where he counted Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, and Sammy Hagar as customers. He began focusing on accordions in his Decatur workshop during the 1990s because he saw a need in the music market.
“We’re lucky that Jack is calm enough in temperament to fool with an accordion,” says client Bo Emerson, an AJC writer and part-time musician who has played at the White House Correspondents Jam. “If you open one up, the inside of it looks like one of those giant computers from the 1940s that took up an entire room.”
The instrument, the smallest relative of the organ family and also cousin to the harmonica, is more daunting and temperamental than it seems. As many as four sounds can come from one key, and the melody is played on one side while chords are determined by 100 or more buttons on the other. An accordion consists of more than 1,000 parts, including 450 steel reeds that are fastened with beeswax—subject to melt if left in a hot car. Each reed controls air flow with a leather flap, making them vulnerable to mold and deterioration. One sour note or internal flaw, and there goes any hope for a sprightly polka.
Nevertheless, there was a time when accordions outsold guitars, Brantley notes. “Up until the 1950s, when you took music lessons, you typically learned on a piano or an accordion,” he says. “So if you look at pictures from accordion clubs, the members usually look gray, paunchy, and happy because they’re from that generation, from before the time when Elvis and The Beatles came along and the guitar eclipsed everything else.”
Business remains steady at Jax, though, where Brantley typically works on half a dozen accordions at a time, charging between $500 and $1,000 for a complete tune-up to clients who come from all over the Southeast. “I love my accordion clientele because they’re all so quirky,” he says. “There’s a Haitian doctor who plays at nursing homes and a Macon rabbi who plays a fusion of klezmer and zydeco that he calls ‘Oy vey, etouffee.’”
Accordions also have enjoyed a small renaissance within the steampunk movement, says Jason Bush, of local act The Gin Rebellion. “It has a special presence in our music,” he says. “It is absolutely vital to the ominous, mysterious tone of some of our songs. We like Jack because he genuinely cares about the accordion.”
The appeal, Brantley says, lies in an elemental sound that evokes our own respiration and other heartfelt instincts. “They’re perfect for porch hymns because they’re so portable,” he says. “I like the fact that the accordion literally breathes, and you get this warbly, emotionally expressive sound by giving it a hug.”
This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue under the headline “The Big Squeeze.”