Kenny's Music Shoppe in Grand Forks celebrates 40 years
If you ever go to Kenny's Music Shoppe in Grand Forks, you’ll find anything you’re looking for — drums, guitars, ukuleles, basses, harmonicas, and electronics. Aside from that inventory and more, they also teach music.
Great American Folk Show host and folk musician Tom Brosseau got his first guitar from Kenny’s Music Shoppe when he was seven years old. He says, “My parents bought me an electric guitar from Kenny's and a little amp to go along with it. I was so small then, I remember, I could barely hold the guitar … My folks were behind my guitar dreams, and Kenny Holweger was, too.”
That was 40 years ago, and though Tom no longer has that heavy electric guitar or the amp — both were lost in the flood of 1997 — Kenny's Music Shoppe is still going strong.
Tom paid owner Kenny Holweger a visit to celebrate the store’s 40th anniversary. Listen to their conversation above.
Tom: I'm just remembering some of the other locations that you had as Kenny's Music. I think the first one was right across the street at South Forks Plaza, or was there another?
Kenny Holweger: No, the first one was actually on Kittson Avenue, 314 Kittson, which at that time, Sanders 1907 was right across the alley from me. That's where I started. Then we moved from there to North Washington, and then from there we moved to the mall, and then I moved downtown to the windmill, where the old windmill was, and I had a coffee shoppe and things in there at that time.
We had music in the back. Then when the flood of 1997 came, we had eight feet of water in the store, and so we had to move. Then the city bought the building from me, and I bought this building on South Washington in ’97, ’98 I think, and I've been here ever since.
Tom: That must have been quite an experience going through that flood, not only on the one hand, because you live here, and I'm sure you had water in your house, but your business is here too. Was it as devastating to your business as it was to the house?
Kenny: Everything was destroyed, yeah. The humidity, the guitars were hanging up, the humidity was so much that it just warped them all. So when we moved here, we had to start all over from scratch, and started buying and buying, and now I've worked up to 350 guitars or so, and maybe 100 amplifiers, so it's gotten really big.
Tom: I doubt there was a question in your mind at that time that Kenny's music wouldn't continue.
Kenny: No, I wasn't going to let floods stop me, and in all fairness, the city helped us a lot, us businesses. They gave me a really nice price for my building, which made it easier for me to buy this one, and they also helped us buy inventory by giving us no interest loans for 20 years with nothing down, and then if we stayed in business three years, they forgave 40 percent of the loan, and it was such a good deal.
Tom: How has selling guitars and drums and keyboards, ukuleles, I mean, you have just about everything here that anyone could imagine. How has that changed in the last 40 years?
Kenny: We’ve added in a lot of different things, a lot of different brands. You know, at one time, actually when the flood came, I probably only had maybe 30 or 40 guitars in there, and a few amps. I mean, we've grown so much in here, and we maybe had one guy doing lessons at that time because it was different. No, I mean, at that time, there was four. I think music stores, maybe five, and now there's only two left, and that makes a big difference.
Tom: You feel more responsibility to carry more because you're one of the only music stores in town?
Kenny: I know I carry more because the more you carry, the more you sell, it seems like, because guitar is kind of an impulsive item, and it's something that you want to play before you buy it, most people. So if they play it and they like it, they want it now. But if you don't have it, they probably go somewhere else or order it online, because online's a big presence now for retail, and we got to compete with that every day of the week.
Tom: And you do, I mean, obviously you have a website, and you put your inventory up on your website.
Kenny: We're strong into Facebook, and we keep the website up, and we try to keep our service, well, we do keep our service at top level. We've gone backwards for people.
Tom: In the last 40 years, how has it stayed the same?
Kenny: Just with the same guy, you see the same guy when you walk in the front door, you know.
Tom: The same handsome guy, everybody.
Kenny: Yeah, and people will say, oh, there is a Kenny? You know, I'll say, oh, you're the owner? It's like, yeah, you don't see that very often. Not too many stores, you know, mom and pop stores, we call them. The owner is still around, or the store is even around nowadays, but we're going to keep going. You know, I'm 74 years old, but not ready to quit yet.
Tom: Let me ask you about guitars, because you're in a band, and you've been in bands, probably been in bands for your whole life, but your current band is called Kenny and the Classics, and it's just as you would think. You play pre-rock and roll rock and roll music, and you play the guitar. I bet that you play other instruments too, but I know you play the guitar.
Now, I want to ask you about your favorite guitar. Do you have a favorite guitar? Like, what for you?
Kenny: I have a favorite guitar I like to play, and that's a Fender Stratocaster. The Fender Stratocaster. Yeah, yeah, it's my favorite, but I do play other guitars. I'll take a Les Paul out, or a Paul Reed Smith, it depends. I like to take different ones and just try them on stage and see how they sound.
Tom: The Stratocaster is so iconic. Can you talk about what it is that makes that thing just so much bigger than it actually is?
Kenny: I think a lot of it's the look, you know, and just the fact that all these players have played them through the years, and these big names like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even in the beginning stages, the Beach Boys used them. They used Strats and Telecasters and Jazzmasters. Fender. Fender was huge in the 50s, you know, and 60s.
Tom: Fender and Gibson and Martin and Taylor, these are all American companies, American-made instruments that you sell right here at the store. Kenny, I wanted to ask you about where your passion comes from.
Kenny: Well, my dad played accordion and things like that, but my real passion was just there. It's 1956, I think. I was seven years old, and I saw Elvis Presley on the Andrew Sullivan Show.
And my mom and dad said I was standing in front of the TV, and I was making the moves with him and the guitar and everything. And it's like, I want this. I want to do this.
So then I grabbed the guitar that my brother had, and I was a little bit too small to play it, so I kind of let it go for a while, but I was playing piano. We had a big old operatic piano when I was playing, and I liked Jerry Lee. Lewis.
And I started to pick up some of his left-hand riffs and stuff, and I could just hear it. You know, I'm living on a farm, there's no music around. I could just hear it.
By the time I got to be 14, I think it was 14, I had a friend in school, and he got a guitar and an amp for Christmas. That's where it started, and I started learning these songs on the record player. You know, it was a little 45 disc, right?
And you could slow it down to 33 and a half RPMs or whatever, and that would slow it down enough so you could pick up the riffs, you know, in a different key. And that's how I learned to play lead, and it just went on from there, and I've been in many bands. I've been all over the place.
Tom: What a great trick, though, to be able to slow down the tape or slow down the record to pick up on some of those fine details. Kids these days really can't do that with digital music.
Kenny: Well, you know what they can do now? They can slow it down and the key won't change. It's all digital, which is even nicer. Our key changed because it would drop, you know. But now they have all this technology, they can slow it down, and nothing changes. Same notes.
Tom: We talked a little bit, Kenny, about your passion for music. I'd like to end our conversation today by asking you, what is your passion for being the center of the music community, the arts community, and for helping people and fostering new talent? Where does that come from?
Kenny: I enjoy it. I enjoy it, and I know what it did for me, and it excites me when we get a new student and they stay with it. We have at Kenny's Music, we have a student recital every year where the students, once they can get good enough to play a song, they get to get up in front of an audience and play with a real live band. And they just beam. Their faces beam. It's just such a good feeling to see that.
I think, wow, we had something to do with this kid, you know. So basically, anywhere you go in life, if you pay attention, there's usually music going on. Go to a football game. There's music going on, right? So it's very valuable. It should never be forgotten.
Tom: Well, Kenny Holweger, thank you so much for being on the Great American Folk Show. It's a pleasure to have you. Happy 40th.
Kenny: Well, thank you. Thank you. I'll do another one in the next 40.
Tom: That was Kenny Holweger of Kenny's Music Shoppe in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Pay them a visit sometime. Support local music. And say hi to Kenny for me if you do.