Frank McDermott: The Man Behind Blue Eagle Music
By Jacob Betzner, Staff
Among the numerous “refreshment venues” and restaurants lining either side of Court Street in uptown Athens sits a small shop near the intersection of Court and East State Street. It stands out with its cracked blue exterior and bright antique guitars and drums displayed in the window.
Blue Eagle Music opened in Athens in 1971 and quickly turned into a place for local musicians to gather and handle new and vintage musical equipment.
Frank McDermott bought the Blue Eagle Music in 2006 with hopes of expanding the small local music shop into a fully stocked emporium to meet the needs and demands of all local musicians.
McDermott started as a music teacher at Blue Eagle when he moved to Athens in 1995. He lacked spare time to teach lessons after purchasing the shop, but kept all the other instructors employed to spread musical knowledge to anyone wanting to learn.
“It’s kind of a fun gig, getting kids turned on to music, getting them fired up about it,” said McDermott. “Sometimes you get a ‘gem’ that goes on to do something big.”
McDermott taught a "gem" of his own while he worked part-time as a guitar teacher near Philadelphia before moving to Southeastern Ohio. He started giving lessons to former Taking Back Sunday guitarist Fred Mascherino when the aspiring musician was only 12. Mascherino later earned a degree in jazz guitar from Temple University before joining Taking Back Sunday in 2003. McDermott attended a Taking Back Sunday concert in Columbus a few years ago and felt a great sense of pride seeing his former student play in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
The man behind the music store relocated to Athens from a sizable town in eastern Pennsylvania in 1995 to leave city life behind.
“I came out here to buy a piece of land bigger than a postage stamp and live out in the woods,” said McDermott. “And I am doing that. I had no plans to buy a music store, but it came about and I thought: ‘Opportunity.’”
Music continued to play a big role in McDermott’s life after the move to Athens. He formed a band known as “Rattletrap Stringband” around the year 2000 to play at the many venues around the college town, including Casa Nueva and O’Hooley’s (now Jackie O’s). He recently decided to take some time off from playing with the band to work on music composition. He spends his free time composing music and playing classical guitar.
The music scene in Athens is constantly changing and full of countless acts covering all genres from death metal to polka. Blue Eagle’s location uptown offers a truly unique opportunity for the small business.
McDermott knows Blue Eagle plays a big part in Athens’ eclectic musical groups. He keeps the shop stocked to meet the needs of all Athens musicians. Blue Eagle is a destination for all musicians seeking anything from guitar picks to drums sticks. The shop also takes special orders on the rare occasion an item is out of stock.
“I realized real quick that if you’re going to sell stuff, you better have what people want,” said McDermott. “Otherwise, they’re going to go elsewhere.”
McDermott planned to increase the inventory to serve a greater number of musicians in the area when he purchased Blue Eagle. He wanted more selection for the musicians and hoped to draw in more customers with unique guitars.
Many vintage guitars have graced the floor of Blue Eagle Music. McDermott’s current favorite is a 1950 Gibson ES-5. The old guitar has definitely seen better days, but remains in pretty good condition for being over 60 years old. The semi-hollow body Gibson ES-5 set the standard for almost every electric guitar designed and built thereafter. McDermott literally houses a piece of musical history in his shop. However, while Blue Eagle’s variety of vintage guitars in stock is vast, the store sells a lot of low-end starter instruments to Ohio University students or locals who want to learn how to play.
Unlike most small shops and locally owned businesses, McDermott doesn’t follow a standard business model. He does virtually no advertisement and relies exclusively on word-of-mouth recommendations from older students and locals. The method has yet to fail, and new customers walk through the door all the time.
“Since the store has been here so long, anybody coming in, freshman, anybody that plays, they can find this place pretty easily,” said McDermott. “There’s not much need to advertise.”
The word-of-mouth advertising even started to be heard at the national level. A few touring acts found the shop during stops in Athens. McDermott told the story of the Avett Brothers recently stopping into Blue Eagle and purchasing a guitar before playing a show. (The band plays at the Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium this June if any fans want to wait outside the music shop for a chance to meet the brothers.) They too were surprised at the number of guitars displayed in the showroom of the small shop.
“One thing I did when I took over was about quadruple the inventory, including old vintage guitars,” said McDermott. “Bands are finding that out now [about Blue Eagle] that come into town and talk to each other.”
Walking into Blue Eagle today, one notices walls lined with guitars, floors crowded with amplifiers and other musical instruments, and a narrow path leading to the store’s cash register. The basement is filled with guitars and cases among various other bits and pieces of equipment. The store is essentially filled to capacity. McDermott’s biggest challenge is figuring out a way to effectively manage the entire inventory in the small shop.
“Even though it’s the logical thing to do, I don’t think I want to move to a bigger space,” said McDermott. “The store’s been here in this space since 1971, so I imagine some local people would probably run me out of town if I tried to move it.”
Blue Eagle Music seems to have found its niche. McDermott hopes to keep the shop up and running for the foreseeable future and keep attracting more and more customers--both experienced musicians and beginners--to the music shop on Court Street.